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OTTAWA — Canada’s international image soared with the election of Justin Trudeau in 2015, the young prime minister’s glowing brand helping Ottawa punch above its mid-sized weight in global power circles.
After the election of President Donald Trump, Trudeau was cast in — and readily accepted alongside Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron — the role of Trump’s foil.
Trudeau “became the hope of liberals globally,” but “expectations of him were sky-high, essentially setting him up to disappoint,” said Marietje Schaake, a member of the European Parliament from 2009 to this past July who is now at Stanford University.
Disappoint he did.
After a political career built on youthful charisma and the access and privilege that comes from being part of a political dynasty — Trudeau’s father Pierre was Canada’s prime minister during 16 years in the 60s, 70s and 80s — Trudeau’s tangles with Trump ensured that his political honeymoon was over. They tangled first over the NAFTA trade agreement, later on immigration, nationalism and defense spending, in ways that sometimes reinforced Trudeau’s appeal, but which also showed him to be just another prime minister coping with his big difficult neighbor.
In 2019 a more disturbing Trudeau track record emerged into public view: one of poor judgment, from a love of painting his face in racist makeup to seeking to shield a large Canadian company neck-deep in bribes from criminal charges.
Now, in the heat of Canada’s federal election campaign — early voting begins Friday — the question asked about Trudeau around the world is: does the emperor have clothes?
Was the world really into Trudeau: or is his good brand — tangled up as it is with Canada’s reputation on the global stage — disappearing like one of the fun memes it was based on?
As a member of the G-7 and G-20, Canada carries weight whoever leads it. But with one of the most recognizable and highly rated national brands, and with a campaign for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council underway, Canada also has a lot to lose.
Ultimately, Canada’s reputation is bigger than Trudeau. But Canadians care deeply about their national brand. Everything from real estate advertising to the political parties themselves are swathed in red and white, the national colors. In case anyone in Ottawa forgets where they live, they are permanently reminded that the answer is “Canada,” thanks to the official government brand logo appearing on every second building.
POLITICO tested perceptions of Canada with 20 current and former ministers, commissioners, diplomats and trade negotiators from Europe, the United States, Middle East and Australia. Most did not want to speak on-the-record, for fear of being seen interfering in Canada’s election process. A representative view of their opinions on Canada and Trudeau’s role on several key issues appears below.
We also asked for opinions about opposition leader Andrew Scheer. The most common reaction around the world: “Who?” It turns out that Scheer is not merely an unknown quantity in Washington, D.C. (despite holding dual Canada-U.S. citizenship), but in all of the forums Canada deals in, with the exception of the U.K.’s Conservative government.
Canada has long enjoyed a relatively squeaky-clean image when it comes to corruption. But while Ottawa is not alone in lecturing the developing world about transparency and governance, this year’s SNC-Lavalin scandal and Trudeau’s defensive response to it have underlined a big gap between its contributions to anti-corruption plans at global summits and its weak laws and enforcement at home, according to Transparency International.
Thanks to SNC-Lavalin, which was involved in a conspiracy to pay more than $160 million in bribes to the son of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi over a bridge project in Bangladesh, Canadian companies now make up around half of the 250 companies blacklisted by the World Bank.
The scandal has “put pressure on Canada in the multilateral processes,” said James Cohen, spokesperson for Transparency International, because it builds on “criticism by the OECD over lack of adherence to convention against bribery,” and compounds a money-laundering problem in Canada that TI has labeled snow-washing. “Canada plays an active role in global corruption because of lax anti-money laundering laws,” said Cohen.
Transparency advocates like Cohen say Canada can no longer “ride on the image being the friendly world’s neighbor.” Still, Nicole Valentinuzzi of the U.K. Institute for Government argues that the SNC-Lavalin scandal “hasn’t cut-through here in the U.K.,” and “will not knock Canada off its global good governance pedestal.”
The United Nations and international development
Trudeau’s polling numbers have been resilient in the wake of his blackface scandal (the big dip came earlier in 2019 after the resignation of his attorney general over the SNC-Lavalin scandal). But if there’s one place those pictures may come to haunt him, it’s at the United Nations, where Canada is seeking a non-permanent seat on the Security Council, and where most countries are dominated by non-Caucasian populations.
With the United Nations General Assembly taking place a week after the scandal broke, Trudeau didn’t show, and nor did any of his senior ministers, leaving the Canadian delegation effectively leaderless. Ambassador Marc-André Blanchard took the podium where Trump and other heads of state delivered speeches.
Canada’s competitors for a coveted non-permanent seat on the Security Council are Ireland and Norway, and they wiped the floor with Canada. Ireland sent its prime minister, foreign minister and treasurer to New York, and soon after announced an increase in development spending; Norway sent a team of five female leaders, stealing Trudeau’s feminist thunder.
(It’s worth remembering that Trudeau was thrust into the global limelight via a set of back-to-back international summits in the weeks after his election including G-20, Commonwealth and Paris climate summits — and he capitalized on the early attention with eye-catching decisions to resettle Syrian refugees no one else wanted and naming a gender-equal cabinet.)
While Andrew Scheer is scandal-free for now, his promise to cut Canada’s development aid by 25 percent contrasts sharply with the efforts of Canada’s competitors.
If you believe in free trade, you like Canada: and Trudeau has had a pretty good run. His high-point on trade came via his trade (later foreign) minister Chrystia Freeland, who inked a deal with the European Union after tortured negotiations beholden to European domestic politics. When signed in 2017, it was the biggest bilateral trade deal in history.
David Plunkett, Canada’s former ambassador to the EU, said that it takes sharp elbows and a keen sense of interests to get a trade deal done, something he credits both Canada’s main parties with: “Ultimately no-one is going to waste a lot of time and energy trying to work out a deal with a country just because they are nice guys. Life doesn’t work like that.”
According to Schaake, the former liberal MEP, who conducted shuttle diplomacy between various European and Canadian trade negotiating teams, it was Canada’s patience with the EU’s complicated governance systems that mattered most: “I am convinced the trade agreement would not have been concluded without Trudeau in office,” she said.
With the United States leaving the Paris climate accord, the remaining signatories can’t afford to lose Canada too. But staying in the agreement is no guarantee of success. While Canada’s official policy is a 30 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 (against a 2005 baseline), Climate Action Tracker predicts stable emissions by 2030 based on current policies.
“The image has worn off,” Reinhard Bütikofer, the co-leader of the European Greens party, said of Trudeau’s climate policies. That said, given Conservative skepticism of Trudeau’s carbon tax, it is unlikely that any future government would meet the goals, potentially putting at risk future trade deals, which will increasingly include green conditions.
Canada has nevertheless built up strong political capital from its role in the Paris agreement. When President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw, the European Union became desperate. It had the political will and the technology to address climate change, but with no U.S. support and Europe responsible for less than 10 percent of global emissions, the EU could not push China alone. The EU needed allies — and it turned to Canada.
Together, China, the EU and Canada worked together to act as the spine of the Paris agreement process, which has struggled to squeeze detailed plans from a majority of its 194 signatory governments. “Canada has been a central partner to the EU in our efforts to achieve comprehensive, balanced, effective results that are consistent with the spirit of Paris,” said Miguel Arias Caňete, the bloc’s climate and energy Commissioner.
Canada’s immigration system has helped to drive both the country’s population growth and a nearly uninterrupted economic boom over the past two decades, while making it a popular destination for skilled workers and refugees alike — and Trudeau has been a prime supporter of that system.
But it’s now under attack, and that has real ramifications for Canada’s image. While Trudeau supports lifting the net immigration intake to 350,000 per year, Conservative leader Scheer has wavered, and populist minor party leader Maxime Bernier openly attacks the immigration system.
Canada may have one way of masking the negative impact of being seen as less open to immigration: by highlighting some of the 300,000 Hong Kongers with Canadian citizenship returning to Canada, led by the high-profile activist and businessman Albert Cheng, in the wake of China’s attempts to further control the territory. (The South China Morning Post also reports a 30 percent rise in Hong Kongers seeking Canadian permanent residency.)
Additionally, Trudeau’s compassion-focused rhetoric on refugees — including its urging that other countries help shoulder the burden — has oversold the data, and generated backlash in some global quarters.
While Canada resettles more refugees than any other country, it does not rank in the top 20 of the World Bank’s per capita rankings for overall numbers of refugees received.
Zoltán Kovács, a Cabinet member in Hungary who serves as the government’s spokesperson, says the damage is not in the numbers but in Trudeau’s message: that the West should welcome asylum seekers, whether or not a given country is the first safe port of call.
Citing illegal immigration as “an immediate danger to national security all over the globe,” Kovács called the Trudeau approach “an unnecessary ideological burden on the relationship” between Hungary and Canada.
“We are always puzzled if a foreign government comes to our region trying to tell us what to do and how to behave. Our attitude is simple: we don’t come to Canada to tell Canadians how to live their lives,” Kovács said.
To Budapest’s fury, the foreign affairs committee of the Canadian Parliament invited Michael Ignatieff — Trudeau’s predecessor as Liberal leader — to give evidence about the state of rule of law in Hungary in April 2019.
Would Kovács welcome Scheer, from the same right-wing political family as Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán, as Canadian leader?
“We respect the will of the Canadian people. Hungary is not entitled to have an opinion on Canada’s domestic politics,” Kovács said.
What about the Commonwealth?
Brits joined in on the Trudeau-mania after his election in 2015, said Nicole Valentinuzzi, a Canadian who works as a spokesperson for the U.K.’s Institute for Government.
But the government-to-government relationship has produced warm words on the rules-based international order and trade — and little else.
Scheer, on the other hand, was "pro-Brexit before it was cool," and is seen by many U.K. Conservatives as a potential ally. As Speaker of the House in Canada, he got to know many U.K. Conservatives through inter-parliamentary links, and is on good terms with Boris Johnson and Chancellor Sajid Javid. But he’s unknown outside those circles, Valentinuzzi said.