Foreign Policy By Canadians


With the world facing unprecedented adversity, Canada’s interests face greater challenges than ever before. Canada’s level of engagement in the world is hamstrung by perceptions that citizens don’t care about foreign policy. But what if foreign policy reflected the views and interests of citizens themselves?

In March and April 2021, a large representative sample of the Canadian population gathered online to debate Canada’s global engagement. This gathering marked the largest deliberative democracy exercise in our country’s history.

Foreign Policy By Canadians is a joint initiative by the Canadian International Council (CIC), the Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health (CanWaCH) and Global Canada. Using techniques developed by the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, the exercise demonstrated that citizens have high levels of interest in foreign policy and are ready for meaningful engagement on some of the most significant issues facing Canada in the world.

Over the course of eight to twelve hours, 444 participants deliberated in 39 small groups on proposals related to global public health, security, prosperity and human dignity. A survey taken before the exercise showed Canadians to be instinctively international in their outlook and broadly in favour of global engagement to pursue objectives in collaboration with other nations. A survey of the same questions taken afterward showed that when participants were exposed to competing viewpoints, their support changed in some areas while holding firm in others. The patterns of where support rose or fell offer insight into the attitudes the whole population of Canada has toward international issues.

An analysis of the transcripts of the 39 small groups showed a strong sense of national identity, but not in the sense of flag-waving or profile-seeking for our country on the world stage. Rather, participants demonstrated real concern for fellow citizens and a preference for policies that bring benefit to them as well as to people beyond our shores.

Canadians appear ready for more serious engagement on foreign policy. While they are not asked to vote based on foreign policy issues, they certainly appear interested in them. They bring strong convictions to the subject but are open to contrary views. In the deliberations of Foreign Policy By Canadians, there were few signs of polarization, with strong majorities of participants agreeing on many issues across geographic, partisan and linguistic divisions. Perhaps most encouragingly, citizens responded very favourably to being engaged. Faith in the system of democracy in Canada rose through the process.

The security of Canadians, the prosperity we enjoy, and now even the health of our communities, seem as determined by what happens outside our borders as within them. This initiative has bridged the gap between policy makers and Canadians from all walks of life to identify how Canada should engage the world.

Rapid and dramatic changes in international relations will force Canada to continue adapting our foreign policy. If Canada is to count on deep public support for new directions in foreign policy, deliberative democracy offers a promising approach. Repeated engagement with citizens could help this country to better adapt its policies to the emerging international environment – and strengthen Canadian democracy in the process.



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Event Recordings

The CIC | The mandate of the Canadian International Council is to give citizens a voice in global affairs. Founded 92 years ago by Sir Robert Borden, CIC is a non-partisan, grassroots, and citizen-centred organization with 18 branches across Canada, from Halifax to Victoria.

CanWaCH | The Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health (CanWaCH) is comprised of approximately 100 Canadian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academic institutions, health professional associations and individuals partnering to improve health outcomes for women and children in more than 1,000 communities worldwide.

Global Canada | Global Canada brings together Canadians in leadership positions around the world and is based on two core beliefs. First, that Canada can best serve its interests by enhancing its global impact. Second, that Canada’s impact will be enhanced if key Canadian institutions and individuals work together in a coordinated and complementary manner, informed by a clear set of overarching principles.