A few weeks ago, Canadians heard something from their country's foreign minister that rattled them: pointed criticism of the United States.
“Many of the [American] voters in last year's presidential election cast their ballots, animated in part by a desire to shrug off the burden of world leadership,” Chrystia Freeland told the House of Commons, before announcing an uptick in military spending.
"To put it plainly: Canadian diplomacy and development sometimes require the backing of hard power,” she said. “To rely solely on the US security umbrella would make us a client state.”
Such talk is not the sort that Canadians are used to hearing from their government. Canada has long seen itself as a middle power. Its $5 bill features the Canadarm, a mechanical arm affixed to the International Space Station to move around parts. It’s an apt – if perhaps humble – metaphor for how the country has built consensus on issues like the environment or aid, always through American-led multilateral institutions.
But as Canada gets ready to celebrate its 150th birthday on Saturday, it is taking a bolder stance on the world stage.
And although it may be distancing from its longtime ally, and even protector, to the south, it is doing so by doubling down on values it has long espoused, by anchoring itself to the global institutions it’s enthusiastically supported for decades, a decision the country made in similarly tumultuous times.
“[Ms. Freeland] went further than any Canadian official had ever gone in being critical of the America First approach,” says Roland Paris, a senior University of Ottawa research professor who helped craft the current government’s foreign policy. “But on the other hand, she emphasized the importance of working with the United States” – i.e. a cry for the status quo.
Coaxed away from Britain
Unlike Americans’ rallying narrative of the War of Independence, Canadians see their history as a gradual, quiet set of negotiations – ones that took decades to iron out.
The Dominion of Canada was formed in 1867, after British and French settlers made peace with each other and most indigenous tribes. As an outpost of the British Empire, Canada didn’t control its own foreign policy until 1931 – but Americans began coaxing Canadians to be more independent early on, says Christopher Sands, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
“It was in the US strategic interest to encourage Canadian nationalism, to be distinct from the British Empire,” Professor Sands says, “to get them to think of themselves as independent.” Successive American presidents saw Canada as a next-door neighbor that could align its economy and political views to the US, and take Britain down a notch from its global hegemony.
In 1909, Washington officials signed a treaty with Canada on mechanisms to solve water-boundary disputes – the first treaty Canada had signed on its own. In 1926, after Britain relinquished some control over its colonies, the US invited Canada to set up an embassy in central Washington. Sands says that the Americans believed giving Canada a taste of autonomy would leave them craving more.
That largely came true after World War I, when Canada fought for Britain under the Union Jack. In doing so, Canadian soldiers took heavy losses, but also often fought alongside each other – men from the Pacific coast, prairie, Quebec, Nova Scotia alike – in a way that they hadn't before, helping to build a sense of Canadian nationhood. The cost of war and the nascent national identity helped build enough pressure on Britain that it granted some of its colonies, including Canada, full sovereignty in 1931.
The Gray Lecture
A pivotal moment for Canada's foreign policy came in 1947, in a speech by Foreign Minister Louis St. Laurent at the University of Toronto. Known today as “The Gray Lecture,” the speech laid out key concepts in what would become Canada's performance on the world stage.
At that time Canadians were wary of international institutions. The United Nations faced political gridlock over regulating atomic energy. Canadians were sending millions of aid dollars to war-torn allies. A poll just weeks prior to St. Laurent’s speech showed 44 percent of Canadians doubting the UN could prevent another world war in the next quarter-century.
St. Laurent offered a different perspective. “The freedom of nations depends upon the rule of law between nations,” he told the audience of 2,000. St. Laurent positioned Canada as a bulwark of political freedom, that would co-operate with like-minded countries while maintaining dialogue with adversaries. “A country of our stature,” he said, would need to work with larger countries, own more than just a handful of embassies, and demonstrate a “willingness to accept international responsibilities.”
He also committed Canada to continue working in lockstep with the US, a “vastly more powerful, more self-confident, more wealthy” state “with purposes and ambitions parallel to ours.” Canada followed through by joining the US in fighting the 1950 Korean War and loudly opposing communism.
Sands says American presidents have long reciprocated that allegiance, by including Canada in the founding of the UN, International Monetary Fund, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Decades later, the US pushed to include Canada in what is now the Group of Seven. “[Americans] tried to create, in the major post-war institutions, a seat for Canada at every major group,” says Sands. Canada generally abided by that system until the 1970s, siding with the US in most UN decisions and housing American nuclear weapons.
Canada’s first major foreign policy achievement took place in 1956, in diffusing the volatile Suez Crisis. The conflict came after Egypt nationalized a key shipping canal, prompting Britain, France, and Israel to invade. Then Prime Minister Lester Pearson kept his criticism of Britain private, instead focusing on steering all sides toward a ceasefire, which was enforced by the UN’s first large-scale peacekeeping force. Canadians still identify peacekeeping as a landmark of their foreign policy, despite the practice’s rare use in modern conflicts.
Testing the waters
But as the cold war dragged on, Sands says Canada started challenging American policies abroad. “We’re often on the same page,” he says. “The most significant moments are the ones where Canada really stands out, and tests the waters of that independence, to see if Americans really mean it.”
The man primarily responsible for this rough patch was Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, father of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. During his time in office from 1968 to 1984, the elder Trudeau visited with Cuban President Fidel Castro, made nice with China's communist leaders, and pushed back against the Vietnam War. Trudeau also had all US nuclear arms removed from Canada.
But even then, Trudeau’s government still kept close ties to the US, and Canada sheltered six American diplomats during the 1979 Iranian Revolution and issued passports to bring them to safety.
And Trudeau's successor, Brian Mulroney, quickly returned to close partnership with the US – with high emphasis on consensus-building.
He pioneered the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, and a year later persuaded the environmentally skeptical Reagan administration to sign on. In 1991, he convinced the first Bush administration to combat acid rain. Kim Richard Nossal, a political science professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, says it’s part of a pattern: “Canadian foreign ministers have long pursued little niches where they can find consensus in different corners.”
Outraged by South African apartheid, Mr. Mulroney used his close ties with then-US president Ronald Reagan and his British counterpart Margaret Thatcher to eventually push for a major boycott, which destabilized the regime.
Sands says that since then, Canadian governments have oscillated between Mulroney’s staunch support for US policy and Trudeau’s outreach to adversaries, while relying on the UN and other global bodies to decide on military interventions.
The country has also stuck to carving out small-scale accomplishments. When UN talks to ban landmines sputtered, Canada hosted two conferences and multiple negotiations that led to the 1997 Ottawa Treaty, which forbade their sale and use. Today, 162 countries have ratified the treaty (but not the US, which sought an exemption for Korea’s Demilitarized Zone).
The only Canadian leader to dismiss the UN was recent Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper — and even his objections were mild. And he also relied on international partners, pioneering a maternal-health fund with the help of the World Bank. His diplomats reportedly played a key role in the private talks leading up to the 2014 rapprochement between the US and Cuba.
A charm offensive
Today, with President Trump pulling back from the world stage, Canada has become more critical of its southern neighbor.
As refugee advocates picketed American airports during January’s first travel ban, Prime Minister Trudeau tweeted a message of hope: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada” Hundreds are now leaving the US to claim asylum in Canada – a phenomenon that started under Obama-era deportation campaigns but has increased under Mr. Trump.
But abroad, Trudeau is continuing the Canadian tradition of pushing neatly defined causes by garnering multilateral support. He’s launching what he calls a “feminist international assistance policy,” focused on women’s rights and gender equality. He’s leveraging the Commonwealth to push African and Asian countries to remove anti-LGBT laws. He calls the UN the “principal forum for pursuing Canada’s international objectives.”
Even in the US, Canada continues to push for consensus, if not always directly with the White House's current occupant. Trudeau's top staffers reportedly have almost-daily contact with daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner. Prior to last fall’s election, Trudeau demanded his entire caucus never publicly criticize Trump, according to media reports.
And together with Mr. Mulroney, his father's rival, Trudeau has arranged for members of his cabinet fly to the US to meet with mayors, business leaders, journalists, and unions on an almost-weekly basis. The idea is to shore up support for Canada in 11 key states, including Wisconsin (home to House Speaker Paul Ryan) and Indiana (where Vice President Mike Pence was governor). It’s yielded a New York State reversal on import tariffs, and climate talks about possible deals between provinces and states.
The recent speech by Freeland, the foreign minister, suggests it’s a way of grounding Americans in the principles they shared with Canadians.
“The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership, puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course,” Freeland said. “For Canada that course must be the renewal, indeed the strengthening, of the postwar multilateral order.”
As Paul Heinbecker, who wrote speeches for the elder Trudeau and advised Mulroney, puts it, “that speech went back to the Gray Lecture and updated it for the current world.” But he says it’s unclear whether an increasingly assertive Canada will thrive on the world stage without US leadership.
“It was a recognition that the world was changing, and Canada was going to change,” he said. “It said that when America steps back, the world has to step forward.”