It once boasted a reputation as a liberal country that espoused “multiculturalism” within its borders and demanded human rights for those outside. But after 10 years of Conservative rule by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, critics say much of that has changed.
Canadians head to the polls on Monday in what has been described as the closest electoral contest in a generation, and Canada’s foreign policy shift under the decade-old reign of the Conservative Party is a key issue in the tight race.
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A few weeks ago, a foreign policy memo written by senior officials within Canada’s Foreign Affairs department was leaked. The document cited concerns about how Canada’s reputation and standing on the world stage have “eroded”.
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Paul Heinbecker, Canada’s former UN ambassador, blamed the Harper government for what he said was a decline in global influence. He noted that in 2010 – for the first time in its UN history – Canada failed to attain a seat at the UN Security Council with nations voting for Portugal instead.
Heinbecker referred to Harper’s lack of commitment on climate change, reducing aid to Africa, and Canada’s one-sided approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as reasons why the Security Council seat was lost.
In 2011, Canada quit the Kyoto Protocol, the global treaty aiming to stabilise greenhouse gasses. Ottawa later rejected a Commonwealth climate change fund intended to assist poorer states dealing with the effects of global warming.
Heinbecker also highlighted Harper’s “poor relationship” with US President Barack Obama as proof that Canada needs a new mandate for foreign affairs, describing it as “the worst it’s been since Nixon”.
During a 2013 visit to New York, Harper publicly said he will not “take no for an answer” from Obama regarding the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would export crude oil from Alberta province to the US Gulf Coast. It’s been strongly pushed by Harper’s government but has been rejected by the Obama administration.
Peter Loewen is director of Centre for the Study of the United States at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. He said bilateral relations were not as bad as some critics contend, adding personal relationships and country partnerships shouldn’t be confused as the same.
“If you just compare the depth of trade, the integration of the border, the free movement of people, this is greater than it was 20 years ago. You can’t look at that and say that the partnership is terrible. The actual country-to-country relationship is fantastic,” Loewen told Al Jazeera.
Harper’s election opponents – Justin Trudeau of the Liberals and Thomas Mulcair of the New Democratic Party (NDP) – have used the Keystone XL pipeline to try and convince voters that Harper has damaged Canada’s US relationship.
But for Loewen, that’s just politics as usual. “I think all that stuff is noise. That stuff doesn’t portray how good the relationship is at a fundamental level.”
Canada’s seat loss at the UN Security Council has also been partly blamed on the country’s fawning relationship with Israel, which has cost it international support, particularly among Arab nations.
Diana Buttu, a human rights lawyer and former adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said Canada’s “one-sided” relationship with Israel has affected its international influence.
“It is little wonder that Canada is so isolated now as it has chosen to isolate itself and align itself with unpopular positions,” Buttu told Al Jazeera.
Last year, Harper became the first Canadian prime minister to address the Israeli Knesset. Canada’s unwavering support of Israel was demonstrated during the Israeli-Palestinian war in Gaza in 2014, in which more than 2,200 Palestinians died, including 1,492 civilians, and 66 Israeli soldiers and five civilians were killed.
In an official statement, Harper condemned attacks on Israel and defended its right to exist. Gaza was only mentioned when Harper denounced the “terrorists” who were operating in the Gaza Strip.
Heinbecker said the Canadian government is unabashed when it comes to siding with Israel over the Palestinians.
“It’s a nearly complete shutdown of support for the Palestinian case and cause and situation, and a total support for the Israelis. And the government wants to be seen that way; there’s nothing surreptitious about it,” Heinbecker said.
The Conservative Party had no comment when contacted by Al Jazeera.
There has been no indication, however, that the status quo would change dramatically if Harper’s Conservatives are defeated on Monday.
The NDP has a history of being more neutral towards the Middle East conflict compared to other Canadian political parties. Last August, however, former NDP candidate Morgan Wheeldon said he was forced to resign after old Facebook posts came to light that were critical of Israel.
Another NDP candidate, Jerry Natanine, left the party because his “social media was questionable and didn’t fall well with the headquarters”. Natanine said the posts in question showed support towards Palestine.
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“It seems odd to me that a party actively speaking about human rights would support a nation that actively engages in apartheid,” said Buttu.
During a recent debate, Liberal leader Trudeau criticised Harper for politicising Canada’s backing of Israel.
“He has made support for Israel a domestic political football when all three of us support Israel and any Canadian government will,” Trudeau said.
The Conservatives have been more concerned with foreign policy that relates to its military and anti-terrorism measures.
The controversial Bill C-51 was passed by Parliament last March. It gives the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) unprecedented powers, including operating overseas for the first time, intercepting financial transactions, and preventing a suspect from boarding a plane.
Earlier this year, Parliament passed a measure to bolster its fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It expanded the war into Syria and extended it for an additional 12 months.
According to Canadian polls, 54 percent of Canadians “sided” with the country’s combat mission against ISIL.
The notion that Canada’s international reputation has weakened doesn’t concern Harper, and it’s not even an election issue, according to Loewen from the University of Toronto.
“All he cares about is whether people view him as having resolve and being consistent on military issues. So, if that erodes Canada’s reputation on other dimensions, he doesn’t care,” Loewen said.
Follow Mohamed Hashem on Twitter: @mhashem_