Canada: Trudeau’s global brand is a hot commodity

Could Canada be cashing in its reputation as a defender of human rights to score international trade?

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau [Reuters]
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau [Reuters]

Is Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau selling Canada – or selling it out? 

Critics are concerned that in his efforts to boost Canada’s sagging economy, hard hit by bottom-of-the-barrel prices for oil, Trudeau is making deals with the devil, talking a good human rights game while doing business with countries where they don’t exist.

Canada is now the second largest supplier of arms to the Middle East.

What Canadians and the world can expect from Trudeau?

It all but ignores Israel’s attacks on Gaza, its occupation of the West Bank, the expansion of illegal settlements – and its own official policy. Its Parliament has passed a motion against BDS.

Despite Canada’s long-standing tradition of acting like an “honest broker”, foreign affairs minister, Stephane Dion, recently announced that the government’s “guiding principle will be responsible conviction”.

Whatever that means.

Now Canada is negotiating an extradition treaty with China so that Chinese nationals here could be sent back to face charges, imprisonment and perhaps worse for alleged economic and possibly political crimes.

Approval ratings

Most Canadians don’t seem to care. Voters remain enthralled. Trudeau’s approval ratings are, as one pundit put it, in the “rapture” range.

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But then, they’re not the only ones susceptible to Trudeau’s slick packaging. His team has been shaping the brand – right down to changing the name of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Global Affairs – and sharpening the slogans since their victory over Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.

Justin Trudeau and his son Xavier walk with Canadian soldiers during a visit to a joint military training in Ukraine [EPA]

All the world has become Trudeau’s stage.

“Canada is back!” Trudeau announces as he takes the podium everywhere from Davos to China, Ukraine to the UN.

“Canada is here to help,” he offers, polishing our global good-guy image while pitching to win back a seat on the UN Security Council.

And so, Trudeau is dispatching 200 troops to Latvia to backstop NATO against Russia. He’s also talking about reviving Canada’s reputation as a peacekeeping nation by sending 650 troops to Africa.

Which would explain why, in June, the visiting US President Barack Obama told Parliament, “The world needs more Canada!” That declaration cemented Trudeau’s standing in the world.

Of course, Trudeau’s energetic, shirtless, selfie-taking, photo-bombing, social media-age savvy helps. Whether he’s hugging Syrian refugees as they arrive in Toronto or boxing in Brooklyn, New York, he makes the most of his Hollywood-heartthrob good looks.

Whether he's hugging Syrian refugees as they arrive in Toronto or boxing in Brooklyn, NY, he makes the most of his Hollywood-heartthrob good looks.

“Lick your screen!” was the viral text as his image bounced from phone to phone in China during his visit earlier this month.

Prominent and popular

Dion says that Trudeau ranks as “the most prominent and popular political figure on the planet”. As he enthused to Postmedia last week: “I have been told that by everyone. It’s easy to have an entree when you are the minister of foreign affairs for Justin Trudeau, let me tell you.”

That interview capped off a frenetic summer of world travel. There was a tour of Ukraine, which gave experts the impression that Trudeau would veer Canada to better relations with Russia. There were bilateral trade talks and the G20 summit in China. Speeches about the refugee crisis and Canada’s diversity at the UN. 

All this was not without its bizarre moments. For example, during the G20 summit in China, international trade minister Chrystia Freeland, in reply to a question by American cable network CNBC about Canadian trade restrictions, rhapsodised about how Trudeau earned the “fond nickname, Little Potato”.

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Then last week, China’s Premier Li Keqiang arrived.

Trudeau’s Twitter account raved about doubling the trade and tourism between the two countries – complete with Chinese and Canadian flag emojis.

There’s no question which side has the heft here. Some $86bn worth of goods changed hands between the two countries last year. But Canadian exports – virtually all agricultural products and natural resources – accounted for about a quarter of that.

At the same time, Canadians bought almost $66bn worth of manufactured goods once made in Canadian factories. Now we sell China our minerals for them to convert to appliances and sell back to us.

But it’s not just the money that’s off balance. There’s also power.

The Harper government, which had much chillier relations with China, was reluctant to open the door to returning people to a regime which tortures and executes prisoners.

‘Check the facts’

That was evident last June when, during a joint news conference by Dion and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, a Canadian reporter ventured a question about human rights. Wang launched into a tongue-lashing while Dion stood by meekly. Two days later, Trudeau told reporters that he had expressed dissatisfaction with the Chinese.

And last week, while Li was in Ottawa, its hotel had to erect a wall – at China’s behest – so its delegation would not be exposed to protesters.

At some point this year – and the government is vague on this – talks on an extradition treaty began. It’s believed that Canada might harbour about two-dozen Chinese nationals wanted mostly for alleged economic crimes. The Harper government, which had much chillier relations with China, was reluctant to open the door to returning people to a regime which tortures and executes prisoners.

But, under Trudeau, this has changed.

Or not.

Last Wednesday, he confirmed to reporters that extradition treaty negotiations were on. But on Friday, Dion denied that, telling the Globe and Mail to “check the facts”.

But the facts are in writing, on the government’s website. And this is not the first time that Dion had to clean up after Trudeau.

So who’s defending human rights?

And who’s selling Canadians a bill of goods?

Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning Canadian journalist. She has been a reporter and TV host for the Toronto Star and the CBC, as well as the Montreal correspondent for Variety trade paper.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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