It’s been a tough few days for the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. Nothing, it seems, is going right for him. His domestic popularity has been on a downward spiral for some time and is unlikely to rebound any time soon, if the present trends are anything to go by. His main rival, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, is gaining ground with recent polls suggesting he has the backing of 40 per cent of Canadians who see him as the best choice to be prime minister, a 5 percent increase from 2022, even as Trudeau’s popularity remains unchanged at 31 percent.
There seems to be an across-the-board dissatisfaction with the direction of the country as economic issues predominate the domestic political agenda and Trudeau is seen as being unable to get a grip on a nation adrift.
It is usually in times like these that political leaders look to foreign policy to shore up their credibility. But despite Trudeau trying hard, his moves have fallen flat even in this realm. The latest in this series is the honouring by the Canadian House of Commons of a Ukrainian man, Yaroslav Hunka, who fought for a Nazi unit in the Second World War, during the hosting of an address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Hunka was welcomed by the Speaker of the House as “a Ukrainian hero, a Canadian hero, and we [Canadian Parliament] thank him for all his service.” This has caused a political and social storm in Canada with several members of parliament calling for a public apology by Trudeau. The Speaker has resigned but Trudeau has not apologized. Underlining that the decision to invite Hunka had been made by the Speaker’s office alone, Trudeau has merely said that “this is something that is deeply embarrassing to parliament of Canada and by extension to all Canadians.”
But this matter has not remained limited to Canada. Calling the incident “outrageous,” Russia wasted no time in arguing that “many Western countries, including Canada, have raised a young generation that does not know who fought whom or what happened during the Second World War. And they know nothing about the threat of fascism.” Moscow, whose targeting of Ukraine was based on its claims to “denazify” the nation, would have found the irony too difficult to resist. Poland too has called for an apology from Canada.
And then there is the India-Canada row that shows no signs of abating. Trudeau’s mishandling of an important relationship not only for Ottawa but for the wider West has played right into the hands of China that must be watching with great interest the unfolding of this saga of a lack of responsible leadership and platitudinous rhetoric. India has pushed back hard against “politically motivated” accusations from Canada. Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar targeted Canada when he emphasized that the international community should not”countenance that political convenience determines responses to terrorism, extremism and violence” and “respect for territorial integrity and non-interference in internal affairs cannot be exercises in cherry-picking.”
This crisis has also given a unique opportunity to New Delhi to throw the spotlight on Canada’s own troubled record on extremism and terrorism. Since the 1980s, this has been the case and India has been the primary victim of Canada’s hypocrisy in brushing terrorism under the carpet in the name of human rights and freedom of expression. Where India has managed to get a handle on its own internal security situation in Punjab, Canada has been unable to find a solution to its own festering extremism. It is now becoming an extra territorial threat, one that India has been repeatedly asking Ottawa to come to terms with.
Trudeau’s inability to comprehend the seriousness of this challenge has led to the present predicament. He has had no compunction in celebrating extra territorial killings by the US but when it comes to Indian entreaties they are not only to be ignored but even worse – challenges to Indian sovereignty are to be milked for domestic political considerations.The Indian response to Trudeau’s accusations has shown that New Delhi is in no mood to countenance this posture and will go all out in signaling to Canada and other adversaries that it is serious about tackling the challenges it faces. There is a reason why Canada’s closest allies have been circumspect about falling behind Ottawa in targeting India. It is also interesting to note the caution that Trudeau has shown when dealing with Chinese interference in Canadian elections and the alacrity with which he has targeted India.
There are bigger issues at stake here for India and the wider world. Trudeau has pushed India-Canada ties to the brink and it is highly unlikely that the trust deficit between New Delhi and Trudeau can be bridged any time soon. But the Canadian Prime Minister’s problems go beyond India as this past one week has shown as he navigates, rather unsuccessfully, one crisis after another.
Harsh V. Pant is a Professor of International Relations at King’s College London. He is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is also the Director (Honorary) of the Delhi School of Transnational Affairs at Delhi University.
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.