Sara Miller Llana finds a new vantage point to view shifts in global thinking

In an age of tariffs, tweets, and sanctions, where’s the best place to observe the shifting sands of geopolitics? For the Monitor’s Sara Miller Llana, it’s Canada. “People are telling me on both sides of the Atlantic ‘we are in strange times,’ and Toronto is the perfect place from which to plumb that sentiment,” Sara says. One in a series of monthly profiles of Monitor journalists.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press/AP

Sara Miller Llana was recently made the Monitor’s Canada bureau chief after covering Europe from Paris for five years and reporting on Latin America from Mexico City for seven years. Managing editor Amelia Newcomb introduced Sara’s first story from Canada in the Monitor Daily on July 18: “While Sara is moving to a new geographical base, her focus will be less on physical location than on new ways of thinking about long-standing issues.”

Sara is a perfect choice for exploring the collision between the traditional international order, represented by Europe and Canada, and the new direction of Washington and President Trump.

As part of our new monthly profiles of Monitor journalists, I recently interviewed Sara about her move from Paris to Toronto. 

How will you go about exploring this new beat.

With this new post in Canada, we are moving beyond the idea of physical location and trying to see it as a beat that looks at where issues intersect. Of course we’ll be covering Canadian news, and sometimes that in itself will be the most pressing issue for me to be watching. At the same time, however, we are trying to connect the dots wherever we can, whether that’s on energy issues, migration, human rights, or economics. It fits into the mission of the Monitor to help readers not just become aware of what is happening in our world but attain a deeper understanding of the “why” and “how” and “what can we do in the future.”

Why is Canada the right place to get to that deeper understanding?

Canada is a great place to look at this for a number of reasons. First of all, with geopolitics shifting and international institutions and multilateralism tested on many fronts, perhaps no country is watching this unfold as intimately, or with as much at stake, as Canada. With its history, location, and vast border with the US, no country is more affected by the political turns in the US than Canada. So to watch how it evolves, as the US changes its role in the world, will be telling for other countries in the world. Secondly, Canada shares policies, ideals, and principles that align with Europe. It also looks to Asia to deepen trade, and is taking on a bigger role in Latin America as the US retreats. If countries are building greater barriers today, Canada is looking to break them down for its own well-being, a globalist view that is being challenged in this era.

Your move to Toronto took place at a time when relations between the White House and Ottawa took a pretty major turn. What’s changed in Canada since tariffs were first proposed and President Trump started his Twitter assaults against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?

Right now it feels to me, on the economic front including NAFTA negotiations, that there is more of a bracing for change, a sense of the unknown and of being in uncharted territory. On foreign policy, it is already feeling more isolated. When I was in Europe, I heard many  leaders speaking out about not relying on the “old order” and the need for nations to be able to protect themselves, which means no longer relying on the US. The words have felt pretty abstract, but Canada has already experienced this with a recent spat with Saudi Arabia.

The US did not back up its northern neighbor in the dispute over human rights, and while it by itself is not a major foreign-policy issue for Canada, it hints at a sense of “going it alone” that the country might face in the future. I would say that the biggest change, though, is simply in attitudes. Canadians are baffled, and resentful, about some of the words coming from Washington. On the tariffs issue, it was the fact that they were done in the name of “national security” that has angered so many Canadians, and led to boycotts of American products, and really could challenge the relationship in the future.

Do you see any signs of hope that the values Canadians and Americans share will bring them closer in the future? How big is that gap now?

Of course Canada has a full spectrum of ideologies just like the US (which I think is often under-told from outside), so you can’t speak of one Canada or one US. But the first story I looked at was this gap – and it is indeed gaping. This is not the first time a US president has been unpopular in Canada. But it never mattered as much as today; those personal feelings were always secondary to the daily tasks at hand. A lot of the bilateral relationship is defined not by politics at the top but by smaller bodies and institutions that take care of the huge issues that the two countries must cooperate on every single day, whether that’s energy or water or border security. And there is some concern that that way of working could be undermined by the animosities on full display, and that could make it really challenging to find common ground in the future.

You’ve also spent a number of years in Latin America for the Monitor. What advantages does covering Europe, Latin America, and now Canada bring to your reporting?

I think because Canada does share many of its values with European society, I have a solid understanding of some of what [Canada] is trying to emulate or where it can serve as a model, whether that’s on migration or social justice. And I’m hoping I can rely on that to help me connect dots and generate story ideas. In Latin America, because some migrants who would normally be bound for the US are now trying to get to Canada, I think it will naturally bring Canada closer to its neighbors farther south beyond the US. And again, because I covered the region for seven years, I’m not starting from scratch when it comes to issues like energy policy, climate change, or indigenous rights. I have a base of knowledge that I can rely on to compare policies or evaluate ideas.

What do you miss most about Paris? What’s best about Toronto?

The bread and cheese! And I miss being able to walk everywhere. In Paris there was almost no interview or meeting that I could not get to on foot or bike. Toronto is just so vast. I look at the map, and still thinking in Parisian terms, I estimate a certain walk will take 10 minutes when it’s more like 45 minutes. Of course that also meant that Paris was incredibly dense, and living there I really missed space. [In Toronto] I have daily access to hiking trails and the lake and green space all around. I also love going back to reporting in English. I spoke Spanish in Latin America and French in France, and most people throughout Europe could speak English (or Spanish or French), but nuances do get lost in translation, and it’s just so nice to speak to people in my native language and their native language, especially on the more sensitive subjects.

What are the stories about Canada itself that you think non-Canadians are going to find the most fascinating in the years to come?

Those living outside of Canada, particularly on the left, view the country as this ideal nation right now. When I would tell French friends that we were moving to Canada, they’d say, “Oh, Canada” with this sense of almost longing and envy. And I think what will be most interesting is to see how that really shakes out. They’ve gotten a lot right. They’ve also, in many ways, had it easier than others. On an issue like migration they are bound by three oceans and the US; they simply can make enlightened choices that other countries on the front lines cannot. And as that shifts, and as the retreat of the US from the global stage raises more questions and demands more of Canada, it will be really interesting to see how they act under more pressure. I also think on issues of energy and environment, the choices that Canada makes will have implications for many other countries.

Interested in more of Sara Miller Llana’s stories? Check out her profile page, where you can find a complete list of her reports.

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