“What’s happening to Canada?” The foreign ambassador’s question was asked at a time when many Canadians were expressing doubts that Prime Minister Stephen Harper had no prior awareness of a $90,000 “gift” to Senator Mike Duffy from Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright.
It turned out that the controversial scandal over the $90,000 was not the underlying motivation for the diplomat’s apparent concern. This was not to say that diplomats in Ottawa were indifferent to what many perceived as a murky situation. Far from it.
Like most Canadians, they too found it difficult to imagine that a leader like Harper, who keeps an exceptionally tight leash on his Conservative parliamentarians and federal bureaucrats, would not have the slightest inkling of Wright’s incredibly risky blunder and the subsequent attempted cover-up, which even loyal Conservatives found unconvincing, if not distasteful.
An astute European ambassador expressed his opinion that this latest controversy simply reinforced the conviction of many other diplomats that the Harper government simply was incapable of being truly transparent and accountable for its questionable actions.
(One Conservative MP from British Columbia said his voters were furious about the whole situation.)
While diplomats stationed in Ottawa didn’t minimize the implications of the seemingly endless scandal involving the Senate or its implications, nevertheless what they believed was more important for Canada was the changing nature of Canadian policies since Harper assumed office in 2006.
And those policies were distancing Canada from its longstanding co-operation with traditional friends and allies on significant global issues, especially involving the United Nations.
Harper’s denigration of the UN was totally contrary to past policies of Canadian governments, whether Conservative or Liberal.
Canadian representatives had always played helpful roles on so many UN bodies, including the sensitive issue of human rights and legal matters with important global ramifications.
While many diplomats frequently express dismay over the Harper government’s blunt criticisms of the UN’s purported deficiencies, some voice concern over Canada’s foreign policies in other, more specific, areas.
The European Union’s euro currency countries were stunned by Harper’s unwillingness to provide critically important backup support during the euro crisis. Germany’s then-ambassador to Canada publicly described the Harper government’s failure to help out at such a critical time as unimaginable, especially in view of the threat posed to world trading countries by any economic breakdown in the EU.
Middle East countries found it difficult to reconcile Harper’s unquestioning support for Israel’s policies in the occupied Palestinian territories, including the continued construction of Israeli settlements despite their illegal nature under international law.
Some saw such lack of balance as a factor in Canada failing to win a coveted seat on the UN Security Council.
A number of Latin American states were irritated when Harper took the lead in blocking an invitation to Cuba to join a summit in Colombia of regional leaders. Colombia’s president hosting the summit criticized the blockage of Cuba as based on “ideological” obsessions.
While many foreign governments have seemingly resigned themselves that Canadian foreign policy under Harper increasingly has made Harper the odd man out for many other countries, there nevertheless are faint signs this may be subtly changing.
Despite the lack of meaningful relations with Cuba and Venezuela since Harper took power, he recently sent Foreign Minister John Baird to Cuba and Baird was also to visit Venezuela until the imminent death of President Chavez curtailed that visit.
Although this reversal of Harper’s negative approach to both Cuba and Venezuela may stem primarily from his attempts to broaden export markets, as happened in his belated acknowledgment of China’s importance for Canadian trade and economic interests, it nevertheless is a welcome move, even if long overdue.
It is to be hoped that this more pragmatic approach to foreign policy will be only the first step in a long journey.
Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator.
© Copyright 2013