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Hey! It’s Samantha and Jack, the editors of Well-Versed. We’re happy that you’re joining us. We’ll be with you right up until the federal election. This week, we’re getting you well-versed on foreign policy.

Foreign policy is an area in which a prime minister enjoys a great deal of executive authority, and the ramifications of foreign-policy decisions trickle down to many elements of Canadian life. While foreign policy is a crucial part of a prime minister’s portfolio, it often takes a backseat to more pressing domestic issues during federal election campaigns, such as the economy, housing and climate policy.

What do you think the foreign-policy debate is missing? Got opinions on China, Trump or trade? Write a comment or send us an e-mail at Include your name, age and city if you’re comfortable, and you could be featured in Thursday’s edition of Well-Versed.

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At its core, foreign policy seeks to define Canada’s position in the world, its relationship with other states and its participation in international institutions such as the United Nations and NATO.

The birth of a Canadian foreign policy independent of British supervision started with … fish, of all things. The Halibut Treaty of 1923 with the United States was the first international agreement involving Canada that Britain did not also sign.

One of the defining moments in Canadian diplomacy came in 1956, when Lester B. Pearson, then the foreign affairs minister, famously organized the United Nations Emergency Force in response to the Suez Crisis in Egypt. This began the long tradition of Canada as a major participant in peacekeeping missions and established the domestic idea that Canada could be a moral force abroad.

An important element of Canadian foreign policy is the participation in international institutions such as the G7 and G20, which meet yearly, and NATO, which is Canada’s main military alliance. For a country without one of the largest economies or militaries, Canada plays an outsize role in international institutions, but this can change from prime minister to prime minister.

Trade and foreign aid are key parts of foreign policy – and, like diplomacy, are overseen by Global Affairs Canada. On the trade front, Canada has important bilateral agreements with countries around the world and a large free-trade agreement with the U.S. and Mexico as well as one with the European Union. When it comes to foreign aid, Canada spends about $6-billion annually, which is below the international benchmark of 0.7 per cent of the gross national income (GNI) – a target Canada has never hit.

Who’s in power can shape Canada’s actions abroad and their repercussions at home. We’ll run through some of Canada’s most important and contentious relationships with other countries and review what the party pledges are.


Canada’s relationship with the United States is one of the most important in the foreign file. The personal chemistry between the leaders of the U.S. and Canada can set the tone for the relationship: from Lyndon B. Johnson’s physical and verbal accosting of Pearson in the 1960s to the touted “bromance” between Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau, these relationships have run the gamut.

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More concrete than handshakes and private conversations is trade. The U.S. and Canada enjoy one of the largest trade relationships in the world; the U.S. is the recipient of 75 per cent of Canadian exports. With Mexico, the three countries established the North American free-trade agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 to create a free-trade zone and one of the world’s largest trade blocs. NAFTA lowered barriers to trade and investment between the three countries.

Donald Trump made renegotiating trade with Canada and Mexico a priority during his presidential campaign and shortly after taking office. On Canada’s behalf, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland led the negotiations, which began in May, 2017 and ended in a signed deal in November, 2018. This new agreement, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), includes requiring 75 per cent of automobile components to be manufactured in North America to qualify for tariff-free trade, and allows U.S. farmers access to the long-protected Canadian dairy market.

USMCA still requires ratification by legislatures in the U.S. and Canada before it will go into effect. Until then, NAFTA will remain in force. While Scheer has criticized Trudeau’s renegotiation of Canada’s trade relationship with its closest neighbours, he has not explicitly stated that a Conservative government would not ratify the deal.


With Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister, Canada’s relationship with China has gone from what Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called “the golden era of Canada-China relations” in 2017 (though it was a bit more complicated than that) to the worst state it has been in since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. How did we get to this place?

The decline has been well-documented. The spark that started the fire: Canada detained Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in late 2018 on behalf of U.S. investigators. Two Canadians were detained just two weeks later in apparent retaliation, and still have not been released; open criticism has flared up from both sides; Chinese tariffs escalated, putting Canadian exports such as pork, beef, canola oil and soybeans at risk. In addition, Canada launched a national-security analysis to minimize cyberthreats, including potential risks posed by Huawei.

Headlines aside, where do we stand now?

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In July, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Ottawa likely won’t make a decision on banning Huawei equipment until after the election. In terms of trade and business, a new paper from the Macdonald-Laurier Institute says that Canada should focus on redirecting their trade alliances, Canadian executives have been fearfully reconsidering business plans, and the overall atmosphere complicates Canada’s goal of pursuing a China-Canada free-trade deal.

In early September, Trudeau selected Dominic Barton, an international business consultant with close ties to the Liberal Party and China elite, as his new ambassador to China, filling a months-long vacancy left when John McCallum was fired.

Barton has frequently made flattering comments about Chinese leader Xi Jingping, and is said to believe in the importance of re-engaging with the Asian titan, but the relationship shows no signs of defrosting. China still blames the Trudeau government for souring relations, and just days after Barton’s appointment, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said, “Relations between China and Canada have encountered serious difficulties, and the responsibility lies entirely with the Canadian side.”

“[Barton’s] success as ambassador will depend, in part, on his ability to secure the release of [the two detained Canadians] and revitalize Canada’s trade ties with the world’s second-largest economy,” The Globe’s Nicolas Van Praet and David Parkison wrote a few weeks ago.

China holds significant international power, and Canada’s relationship with the country is in many ways a determinant of its financial well-being. As long as this diplomatic rupture continues, it will impact the experience of Canadian nationals abroad and the country’s overall prominence on the global stage.


Chrystia Freeland has emerged as almost a second-in-command in Trudeau’s government, a guiding force of Canada’s decision-making abroad and the country’s most internationally recognized foreign affairs minister since Pearson.

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The Globe’s foreign correspondents in the United States, Asia, Africa and Europe spoke to politicians, non-governmental activists and business figures about how they perceived Canadian foreign policy, and painted a detailed picture of Freeland and Canadian foreign policy under her tenure.

A quick refresher on Freeland’s résumé, from that article: “Her Canada is the one that tangled with Donald Trump’s White House over trade and came out relatively unscathed, and the one that won’t back down in its outsized support of Ukraine in its struggle with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It’s her Canada that led the rescue of Syria’s famed White Helmets and has become a beacon for women fleeing Saudi Arabia, as well as LGBTQ refugees from around the world.”

In their 2019 platform, the Liberals pitch “a principled approach to foreign policy.” In terms of foreign aid, they want to focus Canada’s international development assistance on the world’s most vulnerable and increase the dollar amount of their aid “every year towards 2030.”

Other promises include establishing a Canadian centre for peace, order and good government; ensuring the ethical use of new technology by aiding in the development of international protocols; and helping to settle as many as 250 human-rights advocates, journalists and humanitarian workers a year through a dedicated refugee stream.

They also want to use the expertise of the armed forces to help other countries prepare for climate-related disasters.


  • The leading pledge of Andrew Scheer’s foreign-policy plan is to cut foreign aid by 25 per cent, or $1.5-billion, and redirecting that money to fund priorities at home. The Conservatives say the reduction will come from middle– and upper-income countries and hostile regimes. Read The Globe editorial board’s take on Scheer’s plan and why the distinction of countries by income may be more complicated than it seems. Other promises on the foreign file include strengthening traditional alliances, such as those with the U.S., Britain and France, and providing more military support to Ukraine, part of which is occupied by Russia, as well as “depoliticizing” military procurement in order to better supply the armed forces.
  • The NDP platform on foreign policy includes commitments to supporting nuclear disarmament, more peacekeeping missions, participation in working toward a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and ensuring that Canadian-made weapons are not being used in human-rights abuses abroad. The party also pledges to meet the target of 0.7 per cent of GNI for international assistance, make greater contributions to The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and increase efforts to promote gender equality abroad. Jagmeet Singh’s party also commits to holding Canadian companies to a high standard of corporate social responsibility and taking a global leadership role on climate change.
  • The Green Party says it will re-establish the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), which was dismantled under Stephen Harper and its responsibilities wrapped into Global Affairs Canada, and distribute aid to countries that need it most, regardless of Canadian business interests. Elizabeth May’s party also pledges to meet the 0.7-per-cent threshold for international aid and increase national contributions to the Green Climate Fund and Global Environmental Facility to $4-billion per year by 2030.


Even small changes in international trade policy have repercussions that echo throughout local communities. Along the east coast, a hole created by Beijing’s retaliatory tariffs against the U.S. has meant huge gains for Canadian exporters of lobster. Halifax and Moncton are even seeing increased cargo planes fly in to handle the increased output of shellfish. As of June, this year’s value of Canada’s lobster exports was already due to pass the value for the entirety of last year.

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Bonus: Globe political reporters spotlighted 21 ridings from coast to coast that they were most interested in watching this election. Did your community make the list?

What do you think the foreign-policy debate is missing? Got opinions on China, Trump or trade? Write a comment or send us an e-mail at Include your name, age and city if you’re comfortable, and you could be featured in Thursday’s edition of Well-Versed.


  • Scheer promised this week to go after the “real criminals” if elected and bring in new five-year mandatory minimums for possession of smuggled guns and violent gang crime. He also pledged to create a task force to intercept illegal firearms at the Canada-U.S. border.
  • Alberta is so well-known as a reliably Conservative province that the parties have spent very little time jostling for seats there during this campaign, especially when compared with key battlegrounds such as Ontario and Quebec. That means the issues important to many Albertans – the Trans Mountain pipeline, the equalization program – haven’t been talked about much, either.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet called on Quebeckers to vote for candidates “who resemble you” during Wednesday’s French-language debate, prompting NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh to denounce the message as unacceptable and divisive. According to Globe political columnist Konrad Yakabuski, “the Bloc Québécois is back,” and it’s shaking up the battle for Quebec.

If you’re a Globe subscriber, be sure to also sign up for our regular Politics Briefing newsletter, written every weekday by deputy politics editor Chris Hannay. He will be ramping up his election coverage of all the big headlines and campaign trail news to keep you informed.

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