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Countries sometimes tell lies to themselves about their history and their present. So it is with Canada.

For decades, Canadians told themselves they had the world's best health-care system, when by any international measure they did not. This reality of Canada's underperforming system is finally well-known and widely accepted. But the lie was repeated so often by politicians and health policy "experts" that people believed it, partly because the lie was so comforting.

In foreign affairs, Canadians also believe the lie that they are not just respected around the world, but that they play a role beyond the country's size and wealth.

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In fact, as opposed to mythology, Canada has been punching far below its weight for a long time, under Liberal and Conservative governments. Nothing suggests this situation will change regardless of who wins the election because – and here is an uncomfortable truth – Canadians are actually not much interested or involved in the world, at least in comparison with their self-image.

The fact that the parties say next to nothing about the world in their search for votes illustrates the parochialism of the voters, in a world where all politics is local but many issues are global.

When Canada's party leaders debate foreign policy on Monday night at an event sponsored by the Toronto-based Munk Debates, chances are that facts will be overwhelmed by rhetoric.

So, here are some facts recently presented with searing clarity in a report for the Canadian International Council by Robert Greenhill and Meg McQuillan. (Mr. Greenhill used to lead the World Economic Forum and the Canadian International Development Agency. Ms. McQuillan is a fellow at Global Canada.)

For all its self-congratulatory talk, Canada's per-capita defence and foreign-assistance spending, when combined to define "global engagement," is the lowest among the G7 countries and the lowest among a group of comparable countries (Australia, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden).

Canada has become, according to the Greenhill-McQuillan study, a "free rider" in the advanced industrial world – "free rider" being defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as "a person who, or organization which, benefits (or seeks to benefit) in some way from the effort of others, without making a similar contribution."

The authors left out diplomacy and international environment. Had these elements been defined as part of "global engagement," Canada would have fallen even further into last place. The Foreign Affairs department has been hollowed out by the current government. Canada's climate-change record is the worst in the industrialized world, along with Australia's.

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Canada as "free rider" accelerated under the Chrétien government that cut the defence and aid budgets. An uptick occurred in the Paul Martin years and at the beginning of the Harper government. But that uptick soon gave way to lower per-capita spending on defence and aid. In the rush to produce a balanced budget, the Harper government froze foreign aid and cut defence spending. The cuts reflected the very low priority Canadians give to aid and defence.

Canada has talked loudly and carried a small stick. Compared to our peer group's average 1.9-per-cent share of GDP for aid and defence, Canada's share is 1.2 per cent. To reach the average of our peer-country group's spending would cost Canada another $13-billion. If Canada were to reach the level of global engagement of Britain and France, we would need to spend about $30-billion.

Governments play tricks. The Harper government's new spending on aid for maternal health and the United Nations's Every Woman Every Child initiative drove up annual funding for health by $146-million, but spending on education dropped $166-million, and for government and civil society initiatives by $180-million.

Humanitarian and development assistance to the Middle East grew by $295-million, but it fell by $288-million to Africa and Asia, and $285-million to the Americas. Speaking of the Middle East, Canada is participating in the military campaign against the Islamic State, just as we bombed Libya, with no new fighter jets on the horizon and with cuts imposed on the Defence Department.

Bottom line: There are no domestic votes in an inward-looking country that is comforted by untruths about itself as a serious global player, yet each year spends less and less in and on the world.

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