Canadian Minister of International Development Harjit Sajjan announces the next phase of Women’s Voice and Leadership on April 27, 2023.
Canadian Minister of International Development Harjit Sajjan announces the next phase of Women’s Voice and Leadership on April 27, 2023. Credit: Harjit Sajjan / Instagram Credit: Harjit Sajjan / Instagram

What would you guess a Canadian minister of international development actually does? Likely answers might include overseeing aid to poor countries, attending meetings about international assistance, lobbying his cabinet colleagues about the importance of aid,  and meeting with foreign officials to discuss ways of making a better world. 

Certainly not selling arms. That would never be part of the job description, right?  

Turns out, in Canada, it is.

During a recent foreign affairs committee meeting, Bloc Québécois MP Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe asked Harjit Sajjan, “How does selling arms to Qatar fit with your mandate as Minister of International Development?” 

The question was prompted by a briefing note obtained by The Maple showing Sajjan was advised by his staff to lobby for a light armored vehicle deal when he visited Qatar last fall. 

The arms deal was listed as one of the international development minister’s “key messages” to raise with Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani. In public, Sajjan talked about human rights and development. In private? 

The international development minister’s promotion of arm sales to a monarchy highlights the militaristic, profit-oriented, nature of Canadian aid policy. In essence, even the most benevolent element of Canadian foreign policy is heavily shaped by geostrategic and corporate prerogatives. 

Canadian aid’s role in assisting the controversial mining industry is another example. During the Stephen Harper government, there was significant attention devoted to how the international development minister used aid to support the mining sector. The Trudeau government has largely continued this policy, spending more than $100 million on aid projects assisting the mining sector. 

On the geopolitical front, Sajjan’s predecessor in the position, Marie-Claude Bibeau, ramped up Canada’s low-level proxy war with Russia. 

As part of the Liberal government extending Operation Unifier, Canada’s military training mission in Ukraine, Bibeau was the first G7 minister to travel to the line of contact between the warring factions in the east of that country.  Her July 2018 visit followed Canada’s move to ease restrictions that required Canadian military trainers to stay in the western half of Ukraine, away from the fighting in the east that had left over 10,000 dead

After visiting Haiti a few months later, Bibeau disparaged mass protests against austerity, corruption and an illegitimate president. 

Asked about Canada’s position on the protests, by TVA, Bibeau responded by attacking the popular uprising in Haiti, demanding, “The violence must stop; we will not come to a solution in this way.” 

But the violence was overwhelmingly meted out by the Canadian-backed regime. If Ottawa and the U.S. hadn’t strenuously backed the PHTK regime, Haiti would likely be better off today. 

The primary objective of Canadian overseas aid has long been to advance Western interests, particularly keeping the Global South tied to the U.S.-led geopolitical order. Initially conceived as a way to blunt radical decolonization in India, Canadian aid remains primarily about advancing Ottawa’s geopolitical objectives. 

Historically, military intervention has elicited aid. Call it the “intervention-equals-aid” principle or “wherever Canadian or U.S. troops kill, Ottawa provides aid” principle. 

From Korea in the early 1950s to Vietnam in the 1960s to Iraq at the start of 1990s and the former Yugoslavia at the end of that decade, Canadian assistance has followed U.S. and Canadian troops. In the early 2000s, the top recipients of Canadian aid were Iraq, Afghanistan and Haiti, which were all sites of foreign occupations. 

In a slightly different manner, Canada’s unprecedentedly generous recent disbursements to Ukraine highlight the link between aid and war. Over the past 15 months, Ottawa has given $6 billion in bilateral assistance and third-party aid to Ukraine, while providing another $2 billion in arms. The aid is part of Canada’s contribution to the NATO proxy war. 

Rather than be about what the ministerial title suggests, Canadian aid policy has long been linked to war, geopolitics and arms firms. 

Yves Engler

Dubbed “Canada’s version of Noam Chomsky” (Georgia Straight), “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I. F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), “part...