Friday, May 01, 2009

Putting Canada back at the table in Foreign Affairs

Just attended a foreign policy session, "Canada and the World" featuring Liberal Foreign Affairs critic Bob Rae, MP Denis Coderre, former Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham and the President of Liberal International, Lord Alderdice from the U.K.

As for the mood in the room and observations...the room was packed. Arriving a few minutes in, tough to get a seat. Think this is a reflection of the popularity of this broader topic at the moment and the looming significant issues in the background for Canada, the mission in Afghanistan for example, which came up a number of times.

A theme of the session was the very real perception, as enunciated by Bob Rae, of Canada lagging in terms of the world's perception of us now under the Harper government. Rae mentioned it as a recurring theme that comes up in his discussions with foreign leaders: where is Canada, what's happening, where is the Canadian voice. Rae suggested this will be a big issue in the next election, he framed it as our foreign policy being hijacked by people with narrow view of our country, no understanding of role our country has played, that the world needs us to play that role. On questions like Darfur, for example, Sri Lanka, that we need to do it the way Mr. Pearson did it with the "UN emergency force," he cited the landmines treaty of Axworthy. Rae's attitude is very much, "we're going to do it" and we should not be waiting for others. Ahem, you know who (my observation). All of which underscores why we are big fans of Bob Rae around here. And why he received repeated bouts of strong applause, as did Bill Graham.

Also wanted to highlight a point Lord Alderdice made to the Liberal crowd which was warmly received. Pointing out the American change in government and how that has so quickly changed the perception of the U.S. in the world. Look to your next election with optimism for that reason, he encouraged. Would love to think that foreign affairs would figure prominently and hope they will. There are clear differences that can be drawn with this government, they are difficult, however, to make the subject of a popular appeal. But the notion that our government should be fighting for our citizens abroad, who have been abandoned by the Conservatives for political reasons, that's something that may resonate and I would certainly love to see.

Going to mention a few other points here in rapid fire...

Denis Coderre is quite fluent in foreign policy issues and played a prominent role in the session, more so than I thought he would, handling a number of questions. He was often frank, at one point, near the end of the session, a questioner asked about "two-tier" citizenry in Canada, expressing concern about the future for his kids. In a roundabout way, the Khadr situation arose and Coderre directly stated we must get him out of there. We need to bring back Khadr, Abdelrazik, not have a PM who scores points by dividing us, zero tolerance for fear mongering, need to bring back the Liberals.

Bob Rae asked at one point where has Stephen Harper been on nuclear proliferation, lack of remarks from the PM a glaring omission...

Betsy McGregor, former and future Liberal candidate in Peterborough made an impassioned statement on the plight of girls in Afghanistan, the incidents of acid being thrown in the face of young girls, trafficking of children & women...all of which was well-received.

There was a protester moment! Just one, shouted out about occupying Afghanistan, something about Haiti, a few other points I didn't fully hear. The speakers proceeded to address the substance of her pleas with Rae pointing out that we don't see it as an ideological or imperial exercise in Afghanistan, it's not about saying we want them to be just like us. It's about how can we, Canada, help Afghanistan become what they truly want to become.

Overall, a session that conveyed a definite enthusiasm for a reaffirmation of Canada taking a leadership role in foreign affairs.