Skip to main content

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien, shown in an interview at his Ottawa office, is concerned about Canada’s dwindling role at the United Nations.

Fred Chartrand/The Globe and Mail

A decade after Jean Chrétien risked the ire of the United States by declining to support its attack on Iraq, the former prime minister says Canada has lost some of the international stature that helped it take a more independent line.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Chrétien said Canada made the right decision by refusing to join the war without a clear resolution from the United Nations Security Council. But he also expressed regret that Canada's status within that body may have slipped since that time, with the country losing its bid for a Security Council seat and reducing its presence in Africa in recent years.

This month, Americans are marking the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq with a sense of profound introspection.

Story continues below advertisement

Public opinion polls suggest many believe the war, in which tens of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Americans died, was a mistake.

The U.S. military withdrew from Iraq in 2011, but the country remains under constant threat of extremist violence, with attacks still occurring almost daily in some parts of the country.

Mr. Chrétien said Tuesday he never believed the intelligence the United States claimed to have that Iraq had amassed weapons of mass destruction.

But he said Canada's decision not to participate in the war drew criticism from opposition MPs, as well as some business groups who feared the U.S. might retaliate by trying to limit trade between the two countries. And it meant defying two of Canada's strongest allies days before the U.S., Britain and several other countries began Operation Iraqi Freedom in March of 2003.

"It turned out to be very important for the independence of Canada," Mr. Chrétien said. "It is a decision that the people of Muslim faith and Arab culture have appreciated very much from Canada, and it was the right decision."

The former prime minister said he views the UN as an important institution that has helped prevent major wars. And he questioned the Conservative government's commitment to the international body, saying Canada's role appears to have diminished since it lost its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2010.

"Canada has always been a big player at the UN, relatively speaking," Mr. Chrétien said. "What I notice is we seem to be playing much less [of a] role now [that] we were not elected to have a seat at the Security Council."

Story continues below advertisement

Stephen Harper has addressed the UN General Assembly only twice since he became Prime Minister, choosing last fall to accept a separate award for statesmanship elsewhere in New York instead of speaking at the annual opening with other state leaders. And Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird rebuked the UN last November, accusing it of abandoning its principles to offer an upgraded "non-member observer state" status to Palestinians.

At the same time, Mr. Chrétien said, Canada is offering less assistance to some of the world's poorest nations and closing embassies in Africa when that continent's economy is growing rapidly. "We don't have the image we used to have. Ask any observer, I don't think it's as good as it was," he said.

A spokesman for Mr. Baird said the government has taken a "principled approach" to foreign policy. "It has been Canada's long-standing tradition to stand for what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is popular, convenient, or expedient. Under our government, Canada no longer panders to every dictator with a vote at the UN," Rick Roth wrote in an e-mailed response.

Fen Hampson, director of the global security program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said the government has not cut back on its commitments to the United Nations in recent years, even though losing the bid for the Security Council seat clearly came as a shock.

"I think the feeling was that, you know, we weren't necessarily going to turn our backs on the UN, but it would fall lower in our affections," he said.

But the Harper government continues to look to the United Nations for approval for military action, he said, adding, "The UN still matters to this government when it comes to legitimizing and authorizing the use of force."

Story continues below advertisement

ATTENDING CHAVEZ'S FUNERAL 'WAS THE RIGHT THING TO DO'

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien surprised many last week by travelling to Venezuela at the last minute to join the throngs of people who gathered in Caracas for Hugo Chavez's funeral.

The trip, which he took with his wife, Aline, included a meeting with Mr. Chavez's mother, Mr. Chrétien said. He said he got to know the former Venezuelan president when Mr. Chavez visited Ottawa shortly before he was sworn in, and the two found common ground in their love of baseball.

"He told me that if I had to go to Venezuela some day that he would strike me out," Mr. Chrétien said, joking that he would have surprised the Venezuelan leader by bunting the baseball.

Mr. Chrétien said he never had a reason to travel to Venezuela while he was prime minister, and "felt that it was the right thing to do" after Mr. Chavez's death.

"I respect the people of Venezuela, and we always have normal relations with them," he said, adding that he once visited with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and generally kept the door open on diplomatic relations when he was prime minister. "So this, I had the time to do it and the desire to do it," he said. "And they were very happy that I did it."

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Chrétien acknowledged that Mr. Chavez was a controversial figure and said that he "went probably too far" in his pro-poor policies.

But he added that the large number of people who turned out for Mr. Chavez's funeral speak volumes about his reputation in Venezuela.

"A lot of people love him there. He was very much on the side of the poor, and we have to think about the poor in any society," he said. "I'm not the type of guy who thinks the crumbs of the table are enough for the poor, either there or in Canada."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter