If Canada is really back, it needs some backbone

Why won't leaders in Ottawa speak out on Donald Trump?

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at the Saint Anselm College - New Hampshire Institute of Politics Auditorium in Manchester, NH on Monday June 13, 2016. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump, Monday June 13, 2016. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

During the high-anxiety run-up to the shocking Brexit vote, it was hard to get a Canadian politician to shut up about it. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he made no “bones” about his support for the Remain side. Ministers Bill Morneau and Stéphane Dion spoke openly about the dire consequences of the U.K. leaving the European Union. Meanwhile, Conservative MP and former House Speaker Andrew Scheer felt compelled to write an article supporting the Leave position. It got to the point where a foreign political leader who didn’t intervene in the domestic politics of Britain looked downright irresponsible. But ask these same people to give their view on Donald Trump and they seize up faster than a Brussels bureaucrat can straighten a banana.

The issues are not dissimilar. The Brexit debate hinged on concerns about trade and economic prosperity, mixed with nativist fears about immigration, security and nationalism: Trump issues to the max. The U.K. is Canada’s third-biggest trading partner, and the vote will hurt our economy. But the U.S. is our largest partner, and Trump’s anti-NAFTA, anti-immigration, volcanic rhetoric poses a significantly higher threat to Canada’s free trade and stability. So if the dangers of the Brexit justified the intervention of Canada’s leaders, shouldn’t Trump?

Apparently not. If a good politician is someone with an opinion carefully prepared to contain no ideas, then Trump has made masters of Ottawa’s mandarins. “I have great faith in the American people and look forward to working with whoever gets elected in November,” Trudeau said when asked about Trump. Yawn. But understandable. In 1967, when Charles De Gaulle blurted out “Vive le Quebec libre,” English Canadians were ready to burn baguettes.

Loads of international law supports butting out of another sovereign state’s business, from the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 to the UN principle of non-intervention. Respect for sovereign rights has been the cornerstone of peacemaking and globalized trade, but the world has moved beyond the dated concept of non-intervention. The public now expects its leaders to raise issues of human rights or the environment—in public—during any bilateral trade meeting. Globalization has made domestic human rights, and worker rights, fair diplomatic game.

Trump, however, is proving to be an exception. So far, only Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has dared criticize him. I spoke to her after the Orlando massacre and she said Trump’s policies were “dangerous.” A few days later she went to Washington and doubled down, calling Trump “divisive” and “destabilizing for the continent.” It is high-risk stuff coming from the leader of a province that depends so heavily on trade with the U.S., but she took the risk because her principles overruled political strategy. Isn’t that the kind of politician we want? Isn’t that leadership?

The person who ought to be leading on these files is Stéphane Dion, minister of foreign affairs, but recently he stood mutely as the Chinese foreign minister berated a Canadian journalist for asking a question about human rights. Dion was rightly pilloried.

Dion clings to his so-called doctrine of “responsible conviction,” now Canada’s foreign policy blueprint. The phrase derives from the philosopher Max Weber’s distinction between the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility. It is meant to help Dion gauge the real-life consequence of action based on ideals. While it is refreshing to have a minister grounded in theory, it has revealed him to be a vacillating featherweight, a man who can’t decide whether he stands by selling arms to the Saudis or not, and who has humiliated himself in the debate over the Yazidi genocide.

Earlier this month, Dion voted against a Conservative motion asking the government to recognize that ISIS was committing genocide against 400,000 Yazidis in Iraq. ISIS itself announced its genocidal intentions. In March, John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state declared it was genocide. Not Dion. Dion was steadfast on the day of the vote, and the day following the vote: no genocide. On the third day of the controversy, Dion did a complete 180, and said it was in fact a genocide. What changed? Not the evidence. The blood of Yazidi children, women and men was practically drenching the reports sitting on his desk. No, it was the appearance of a UN investigative report that changed his mind. #leadership.

The Brexit debate revealed that Canadian leaders will intervene in other countries’ affairs of to a degree, if we believe it protects our interests. Dion could salvage some credibility by challenging Trump on the issue of refugees and immigration, a file on which Canada has shown real leadership. If Trump was using words like “Jews” or “blacks” or “Italians” instead of “Muslims,” would we want Dion to step up and say something? Of course we would. Dion should join Wynne and risk breaking protocol. If Canada really is back, as Dion has bragged, it needs some backbone. So far he has shown none. Trump could be his chance.

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