This week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government announced Canada’s contribution to the global humanitarian effort to help the more than 700,000 Rohingya forced into Bangladeshi camps in yet another shameful episode of ethnic cleansing, this time by Myanmar’s military.
The $300-million aid package jointly unveiled by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau fell somewhat short of the recommendations made by Bob Rae, the Trudeau government’s own special envoy for Myanmar. But Ms. Freeland was not wrong in insisting that Ottawa is “acting in the spirit and direction” of Mr. Rae’s report.
Canada could be doing more to bring Rohingya refugees here. But Ms. Freeland dodged the criticism by saying “the process is fairly complex” and, besides, the “central objective” of the effort to end the crisis involves enabling those targeted by violence to return to Myanmar. Everyone knows that is not about to happen soon, if ever.
The Liberals have read the polls, however, and they know Canadians are in no mood to see another influx of refugees after welcoming thousands of Syrians in 2015 and 2016. The government is already scrambling to stem the flow of asylum seekers crossing from the United States into Quebec, a development that is threatening Liberal fortunes in a province the party needs to win in 2019.
Still, what’s most annoying about the Rohingya strategy is its framing. The strategy, the government insisted in announcing it, is “guided by the Feminist International Assistance Policy” introduced in 2017 and “places a central emphasis on the needs of women and girls and puts forward concrete and timely initiatives to promote human rights, gender equality, human dignity, and peace and security in the region.”
After criticizing former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper’s attempts to “politicize” Canada’s foreign aid initiatives to please his domestic political base, the Liberals are now playing the same game with their “feminist” foreign policy. In reality, the Liberals have not changed much about the way Canada does foreign aid, except for the slogans they use to promote it.
Where the Trudeau Liberals most resemble the Harper Conservatives is in their failure to live up to Canada’s aid commitments, maintaining the foreign aid budget at about 0.26 per cent of gross national income, barely half of the level it reached under former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.
The Harper Conservatives’ Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (MNCH) initiative was all about, in their own words, “saving women and children.” It constituted a major policy shift by concentrating Canada’s official development assistance (ODA) budget on maternal health programs. The Harper government was rightly slammed for couching the MNCH in dog-whistle terms aimed at ensuring it could pass muster with social conservatives and evangelical Christians. But its bans on funding for groups that supported contraception (later rescinded) and abortion were more about seasoning its policies for the consumption of its domestic base, rather than depriving women in developing countries of reproductive services to which most never had access, anyway.
The 2015 Liberal electoral platform never mentioned abortion, but it vowed to ensure that the Harper government’s “valuable aid initiative” on maternal health would be “driven by evidence and outcomes, not ideology.” Only after taking office, and rebranding the MNCH as its own Feminist International Assistance Policy, did the Liberals explicitly vow to support “a full range of health services, including … safe and legal abortion.” The catch is that safe and legal abortion services are rarely available in the sub-Saharan African countries the Liberal initiative is focused on.
So, while the Liberals insist their foreign aid policies are all about promoting “gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls,” the reality on the ground is that not much is different than it was under the Conservative MNCH initiative. Though the mix of groups receiving funding may have changed, the work they do has not.
“Though branded differently, projects announced since the Trudeau government came to power – including those specifically targeting women and girls – do not have particularly different underlying approaches from those under the Conservatives,” notes University of Ottawa political science professor Stephen Brown in a new paper in the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal. “The language, however, is likely to appeal to the female-dominated and internationalist [Liberal] base, and potentially attract support away from the New Democrats.”
While Mr. Harper stooped to new lows in pandering to his base, his maternal health initiatives did a lot of good – so much, in fact, the Liberals have emulated them. They’ve just switched out Mr. Harper’s moralizing with their own feminist virtue-signalling.
Do you think the recipients of this aid even notice?