Preston Lim is a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School, and previously worked as a policy advisor to MP Erin O’Toole.
It’s been more than a week since the United States and Canada shut their shared border to all non-essential travel, and even more time since Western leaders called for their citizens to stay home. For many Canadians – particularly the younger generations – those events made things hit home: The coronavirus pandemic seems like the most serious challenge the country has faced in recent decades. Not even the 9/11 attacks led to such a vast shutdown of national life.
As infection numbers climb and Canadians abroad struggle to find flights home, many of us might be starting to think that now is the time for isolationism. Indeed, the fields have rarely been so fertile for a Canada First mentality to flourish. Our economy is slumping, so why talk about foreign aid? With certain provinces facing a shortage of testing kits, what can Ottawa contribute to the global fight against coronavirus? And didn’t the interconnectedness of our globalized world lead to the broad, rapid spread of the disease? Surely now is the time to focus on our own and ignore the outside world.
But it is in these times of crisis that the world needs more Canada, not less.
The sad truth of the matter is that Canada, while hard hit, remains better off than most other countries. We boast a world-class health-care system, good infrastructure and an educated populace. Other countries are not so lucky, and may instead be burdened by high rates of poverty, internal conflict, governments that simply are not up to the task, and other systemic obstacles.
If Canada and like-minded democracies shut themselves off to the outside world, that could precipitate the collapse of the liberal international order, which has undergirded Canadian security and growth since the end of the Second World War. Already, Russia and China – the two countries that have most tested the liberal international order – are taking advantage of the pandemic to advance their goals, both locally and globally. The Kremlin continues to expand its regional presence by waging war in Ukraine. Beijing may finally have a free hand to expand its internment camp system in Xinjiang while typically reproachful nations are distracted. And both countries are mounting concerted disinformation campaigns.
Canada should not go out of its way to anger China and Russia. A global pandemic requires a global response, and Ottawa may in the months ahead find opportunities to work constructively with both powers. But if China and Russia believe that Canadians will somehow forget their values in this time of crisis, then they are sorely mistaken.
Already, Ottawa has signalled that it understands the importance of continued global engagement. Two weeks ago, International Development Minister Karina Gould announced that Canada will offer some $50-million in foreign aid. Much of that will go to developing countries and to organizations that work with the world’s most vulnerable people. Ms. Gould’s announcement is a commendable first step.
Money is not the only thing that Ottawa has in its pockets. Ottawa should ensure, for example, that the Canadian Armed Forces remain engaged in Ukraine and around the world, even as the military shifts its focus to the domestic situation. Canada must co-ordinate fully with the multilateral World Health Organization and ensure that the latest Canadian scientific advances are shared with the international community. Canada should also increase its medical co-operation with Taiwan, which remains shut out of the WHO process. After all, a pandemic knows no bounds.
Ultimately, however, a successful foreign policy is predicated on domestic stability. Canadians need to listen to medical professionals, stay at home and help flatten the curve. Ottawa will need to keep the economy going, and the government will need to take constructive feedback on its ambitious and necessary $82-billion domestic aid package. Finally, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will need to walk a fine line between fighting the pandemic and respecting Canadian civil liberties.
But he must also remember that no matter what Ottawa does, the world will march on; the pressures on the liberal international order will not simply disappear. When he first assumed office, Mr. Trudeau pledged that Canada was back, and he has not lived up to that promise. The current pandemic is an opportunity for his government to prove that Canada is a loyal friend and helpful fixer. To shun the outside world would be a betrayal of the values that make this country great.
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