We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
… Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion.
— T.S. Eliot
If things were not already bad enough for Canada’s global image, the recent spectacle of an all-party Parliamentary “war hero” salute to a Nazi Waffen-SS veteran sitting in the gallery for a speech by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy struck a new low. The Speaker ultimately took the fall, but the embarrassment squarely impacted the prime minister — who belatedly expressed an apology — and the country he leads. Have we become, as British journalist Douglas Murray observed, “a nation of ignoramuses?”
This serious glitch came on the heels of Justin Trudeau’s blunt announcement that the government had “credible allegations” of a link between agents of the government of India and the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar — an outspoken British Columbia supporter of a separate homeland (Khalistan) for the Sikhs in parts of the Indian state of Punjab and Pakistan.
Even if the allegations were true, it was a ham-handed way in which to present them. Were the likely consequences assessed? The government could have expressed concern more tactfully and diplomatically before hard evidence was made available. Instead, the abrupt rebuke by the prime minister provoked a firestorm of angry denunciations from Indian authorities that fractured bilateral relations.
India has long expressed concern to Canada about the immigration of Sikh extremists. In December 2018, Canadian security officials agreed, noting in their annual report on terrorism that Canada faced threats from ”individuals inspired to commit violence based on other forms of extremism including from … Sikh extremists.” More than a year later, just before the 2019 federal election, the government bowed to pressure from Canadian Sikh organizations and erased the reference in the annual report. At that time the government included 16 Sikh MPs, four of whom were cabinet ministers, along with their coalition partner, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
Trudeau solicits support from Canadian Sikhs to advance his partisan prospects. By striking at Sikh separatists, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi strengthens nationalist support among Hindus for his re-election. Both leaders are motivated by domestic political priorities. Bilateral relations are the victim.
Elsewhere in Asia, Canada’s relations with China are frozen in the wake of the “two Michaels” controversy and revelations about Chinese electoral interference, over which the Canadian government has been dragged reluctantly into a full public inquiry. This means Canada has lost normal relationships with two of Asia’s giants.
Adding to that, the prime minister spurned overtures from the leaders of Japan and Germany to import our natural gas. (Trudeau said there was no “business case” for exporting natural gas, ignoring the fact that it is the regulatory and policy constraints of his government that limit our ability to export.) You have to wonder whether we have productive relations anywhere these days.
When first elected in 2015, Trudeau visited the department of Global Affairs and was rapturously greeted like a rock star by sycophantic employees when he announced, “Canada is back!” Before too long however, it became evident that we had actually fallen well back from any position of accomplishment or relevance on the world stage. Including with the rhetorical flourishes on climate change, we have become increasingly irrelevant internationally, a hollow force, failing yet again to capture a seat on the UN Security Council, and shunned by allies developing closer security relations in the Indo-Pacific region.
Our foreign minister asserts that our global role is as a convener, but about what, and with whom? Our pathetic record on defence spending, which reportedly is about to get worse, has consigned us to the kiddies’ table at NATO.
Reacting to the horrific events in Israel over the weekend, Trudeau was irresolute, acting mainly for show, while side-stepping judgments on the global security issues at stake.
The vacuum is not just at the political level. Canada’s department of Global Affairs focuses more on self-administration than the national interest. It is led by officials with little foreign policy expertise or service abroad, beneficiaries of the Privy Council Office practice of selecting deputy ministers based on the breadth of administrative experience not the depth of policy expertise.
The obsession with “diversity, equity and inclusion” is widespread in the federal public service, which has grown a staggering 40 per cent since 2015, and Global Affairs is no exception. Policy acumen and merit count for less and the paltry results are indicative. Most of our major embassies are now led by political appointees — so much for incentive for those in the ranks. Long gone are the days when brilliant policy experts like Klaus Goldschlag and Si Taylor represented Canada confidently and knowledgeably while advising Canadian governments candidly with skill and acuity.
Relations with the U.S. are central to our foreign policy and yet, excepting occasional expressions of bonhomie by President Joe Biden, they are essentially running on idle. Canada asked the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to intercede and try to break the ice with India. After meeting India’s External Affairs Minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, in Washington, Blinken said carefully he hoped “that our friends in both Canada and India will work together to resolve this matter.”
Parenthetically, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, David Cohen, said it was intelligence from the “Five Eyes” network (the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Canada) that led to Trudeau’s public accusation against India. But no Canadian representative offered evidence for the allegation.
During a visit to Washington two weeks ago, India’s Minister of External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, accused Canada of giving “operating space” to terrorists and extremists “because of the compulsions of Canadian politics.” In a slightly conciliatory tone, the minister added that India was open to examine the event further “if the Canadian government has anything relevant and specific they would like us to look into.”
As gaffes, accidents and missteps pile up in Ottawa on foreign as well as domestic issues, accountability has disappeared. We cannot let another major relationship fester unattended. If there is evidence supporting the prime minister’s allegation that can be used in court, charges should be laid. If Sikh or other extremists are violating our laws, they should be prosecuted and if convicted, deported. A shakeup of our security and diplomatic agencies should occur. Of course, a general election would help.
Derek H. Burney is a former 30-year career diplomat who served as Ambassador to the United States of America from 1989-1993.