Electoral contests are hardly ever about the world in which Canada seeks to excel. This election is no different.
A decade ago, one leadership candidate for a national party touted the idea of Canada being the world’s first international nation. He spoke of how millions in the world wanted to migrate to our shores, how we helped to found the United Nations, of the key role we played as both combatants and peacekeepers in global conflict areas, and of how Canadian companies successfully researched and developed their wares across the globe. Ultimately, however, he landed on the idea of Canada’s generosity of foreign aid and development and how Lester Pearson had challenged every nation to give .7% of its Gross Domestic Product to helping troubled nations around the world. Some nations, like Britain and Norway, achieved this landmark. Canada, on the other hand, never did.
What was remarkable about the candidate’s belief of Canada being the first international country was just how easily it was accepted. It hadn’t been too long before that when Bono had proclaimed that “the world needs more Canada” and the Economist was calling Canada “cool.”
All this is now in our past. Foreign aid has been slipping for decades, regardless of how it’s pitched. For those of us committed to this country’s influence in the world, it hasn’t been easy.
It’s especially difficult during election season – any election season. Politics has now become so retail, so consumer driven, that interest in any global context during electoral contests is virtually an afterthought. Even the current federal election campaign, where more interest than usual has been dedicated to the challenge of climate change, the interest of most voters concerns how much it will cost them in taxes for carbon reduction.
Perhaps the lowest point regarding international development appeared when Conservative leader Andrew Scheer promised last week that, if elected, his government would cut foreign aid by 25%. That got people’s attention, to be sure, because of the significance of such a large cut. Such issues are legitimate points of debate, but any hope of getting the facts and effects out there are now drowned out by misinformation campaigns, primarily on social media, that mask the true effects of such cuts as Scheer proposed. Parties are now so used to utilizing such half-truths and targeted negative campaigns, that voters eventually shrug off announcements like that of the Conservative leader because no one knows if it’s actually true or will happen anyway.
As Stephen Brown said in one his perceptive observations: “With the proposed cuts, the Canadian government would be stingier than it had ever been since the mid-1960s.”
The truth is that foreign aid has been declining for decades from its high-water mark during the Mulroney era.
What was perhaps most troubling, however, was the ever-increasing logic that money for foreign assistance would be better utilized as tax cuts for ordinary Canadians. It’s a bogus argument and beneath what has been our hard-earned global reputation since World War Two. But it doesn’t matter anymore because if it gets votes, who’s to argue? It’s all a bait and switch, designed to pander to the narcissistic bent of the Canadian populace.
But then again, it’s election time and the broader world always loses in such contests. While both the NDP and the Green Party committed themselves to Pearson’s .7% target, information was sparse as to how they would achieve it. And neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives committed to it at all.
All of this overlooks some remarkable realities.
First and foremost has been this country’s commitment to global development since it first signed on to the Colombo Plan for assisting poorer Commonwealth nations in 1950. We were important players back then, building on the massive reconstruction campaigns following the Second World War, and matching such commitments with our signing on to NATO and many other UN collaborative alliances.
Second, this country has over 7 million citizens who are foreign born and came here as immigrants. That’s a huge number and should sensitize us to global developments. Troublesome situations overseas have emotional and historic effects on Canadians who have come from such regions. Realistically, this country is far more “international” than we realize.
Third, literally hundreds of thousands of Canadians are involved in direct humanitarian efforts around the world, and millions have contributed financially to such efforts. Universities, colleges, businesses, cultural and faith groups, NGOs and average citizens have directed their compassionate tendencies to the poorer people of the world.
But perhaps this gets us close to the source of Canada’s declining global support. As citizens participate less and less in institutional life, the larger picture that those institutions promoted falls by the wayside. It is becoming harder and harder for NGOs to raise the finances that they were able to accumulate and distribute just a decade ago.
Politicians are attuned to this and are learning that as citizens become increasingly politically domesticated that it’s easier to engender support by promising more things rather than asking them to sacrifice for noble causes. It has always been true that most voters respond to those issues that most directly affect them, but the fact that our politicians, and our politics, now seek to join us in our collective self-preoccupation is perhaps one of the most troubling trends of the modern era. Or as Paul Collier put it in his The Bottom Billion – “Elections determine who is in power, but they do not determine how power is used.”
All the political promises in the world can’t cover over the fact that we give increasingly less humanitarian assistance to that world with each passing year, regardless of who wins elections. That will only change as citizens themselves lift their collective gaze to a broader and more challenging horizon.