Canada is back on the world stage, Stephen Harper triumphantly proclaimed way back in the unstable days of minority government. In those ancient times, the Prime Minister saw foreign policy, as he saw everything that lived and breathed, as an opportunity to divide Canadians. Play exclusively to the base, expand that base by exquisitely calculated fractions, and let the majority of the country go hang.
Politically, it worked like a dream. You parade your yawning indifference to climate change with gratifying results: Canada gets singled out for ridicule by international environmental groups, proving to deniers and unthinking business types alike that Harper is indeed their main man.
You make yourself the servile handmaiden of the ultra-right, ultra-nationalist government of Israel. You're the last man standing to demand that Egyptian president Mubarak resign. It's perfect for picking up maybe another two or three seats from the Liberals, and never mind that Canada loses all currency with progressive forces in the Arab and Muslim worlds and those who cheer them on.
And then there's the supreme triumph of the G8 and G20 meetings, which showed the world exactly how ready Mr. Harper's Canada was to emerge as a major power.
Of course there are occasional minor penalties to pay for running a foreign policy dedicated to unremitting partisanship at home. Just last October, for example, Canada decisively lost its presumed slam-dunk bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Somehow not even gifting precious Canadian maple syrup to UN members was enough to gain their votes. Commenting on this stinging repudiation of Canada's foreign policy, then-Foreign Affairs minister Lawrence Cannon declared: "I do not in any way see this as a repudiation of Canada's foreign policy." The PM himself, a mensch to the bitter end, blamed Michael Ignatieff.
Now with majority government has come speculation - but no evidence - that Mr. Harper might be interested in a foreign policy that was actually about policy, not politics. Whether John Baird's elevation to Foreign Minister supports that speculation or not is ambiguous at best. But as luck would have it, one particular issue has emerged that will offer immediate illumination.
Back in February, The New York Times ran a long piece by its Canadian correspondent Ian Austen describing this country's asbestos scandal, a subject this space has described on several occasions. It noted the ongoing support by the Harper and Charest governments for a small Quebec-based industry whose product kills anyone in contact with it. A tiny lobby wants to continue sending our asbestos, effectively banned in Canada, to poor countries like India and Indonesia where it will kill those who work with it.
The Times article caught the attention of someone at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and before you could say lung cancer, Aasif Mandvi, one of the show's several "correspondents," had found Kathleen Ruff in British Columbia. No one in the world has been more active in exposing Canada's asbestos shame. Mr. Mandvi soon realized he had the perfect material for a classic Daily Show interview with a sucker who was guilty of wrongdoing and was glad to boast about it on television.
The video has now gone viral, helpfully supplemented by a separate story about its content. Hardly a news organization in Canada has failed to carry it, including this newspaper. The five-minute segment makes anyone who promotes the mining and exporting of asbestos appear to be either delusional or villainous, off their rockers or immoral. This includes the Prime Minister of Canada and the Premier of Quebec. As Aasif Mandvi sums it up, and as every health authority on earth strongly agrees, asbestos is just another word for "slow, hacking death."
So untypically outraged does Mr. Mandvi become that he drops his ironic demeanor and lashes out at apologists for asbestos exports: "That's really f----ed up," he declares on camera. "My family is over there [in India] That's selling them things that are going to kill them."
Just wait till Jon Stewart's crew discovers that Stephen Harper has now promoted his government's single most enthusiastic promoter of asbestos exports, Christian Paradis, to be his new Industry Minister. As it happens, one of the only remaining asbestos mine in Canada is in Mr. Paradis's riding.
The Daily Show segment can only be seen a yet another serious international humiliation for Canada carefully crafted by Stephen Harper. Mr. Stewart's devout fans around the world have to be asking: What kind of people run Canada anyway? Canadians themselves will simply watch and cringe, mortified.
By coincidence, we will know a lot more about the people who run our country very soon. On June 20, a meeting convenes in Geneva of the 143 nations, including Canada, that have ratified the UN's Rotterdam Convention. The little-known but vital convention covers pesticides and industrial chemicals that have been banned or severely restricted for health or environmental reasons.
Delegates will vote on a recommendation of the convention's expert scientific body to put chrysotile asbestos (the only form of asbestos traded in the world today, and the form mined in Quebec) on the its list of hazardous substances. As Prime Minister, Stephen Harper has repeatedly joined with a handful of other countries in blocking this recommendation, putting the interests of the asbestos industry ahead of global health. As of now, he is pledged to continue this remarkable stand.
Here is the perfect issue for the Official Opposition NDP to pursue immediately and loudly. Happily enough, 76 per cent of Quebeckers oppose government financing for an asbestos mine with only 14 per cent in favour. Shamefully enough, this tiny minority includes most Quebec trade-union leaders.
Because of the unions' position, the Parti Québécois and the Bloc Québécois, despite knowing full well the lethal consequences, have backed the continued export of asbestos. But not Jack Layton and the NDP. For its unequivocal opposition to asbestos use, the Steelworkers Union in Quebec publicly announced it would refuse to support the NDP in the May 2 elections. As a result, common wisdom in the province held that the party would be toast in Quebec and would lose its one and only seat. Some toast! Some loss!
Given the Rotterdam meeting, Stephen Harper must within weeks make clear exactly what kind of foreign policy he intends to conduct with his unassailable majority, and what kind of Canada he intends to show the world. Is Canada back? Or is Canada going backwards?