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From the archives

Carbon Copy

In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

The Ugly Canadian

Forget middle power. Forget model citizen. We’re becoming one of the bad kids on the block

Amir Attaran

On April 22 of this year, a mysterious four-month-long nightmare ended for Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, the Canadian diplomats abducted in Niger by a shadowy group calling itself al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Fowler and Guay were on a secret mission for the secretary general of the United Nations, although when they were abducted they were on a private trip to a Canadian-run goldmine, travelling without a protective escort. The kidnappers ripped them from their UN-marked vehicle with such intensity of purpose that the engine was left idling and nothing was stolen. The village where it happened was named Karma.

The story had a happy ending, at least in terms of Fowler and Guay’s physical health. Yet all kinds of questions hang in the air, beginning with what exactly did al Qaeda receive—and from whom—in exchange for the hostages. Prime Minister Stephen Harper adamantly denied that Canada pays ransoms or releases prisoners to satisfy kidnappers, but it is clear from news reports that a complex negotiation took place involving several countries and that money, prisoners or both probably changed hands. But there are other questions as well: Why was there such a silence in Canada over those four months? Didn’t we care that two of our top diplomats had been seized in this way? Officially the silence was said to be for their security, but it is also true that many in Ottawa’s establishment disliked the reminder that to be Canadian no longer implies beneficence and safety from harm. In the face of a national mythology that everyone loves Canadians—a mythology that has resulted in innumerable maple leaves being stitched like amulets onto countless backpacks—the Fowler and Guay episode was a cold wind of reality.

When ill fate strikes one’s country, it is awkward or even taboo to pose the question of whether it is deserved, for lack of a better word. In the wake of 9/11, Americans reacted ferociously to anyone who dared to hint that they shared in the blame. Yet many foreigners knew America had it coming and, after a dignified period of mourning, they said so. On the first anniversary of the Twin Towers attack Prime Minister Jean Chrétien famously reminded Americans that “you cannot exercise your powers to the point of humiliation of the others.” Canadians agreed with him, and in a 2002 poll by The Globe and Mail, 84 percent believed that America bore partial or total responsibility for the attacks.

But the notion that there is karma for a country, which trips so easily off the tongue when tut-tutting about the United States, is surely not a notion from which Canada is exempt. Canada too makes the mistake of exercising powers to the point of humiliation of the others, and it would be fanciful to imagine that Canada lacks the biblical sin of pride. Indeed, if one takes an unflinching look at Canadian conduct in the world, the evidence permits no conclusion other than that the country has lately been engaged in a liquidation of its internationalism. Canada has lost the outward gaze that the British Empire imposed, and that Prime Minister Lester Pearson cultivated. Today’s Canadians, just 0.5 percent of the world’s population, are more insular than even their modest numbers suggest.

I do not make this criticism in the spirit of an unpatriotic hatchet job. Unlike Canadians born in this country, I came to it by choice, faults and all. As a born Californian with a Berkeley and Oxford education, probably I could live elsewhere, but I was attracted to this very Pearsonian country in the 1990s. I settled in Vancouver, studied law at the University of British Columbia and became a Canadian. While I love this place, learning it through its laws has also shown me a dark side. In a democracy where legislation is freely chosen, laws are a country’s DNA: they are the code the country lives by, and if the code is ugly, by merciless logic so too will be the country. On that level, Canada’s laws give objective evidence that Pearson’s Canada is comatose, if not dead. Today’s Canada would not please Pearson, and he would find the country’s outlook on foreign people and international obligations oddly picayune and ignorant. He might even say that we are hazardously far down the road of becoming a country of diverse but ugly Canadians—and if we do not check this tendency, karma could pay us back.


Lester Pearson was a great many things, but complex was not one of them. By a certain age, he had a formula—be assiduous, be respectful, be canny, be humorous, be mindful of who is on the way up, be a dove and a hawk, be principled but not dogmatic—and it served him (and Canada) so well he rarely deviated from it. In Pearson’s five years as a minority prime minister, he enacted laws and policies for universal health care, official bilingualism, colour-blind immigration, crop insurance, student loans and the national pension.

Yet nothing drove Pearson more than the will to find solutions short of war. He was hardly a pacifist: as a youth he enlisted in the Great War, and later in life he cut short a vacation to be at his diplomatic post in London during the Blitz. War taught him the value of its avoidance and the importance of countries honouring diplomatic commitments to live together harmoniously.

Pearson made it his business to slip velvet handcuffs on the exercise of state power. He did this as a diplomat long before being prime minister, by building international institutions and making Canada an early and eager joiner: the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization were all largely shaped by Pearson at their creation. When international crises emerged—Palestine, or Suez, for example—it was to the international organizations that Pearson turned. He knew Canada would lose some sovereignty through its chronic reliance on internationalism, but as Canada had only just gained sovereignty from Empire, giving or taking a little sovereignty bothered Pearson less than it might politicians today. This flexibility was shared by Pearson’s contemporaries, such as Eleanor Roosevelt with her human rights treaties, or Robert Schuman with his European Coal and Steel Community, which later became the European Union, and it was their vision that unlikely-sounding legal institutions could bind countries and cement the peace. Like so many Lilliputians, these great thinkers believed that bureaucrats, lawyers and businesspeople could tie down generals, demagogues and terrorists—and actually win.

Sixty years later, the internationalists’ experiment must be judged a qualified success. The UN is warily regarded: it struggles against incoherent and wasteful complexity, but sometimes inspires by averting a war, epidemic, famine or other nightmare. The EU is unimaginably successful: not only are Europeans richer and healthier than ever, but the decision to take dominion over the raw materials of war—coal and steel were chosen for a reason—has given Europe an antidote to the poisonous tribalism that for a millennium made it the world’s bloodiest continent. NATO has a celebrated past and uncertain future: as a bureaucratic organization it kept the peace during the Cold War, but forced to become a war-making organization in Afghanistan, it is struggling.

The lesson of these three cases is subtle: the Lilliputians of the international institutions can preserve the commonweal, but only if governments perpetuate their Pearsonian enchantment with building institutions (as with the EU), while at the same time discouraging bloat (the UN) and avoiding infirmity of purpose (NATO). Left-right politics has little to do with it. Simply put, internationalism is a pragmatic lesson in how collectively to make the world, and Canada, a safer and more prosperous place.

Of course, none of this is really new. Pearson did not invent any guiding ideas, so much as raise them to a functional place in statecraft. Centuries ago, Thomas Hobbes wrote of people’s need for “a common power to keep them all in awe,” else they revert to the “war of all against all.” In the war-weary generation of Pearson, politicians had learned by blood that “if there be no power erected, or not great enough for our security, every man [or country] will and may lawfully rely on his own strength and art for caution against all other[s],” as Hobbes wrote. How remote those days seem now, as the Pearsonian belief in a larger common power has been throttled by Blairs and Bushes who believed foremost in the exceptionalism of their own countries and the dangerous conceit that they might become the common power. It has not ended well for Blair and Bush and their countries.


But just as exceptionalism is going back out of fashion, along comes Canada to dumbly clench it. Our recent history is embarrassingly rich in examples of joining institutions and then breaking the rules. Saddest of all, Canadian exceptionalism is frequently arbitrary, unexplained or self-sabotaging, and the rest of the world is left baffled about the motivations for our country’s behaviour. In this, Canadian exceptionalism often makes even less sense than American exceptionalism: at least when Washington thumbs its nose at the international order, it does so with undeterred conviction and a raft of intellectually veneered (if often wrong) arguments. A look at Canada’s laws across the board—in matters of economics, health or human rights—shows how pointless Canadian exceptionalism has become.

Global Trade Law. Before the current global recession, the most prominent globalization debate, which nearly killed the Doha round of World Trade Organization negotiations, was whether free trade advanced developed and developing country interests alike. The debate is not new, and three decades ago it dogged the international trade system, until countries agreed on a principle of “differential and more favourable treatment.” The thought was that if richer countries such as Canada opened their markets, for instance by discounting tariff rates preferentially for poorer exporting countries, the latter could gain a toehold on the free trade bandwagon. This lopsided deal would eventually pay itself back, as the poor countries grew, became rich and became new export markets; in the long run everyone would win. Nothing could be more internationally minded, and so as poorer countries fought their corner, Ottawa decided to be as accommodating as it could.

But since then, the way in which Canada applies differential and more favourable treatment is nothing short of bizarre.

In law, the Governor-in-Council decides which developing countries get the preference of exporting to Canada at a discounted tariff rate. While that is supposed to be a decision based on countries’ poverty and need, politics plays a role too. Hence democratic Belize and Botswana get the preference, but despotic Belarus and Burma do not. Neither, obviously, do developed Belgium and Bulgaria.

But how does one explain the Governor-in-Council’s decision to give Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe the preference? Neither seems a democratic government. Why do Hong Kong, Israel, South Korea and Singapore get the preference? Certainly none is poor or developing. The height of absurdity is Qatar: it gets the preference too, although per capita it is the world’s richest country.

When we twist global trade rules so arbitrarily, imagine how it represents Canadian values. Foreigners might wonder: Are Canadians cruel or are they fools? Cruel, because we give a preference intended for the poor to the rich, or fools, for handing rich countries unnaturally low tariffs to clobber our industries? Not only do Canada’s random actions misrepresent Canadian values, whether among leftist bleeding hearts or rightist free traders, but they also damage our prosperity and economy.

Corporations Law. A more extreme example of exceptionalism departing from Canadian values is in the morally undisputed area of corruption. Corruption is bad. Countries that coddle corruption are bad. Yet Canada deliberately maintains the loosest corruption laws of any developed country.

A decade ago, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development advanced a treaty, called the Anti-Bribery Convention, which aimed to criminalize the giving of bribes to foreign public officials. Canada signed on and passed a law to fulfil the Anti-Bribery Convention’s purpose. A self-congratulatory press release at the time quotes justice minister Anne McLellan touting Canada as “a constant supporter of international anti-corruption efforts.”

That was, and remains, deeply untrue. Far from targeting international corruption, Canada’s law criminalizes only corruption in Canada. Injecting accuracy where its own minister would not, the Department of Justice writes that “Canada has jurisdiction over the bribery of foreign public officials when the offence is committed in whole or in part in its territory.” Thus if a Canadian corporation passes cash-stuffed envelopes in Caracas and Harare, rather than Calgary and Halifax, it is allowed. None of the other 29 OECD countries has this loophole and, despite mighty complaints from abroad, Canada cravenly refuses to close it.

In fact, Canada is now arguably the “leading” advanced country in which to base a corrupt international business. In 2007, the same year that the United States prosecuted 67 violations of the Anti-Bribery Convention, Canada prosecuted only one. By giving Canadian firms a loophole in international bribery rules, Ottawa gives them an incentive to perfect skills in giving baksheesh rather than skills for real competitiveness. Neither the right nor the left can possibly consider this a long-run strategy for Canada’s prosperity.

Health Law. While it is bad enough that Canadian exceptionalism costs this country money, taken a bit further, it can kill. When the SARS epidemic hit Toronto and claimed 44 lives in 2003, residents were stunned that the World Health Organization recommended not travelling to their city. Although SARS affected dozens of countries, only two drew WHO’s wrath: China, because the apparatchiks in Beijing would not provide information on the epidemic’s spread, and Canada, because the bureaucrats in Ottawa could not provide that information. When WHO asked about Toronto’s epidemic, an epic cat fight erupted between federal and provincial officials over the answer. Left hanging, WHO had no option but to do the prudent thing and isolate Toronto—a decision that embarrassed Canada and cost it more than a billion dollars.

You might think that this humbling experience would have taught Ottawa a lesson about playing well with international organizations, but you would be wrong. WHO learned during SARS that it needed a stronger commitment from governments to disclose information on epidemics, before they become globally threatening. More than 190 countries agreed and, in 2007, WHO’s revised International Health Regulations came into force. These regulations oblige national governments—meaning Ottawa, not the provinces—to share epidemiological information during outbreaks.

Yet Canada has done nothing to write WHO’s new rules into Canadian law. Although the Harper government passed a law to establish the new Public Health Agency of Canada, it deliberately kept the agency toothless. Canada’s auditor general complains that without mandatory powers, PHAC “relies on the goodwill of the provinces”—not law—to obtain epidemic information in emergencies. Goodwill, of course, is what failed during SARS. The auditor general also warns that PHAC is “not assured of receiving timely, accurate and complete information” in a future epidemic. Of the ten provinces, PHAC has reached formal agreement with only one (Ontario) to share information during an emergency—and even that agreement is a failure because it is secret and not legally binding. Thus even as listeria-contaminated meat was killing Canadians last year, Ottawa still refused to tell Ontario which stores and restaurants were affected.

More than any other example, epidemic preparedness shows how Canadian exceptionalism is a knife pointed outward and inward simultaneously. Senior WHO officials privately admit that Canada is a country of concern, because without a national agency having powers over epidemiological information, Canada could seed deadly infections in other countries before officials become aware. WHO’s fears are well founded, because if Canada’s governments are too secretive to share information on a comparatively minor listeriosis outbreak, it is fanciful to think that openness will characterize a larger emergency such as an influenza pandemic, during which PHAC expects “between 15 and 35 percent of Canadians could become ill … and between 11,000 and 58,000 deaths could occur.” With the H1N1 virus certain to reappear in the 2009 autumn influenza season, perhaps in deadlier form, and our laws still not conforming to WHO’s wise direction, Canadians could pay with their lives.

Human Rights Law. Up to this point, I have stuck to politically neutral examples of Canadian exceptionalism. Everyone loves money, and nobody wants to die of a deadly pandemic, so these issues raise few ideological hackles. But not everyone loves humans, or rather, not every human is easy to love—there is Omar Khadr. Exceptionalism in this territory is harder to evaluate because it reflects ideological choices. Even so, there are clear examples that reveal the pointlessness of Canada’s human rights exceptionalism.

Consider the violation known as the enforced disappearance of persons, which is basically state-orchestrated secret kidnapping. Security never demands it, as governments can engage in lawful preventive detention or deportation without shadowy disappearances. The only “advantage” in disappearing persons is to ward off pesky lawyers and to keep loved ones in confusion and terror—a handy trick if the government intends to torture or assassinate a person, as military dictatorships in Argentina, Brazil and Chile did, and as the United States has done in undisclosed CIA “dark sites” in recent years.

You might think that Canada, which, under both left- and right-wing governments has nurtured a global reputation as a human rights defender, could not move quickly enough to sign a treaty against enforced disappearances. But again, you would be wrong. The UN’s International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance has been open for signatures since 2007, and so far 81 countries have signed. The Harper government refuses to sign, although it assured the UN General Assembly that Canada was “pleased to support” the treaty. In short, our government lied and reneged.

Currently, a disturbingly possible reason for Canada not signing the enforced disappearance treaty is that Canada is committing enforced disappearances. In Afghanistan, the Canadian Forces detain persons secretly, without criminal charges, without notice to their families and without recourse to law. When lawyers asked General Rick Hillier for access to these detainees, he refused. A few hundred detainees—the exact number is classified—have been transferred by the Canadian Forces to the Afghan secret police this way, in full knowledge that those police torture. When a Canadian Foreign Affairs official visited some transferred detainees in the Afghan prison in November 2007, he found not only allegations of torture, but the torture implements themselves:

When asked about his interrogation the detainee came forward with an allegation of abuse … He alleged that during the [censored] interrogation, [censored] individuals held him to the ground [censored] while the other [censored] beating him with electrical wires and rubber hose. He indicated a spot on the ground in the room we were interviewing in as the place where he was held down. He then pointed to a chair and stated the implements he had been struck with were underneath it. Under the chair, we found a large piece of braided electrical wire as well as a rubber hose. He then showed us a bruise (approx. 4 inches long) on his back that could possibly be the result of a blow.

The federal court now notes several instances where detainees were apparently tortured or went “missing.”

Seizing persons and disappearing them to the purveyors of torture is the sort of conduct one associates with the United States; no wonder Washington rejects the enforced disappearance treaty. But love or hate Washington’s choices, America is more honest than Canada, because it never pretended to have a great commitment to human rights law. For the U.S., rejection works—the world has low expectations, and American power makes for distinction in other ways—but for a country otherwise as unadorned as Canada, faith toward certain national ideals is its identity and branding. Stripped of its human rights reputation, Canada is like Switzerland without neutrality, Italy without fashion or Tanzania without safaris.

Belonging Again

I have outlined four completely different examples of pointless Canadian refusal to go along with the global rules—so pointless that the outcome is actually to diminish Canadians’ wealth, health and standing in the world. I could outline more negative examples—Canada’s directionless foreign aid, its contempt for global climate change initiatives and its densely layered disincentives to foreign investment—or acknowledge some positive examples—the landmines treaty, or certain aspects of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. There is no need, because they do not change this central point: Canada’s foreign and trade policies are so irrational as to violate the global rules even when we are victims of the violation.

Fixing this situation—as is only wise—requires major improvements to the low quality of Canada’s foreign and trade policy establishment.

Most importantly, Canada needs serious ministers in the foreign and trade portfolios. Pearson was secretary of state for external affairs for nine unbroken years—a tenure instrumental to his and Canada’s success. Yet in the last decade, Canada has had five trade ministers and seven foreign ministers. You have to go back to 1989 in the United States to count a total of seven secretaries of state. Allies and enemies who see Canada swapping its top representatives even more often than Japan changes prime ministers can only conclude that Canadian diplomacy is not serious—and they will walk all over us.

Intellect and dedication also matter. Pearson was an Oxford-educated university professor with a hyperactive work ethic. If finding a comparable candidate requires the prime minister bypassing elected members of Parliament to appoint an outsider by way of the Senate, that is a lesser evil than entrusting a diffident poseur like Maxime Bernier with the job of picturing Canada to the world.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade also needs a near-complete makeover to make it less picayune and more insightful about the world. As the Maher Arar inquiry so pointedly illustrated, even the most senior and worldly-seeming Canadian diplomats can be ignorant of obvious realities. Recall Franco Pillarella, formerly DFAIT’s human rights chief and ambassador to Syria during Arar’s ordeal, answering no when asked if he was aware of “serious human rights abuses … being committed” in that country. His consul, Leo Martel, testified to doing “le maximum et plus” for Arar, but also admitted ignorance of public reports concerning Syria’s human rights record. Many DFAIT officials lacked the insight to perceive and act on the foreign realities ensnaring Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati, Muayyed Nureddin—and now Abousfian Abdelrazik. (How odd that the same DFAIT bureaucracy which was so incapable of helping these Muslim men swung into high action when the victims were Brahmins such as Robert Fowler or Louis Guay.)

One wants not to ascribe this pattern to intentional racism in DFAIT, so one requires an alternative hypothesis. Mine is that DFAIT failed on these and unrelated challenges (so, not simply racism) because it is actually quite naive, and lacks a culture with empathic imagination for foreign persons or foreign realities—a sine qua non of good diplomacy. Currently, DFAIT’s senior ranks are a monoculture of the scions of pure laine Canadian families of European descent, so how surprising is it that Canadian diplomacy is complaisant and Eurocentric in outlook? ((A glance at DFAIT’s organizational chart, available on its website at (under “About the Department”), shows an apparent dearth of non-European surnames among DFAIT’s senior officials. Knowing most of those officials, I can confirm this is the case. )) Even the Canadian Space Agency now hires more “aliens,” of the visible minority kind, than xenophobic DFAIT. A large-scale effort to employ more minorities or recent immigrants and to make DFAIT’s culture more heterogeneous, as other outward-facing agencies have done (e.g., the Immigration and Refugee Board, Passport Canada), would go a long way toward giving it the imagination and flexible Weltanschauung it now lacks. Obviously, a diplomatic corps that can better understand foreigners and better explain Canadian actions to them will better advance Canada’s political and economic interests abroad.

While it is a subtle point, Canada also needs a civil society that is less captured by government. Some of my fellow academics, particularly in schools of government or international affairs, fear criticizing the emperor’s wardrobe too vigorously because support from government agencies might dry up. Self-censorship also stymies those Canadian non-governmental organizations whose core budgets depend on government grants; they should really be called GOs, but calling them so is to hint they are unnecessary. The practice, firmly established in DFAIT, of hand-picking scholars and NGOs for patronage is highly dangerous, for just when Canada’s diplomatic or trade interests may call for les vérités qui dérangent, the temptation is greatest to solicit les mensonges qui arrangent from a sycophantic gallery. A wise federal government would recognize this fact and dispense academic funding only through the arm’s-length research councils, would cap Ottawa’s largesse to NGOs and would reform the tax laws so that a larger charitable sector financed by private benefactors could fill the void. These changes would favour neither the right nor the left, and would create a more vibrant brain trust of truly non-governmental analysts to impose accountability and, especially, purpose on Canada’s lackluster foreign and trade policy.

If Canada is a magnificent country, which it is, then it should look itself in the mirror and fearlessly examine the evidence of its conduct in the world. Currently, that evidence teaches that the high-functioning diplomacy of Pearson’s era is a thing of the past, to the shocking extent that Canada lets slip even those international obligations that economically and socially benefit Canadians. Self-neglect is our clearest warning that Canada’s global outlook is misguided. We can take the warning and do what is best for ourselves and others, or we can wait for a meeting with karma to announce that Canada has chosen a wrong road.

Amir Attaran is a lawyer and scientist and Canada Research Chair in Law, Population Health and Global Development Policy in the Faculties of Law and Medicine at the University of Ottawa.