Is Canada Truly Back?

May 29, 2018 | Event Summary

It is rare for a book about Canadian foreign policy not written by a politician to make the headlines both in French and Anglophone Canada. But Jocelyn Coulon’s “Un selfie avec Justin Trudeau” managed to do just that. Coulon launched his book at a CIC Montreal event on 3 May following a series of talks at various French-speaking universities. A former advisor in Dion’s office, Coulon raises important questions about Trudeau foreign policy, most importantly whether it is actually that different from Stephen Harper’s approach. Trudeau’s “Canada is back” and feminist rhetoric have attracted international attention: he gets invited to international forums and conference to speak about women’s rights, his message about refugees has been praised and admired, and even his colorful socks are the subject of articles.

Jocelyn Coulon’s book seeks to dismantle Trudeau “Canada is back” rhetoric by analyzing his policies and approaches, particularly towards to the United Nations, and his tense relationship with Stephane Dion, Trudeau’s first Minister of Foreign Affairs. It certainly came as a surprise to learn that Dion never managed to meet with Trudeau throughout his 14 months as Minister. This had never happened before: John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs in the cabinet of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, met the Prime Minister whenever he wanted. Coulon, who was one of Dion’s advisers, admits that Dion is very demanding and acknowledges that Dion was also selected because it is a tradition to give the post to a member of the cabinet. But he also sees the absence of meetings as a sign that Trudeau is simply ““incurious” about international affairs.

In his book, Coulon looks at six areas in which Trudeau has either abandoned or reviewed his foreign policy approach first set out in 2014 and 2015 before the elections. For his talk, Coulon focused on three of them in particular.

First, is the government’s desire to win a non-permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, which, according to Coulon, Canada is unlikely to get it because many UN members made their choice before 2016 and prefer Norway’s candidacy anyway (the third candidate is Ireland). And what does Canada have to offer?

Second, is Trudeau promise to commit more troop the UN peacekeeping forces. Recent announcements about Canada’s contribution the mission in Mali have certainly brought down expectations.  Canada seems unwilling to commit a large number of troops or to stay in the long term, even though this was the original plan, according to Coulon.  Canada is certainly going to win a UN seat this way.

Third, while the feminist rhetoric and approach to development and foreign policy is attracting worldwide attention, it hides a lack of investment over the past 20 years. The feminist approach is respectable and ambitious but Canada’s budget shows that there is little funding for it. The military budget on the contrary is extremely large.

Coulon believes that Trudeau doesn’t think outside the box, which may be the result of his lack of foreign policy knowledge. Coulon mentioned that Trudeau’s autobiography, which was published before the elections, barely mentioned international affairs and focused a lot more about his personal life.

On Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s current Minister for Foreign Affairs, Coulon says she is very capable but described her as a part-time foreign affairs minister. Indeed, she spends half of her time negotiating NAFTA with the U.S. and Mexico. From what Coulon has heard, her Ministry barely see her. Furthermore, she is not liked by the Russia, who, as a permanent Security Council member, has the capacity to be a nuisance within the UN.

In the end, the Trudeau government, in large part, seems to be prolonging the Conservatives foreign affairs policies. This is certainly easier then coming up with something radically new. Canada is back…but where?

CIC members had a lot of questions for Coulon, who did not tone down his criticism of Trudeau. This was welcomed position as Canadians try to separate Trudeau’s rhetoric from his actions. One of the final questions was “When are you publishing the book in English?” We certainly hope it will be soon because his book gives a valuable look into the PM’s foreign policy.