Is Canada still a good international citizen?

In the last decade to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, Canada can play a renewed global leadership role

Why It Matters

From global pandemics to the climate emergency, it’s no secret that our world is facing serious challenges. Canada is getting global points for simply not breaking things. But it’s not good enough in the last decade to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

At the United Nations recently, Greta Thunberg told the world stage: the eyes of all future generations are upon us. And if we do not deliver, they will not forgive us.

An election debate series at the University of Ottawa has been interrogating the question: Is Canada still a good international citizen?  To which Stephanie Carvin dryly quipped: “Canada is an okay-ish international citizen which, frankly, makes us a good international citizen these days by default. Like, we’re simply getting points for not breaking things.”

Is that good enough? What makes a good global citizen? Will future Canadians – be satisfied with “not breaking things” as Canada’s contribution to the world? What does a country have to do in order to meet the challenges of the future? 

Canada’s brand is best known for..the aw-shucks apology. I remember being told in a hushed voice by a Canadian, while in New York and listening to the story of how America saved the world in World War II, how Canada had sacrificed a greater percentage of its population in World War II than the US.  I’d never heard this before – and she confessed that no-one in Canada really liked to talk about it.

Trust but verify – I looked it up and it’s true. And it’s equally true that Canadians don’t like to talk about it.

Yet, as Jacky Habib highlighted recently, Canada has retreated from those glory days. Lester B. Pearson led the commission that set the global target for international assistance at 0.7% of gross national income. Canada fails to meet this basic standard today. That isn’t diffidence, it’s simply not doing enough, and it is part of the reason that Canada’s campaign for a Security Council seat is in trouble.

It’s time for that to end. You’ve all seen the buses: The world needs more Canada – as it did in World War II.

It’s no secret that our world is in trouble. We face massive risks from global pandemics. Even WHO recognizes  that we lack the infrastructure to solve them. The climate emergency threatens the fabric of our existence. War tears lives apart and confines people to chronic, grinding misery. 

Some of you may wonder, why should we bother? These aren’t our problems. Canadians are lucky to live in a peaceful country – and also lucky to have an economy driven by a generally peaceful giant on our southern border. But we live in this world and it is our world. 

Our individual and collective obligations as citizens increase when there is danger. This is true in our communities, where we sandbag to protect each other, and fight to preserve our green space. It is true across our country, where we must fight, together,  against disinformation so we can safely argue against each other through our political institutions. And it is true at a global level, where we must fight to ensure that Canada steps up to the plate with its considerable financial and intellectual resources to help protect our planet; to reach the most vulnerable. 

Against this backdrop of both rising need and rising obligation, the Canadian brand has value. I’ve seen this in practice, from the DR Congo, where government officials openly wished there were more Canadians in peacekeeping, to small acts of good citizenship, such as the UN in New York, where Canada took on the unwelcome work of chairing the Fifth Committee, the committee where best budgetary practices go to die. Indeed, I once led a global review of international technical assistance, which was swiftly suppressed because the only assistance that worked was a Canadian project in Haiti. Canada’s openness to immigrants, despite real challenges, remains something that people look to for hope. There is currency in brand Canada, if you like.

But it is not backed up by sufficient imagination or sufficient resources – which combined with diffidence –  is trouble for Canada’s image in the world. This matters as Canada seeks, and struggles, to reach new people. And if you, like me, believe that Canada has something deeper to offer, it also matters for a world in need. 

So how can we do enough to stand securely in front of the next generation – and the one after that – and say that we have done our best to deliver, as Greta Thunberg demanded?

The seeds are already in the soil. Last May, in Canada, G7 members adopted the Whistler principles on innovation. These ideas – based on inclusion, evidence, risk-taking, and support for local solutions – are about seizing opportunities and scaling them. This effort built upon Canada’s announcement of massive federal investment in five innovation super-clusters (Oceans; AI; Advanced Manufacturing; Protein Industries; and Digital technology) and was followed by Canada outlining an innovative commitment to a feminist foreign policy.

How might Canada translate this investment in innovation into impact for future generations? How can Canada place its intellectual capital – particularly that of Indigenous peoples who have frankly, endured the worst we can imagine – at the service help a world riven by exclusion, inequality and a climate catastrophe?  How can we make sure that our domestic and international efforts alike contribute to a larger freedom for all women and girls?

A brand is not just about marketing. It’s not about stated values. It’s about living these values. A Canada committed to the world is a Canada true to itself. It’s a Canada that works with all its people to drive innovation – with kindness and humility. It’s a Canada that translates its domestic vision for responsible AI to a global vision. It’s a Canada that meets its targets for international assistance, and does so with a disciplined commitment to all women and girls, and to our shared destiny.  It’s a Canada that seeks to be a steward of the future of good, not merely a bystander coasting on past glories that we don’t even want to claim.

That’s the Canada that could be on display – and should be displayed with pride and affection. But it’s not enough just to feel good about flag-patches on our backpacks, Canada and Canadians have to walk the talk.