Canada as a Sentinel of Freedom, Then and Now 

Michael Chong’s parents were among those who came to Canada, grateful to their new home for its role in liberating their people—Hong Kongers and the Dutch—in the Second World War. The Conservative foreign affairs critic finds our country doesn’t step up today in freedom missions as it did then, and offers examples of Canada coming up short.

Michael Chong 

My family knows first-hand that foreign policy matters.

At the start of the Second World War, a young Chinese boy and his family were among the Hong Kongers living in fear of an attack. They were defended by two regiments of Canadian soldiers, some two thousand in all. In the ensuing battle, half were killed or wounded. The surviving Canadians were taken as prisoners of war, suffering under horrific conditions for four long years. Their families back home had no word on what happened to them—they simply disappeared.

At the end of the war, an infant Dutch girl and her family were among the millions in the Netherlands liberated by Canadian soldiers, some 7,500 of whom never returned home, perishing in the canals, fields and villages of Holland. That Dutch girl and that Chinese boy from Hong Kong were my parents.

Like millions after the war, they came to Canada to build a new life. He was a Queen’s University med student at Hotel Dieu Hospital in Kingston, and she was a nurse. They met, got married and raised a family. They raised us to believe in Canada and what it stood for. They taught us to remember the price of freedom. 

That generation of Canadians and their parents who fought in the war—the greatest generation—understood all too well the price paid to defend our interests and values. Thankfully, we no longer live in an era of war between great powers. May it remain that way. 

That generation understood something we have forgotten. They understood that foreign policy is more than just words. They understood that what Canada says on the world stage must be matched with action. They understood Canada’s word must be its bond. 

If we are to defend our interests—our citizens, our economy, our sovereignty—our words must be matched with action. So, too, if we are to project our values—a belief in democratic institutions, human rights and freedoms, the rule of law—in places like Ukraine and Belarus, and in solidarity with peoples such as the Uyghurs and Tibetans in China.

Unfortunately, that has not been the case in recent years, and there is plenty of blame to go around. Canadians believe their government generous in foreign aid. The facts say otherwise. For decades, Canada has not come close to meeting its official development assistance (ODA) target to spend 0.70 percent of Gross National Income (GNI) on foreign aid. The closest Canada has ever come to meeting this target was 0.49 percent, during the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. 

The current government came to office saying it was going to make Canada a global leader in helping the poorest around the world. Under the current government, ODA has averaged 0.27 percent, a 10 percent decline from the 0.30 percent averaged by the previous government.

Bob Rae called out the government on this failure. About Canada’s ODA target number, he wrote in a report submitted to the government, “Canada has never come close to that number, and if our rate this year looks slightly better than last year’s, it is only because the GNI number is stagnant, if not declining. Despite this record, Canadians think of their country as generous, and deeply engaged on the international front.”

Canada has failed to live up to our military commitments to the NATO alliance. We have a longstanding pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on our military. That commitment has not been met since the 1980s. Currently, Canada spends only half that, ranking 20th out of 29 NATO members.

Many Canadians cherish the idea of Canada as a peacekeeping nation. The current government played to that sentiment with a big commitment in the 2015 election to resurrect Canadian peacekeeping.

It sent hundreds of peacekeepers to Mali. As in other matters with this government, these efforts were made for a short time, barely a year. The government then lost interest and the mission ended. One year later there was a coup and the Malian government replaced by a military junta. The Liberal government has offered little but bromides.

In the 1980s, Canada provided more than a tenth of all UN peacekeeping forces deployed throughout the world. Currently, that number has declined to less than 0.1 percent. Perhaps the world has changed, and the traditional model of peacekeeping that once so engaged Canada no longer exists—but the larger context suggests a failure to live up to our commitments.

Paul Wing-Nien Chong and Cornelia de Haan at their wedding in Drachten, the Netherlands on October 1, 1969. He was a Chinese kid from Hong Kong defended by Canadians in its capture by Japan in 1941 and she was a baby in Holland when the Canadians liberated her country in 1944. When they grew up, both emigrated to Canada where they met and fell in love. Photo courtesy Michael Chong

On climate change, Canada has missed every target in every international agreement to which it is a signatory—unlike our record decades ago on acid rain and the ozone layer. We missed the target set out in the Kyoto Protocol. We missed the target set out in the Copenhagen Accord. And we are on track to missing the target set out in the Paris Accord. According to Climate Transparency, a coalition of international climate groups, Canada’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions are the highest in the G20, higher than even the United States. 

The current government came to office with loud denunciations of the previous government’s record on climate change, promising to do much better. The facts say otherwise. In 2016, the first full year the current government was in office, emissions were 708 megatonnes. In 2018, the last year for which we have data, emissions jumped to 729 megatonnes. Canada’s emissions are increasing, yet the government said in last September’s throne speech it will not only meet the Paris target, it will exceed it. Canada’s emissions may decline in 2020 because of the pandemic’s economic fallout. But to paraphrase Bob Rae, just as declining national income is no way to meet our ODA commitments, it is also no way to meet our climate change targets. Where once Canada met its commitments—to NATO, to the environment—it no longer does. While no country is perfect, a clear pattern emerges from our recent record on foreign aid, military, peacekeeping and climate change. 

The world is taking note of the disconnect between our words and our deeds. Canada lost the vote for the UN Security Council seat last June. It got 108 votes, six fewer than it got a decade ago. That is six fewer countries in the world today that see Canada as a leader on the world stage. That is a quantitative indictment of the government’s foreign policy. Our failure to meet our commitments means we are not taken as seriously as we once were. Canada is becoming a pawn in the global chess match between great power rivals, who have concluded that there is little consequence to threatening Canadian interests and undermining our values.

Meeting our commitments takes resources. Foreign policy costs money. It costs money to meet ODA commitments. It costs money to meet our military and security commitments. It costs money to have diplomatic missions around the world and a presence on the ground. To pay for all of this requires a robust economic plan. In a different way, former Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland acknowledged the link between foreign policy and the economy in her June 2017 speech in the House of Commons. She cited the rise of populism and its distrust of the global economy as one of the two big challenges in foreign policy. She pointed to the government’s economic plan as the solution. After five years in power, we can judge the record.

The Canadian economy was in trouble before the pandemic hit. Our productivity, the only long-term determinant of prosperity, had been lagging for years. Per capita GDP was flat, if not declining, in the quarters before the pandemic hit. Canadian households had some of the highest debt levels in the world. The economic fallout of the pandemic has only made things worse. The OECD and the IMF predict that Canada will have a deeper recession and a slower recovery than our economic peers. 

All this makes for a sobering reality check. If we are going to do better in defending Canada’s interests and promoting our values around the world, we have to have a clear-eyed and accurate assessment of our record. And we have to have an ambitious and robust plan to create the prosperity that will pay for a projection of Canadian values and a defence of Canadian interests. 

That generation who defended and liberated my parents understood that Canada’s word must be its bond. They also understood that words must be matched with action. Lest we forget.  

Michael Chong, the Conservative Foreign Affairs critic, is the MP for Wellington-Halton Hills.