David Webster is a history professor at Bishop’s University and co-editor of A Samaritan State Revisited: Historical Perspectives on Canadian Aid.
When Andrew Scheer announced that, if elected prime minister, he would slash Canada’s overseas aid by a draconian 25 per cent, he did more than attack the idea of Canada as global donor: he attacked a Canadian Conservative tradition that is more than a century old.
Canadian conservatives have long supported an active role in foreign aid for two reasons: They see Canada as having a duty to aid those who are less fortunate, and they see aid as being one aspect of promoting Canada’s national interests. Any debates about Canadian aid need to examine this history.
The Conservative aid tradition started when such stalwarts of Ontario Toryism as George Munro Grant campaigned for Armenian relief in the 1890s, raising large sums. Armenia, ruled by the Turkish Ottoman Empire, attracted more Canadian aid and interest in the years that followed. A campaign by the editors of The Globe in 1920 raised $300,000, a vast sum at the time.
As Armenians faced genocide during and after the First World War, Sir Robert Borden’s government considered a mandate to govern Armenia. This is the era of the battle of Vimy, a time that many historians argue modern Canada was born. The Conservatives who ruled Canada in this era were outward-looking, not Canada-Firsters. They embraced a duty to help others outside the country.
Internationalist attitudes also ran though the populist conservative tradition of Western Canada. Alberta’s Robert N. Thompson, for instance, served in Ethiopia in the lead-up to the Second World War. There, he worked to alleviate poverty, help the sick, and promote schools. He even served as education and then wartime air force adviser to Emperor Haile Selassie.
Mr. Thompson went on to serve as the Social Credit MP for Red Deer, Alta., then as Social Credit’s national leader. He was the Canadian parliamentary expert on African affairs. Then-prime minister Lester Pearson sent him as an envoy to several African countries in the 1960s. He came home preaching the need for active Canadian involvement in the affairs of less-developed countries.
Another prairie populist implemented one of the biggest leaps in Canadian aid.
John Diefenbaker of Prince Albert, Sask., served as Conservative prime minister from 1957-63. Early in his term, he raised aid by more than 40 per cent. “Wherever poverty and famine reign, the future of freedom is in jeopardy. Living standards must be raised,” Mr. Diefenbaker declared.
“The Chief” had no time for naysayers, underlining aid as part of the national interest: “Those who question the value of expenditure on external aid should not overlook the commercial dividends inherent in the creation of expanding markets,” he said. Canada’s “generous co-operation” could “help ourselves as well as others.”
In the 1960s, with the Conservatives in opposition, there were criticisms, but they were not over aid levels. External affairs critic Wally Nesbitt (a former vice-president of the United Nations General Assembly) wanted to end aid for Indonesia but increase aid to middle-income Malaysia and other “vulnerable Commonwealth brothers.”
Conservatives joined in the all-party consensus to create the International Development Research Centre in 1970. The bipartisan aid consensus continued as Robert Stanfield led the opposition to Pierre Trudeau. Under Mr. Trudeau, Canadian aid peaked, but then started to fall for the first time despite his pledge to raise aid to 0.5 per cent of Canada’s Gross National Income (GNI).
When the Quebec Conservative Brian Mulroney succeeded Trudeau, his Conservative government initially increased aid and restored the 0.5-per-cent level. It has never been that high again. Under Justin Trudeau, it is only 0.28 per cent, a below-average performance.
Canadian efforts have continued. David MacDonald of Prince Edward Island led Ethiopian famine relief efforts in 1980s. Bob Mills, the Reform Party’s foreign affairs critic, went on record in the 1990s calling for “a pro-active and constructive role in reforming the UN so that it can better live up to its original goals of collective security, freedom, justice and human development.”
The sharpest declines in Canadian aid came during Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government. Canadian aid plunged well below the donor average for the first time. The bearers of the conservative aid tradition did not line up to cheer on Mr. Chrétien’s cuts to foreign aid. Some of them even warned against it. British Conservatives, meanwhile, committed to the global target that all countries devote 0.7% of GNI to aid, and achieved the target, vaulting past Canada and others.
The point of all this is that there is a long Canadian Conservative aid tradition: a belief in help and collective action. Conservatives have long believed in a duty to assist, and that aid is in the national interest. Mr. Scheer’s calls to cut aid overturn long-standing Conservative traditions.
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