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No ‘real change’: Trudeau’s militaristic approach to the Middle East

Liberals have veered dramatically away from promises of more progressive foreign policy

Canadian PoliticsMiddle EastWar Zones

Canadian soldiers from mark a pick-up zone for helicopters to extract them after moving through the hills to search for Al Queda and Taliban fighters north of Qualat, Afghanistan. Photo by Robert Hyatt/Flickr.

Justin Trudeau’s government came to power in 2015 after a long election campaign during which the Liberal Party promised “real change” following a decade of rule by the Stephen Harper-led Conservative Party of Canada. In his first speech following his victory, Trudeau declared to the world that “Canada is back,” indicating that we would become a more “compassionate and constructive voice in the world.”

The change in government to a youthful and energetic Trudeau seemed to offer hope to communities and groups who had suffered from deliberate political targeting and exclusion by Harper and his partisan cabinet, including environmental scientists, human rights organizations, progressive charities, as well as Muslim and Arab communities.

Throughout the Liberal platform and surrounding the 2015 election campaign, Trudeau indicated that there would be a major shift in Canada’s foreign policy, particularly towards the Middle East. While in opposition, Trudeau had demanded an inquiry into the complicity of the Canadian military in torturing detainees in Afghanistan. During the election campaign, his chief adviser, Gerald Butts, even inferred that Harper’s direct sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia was unprincipled and akin to supporting the Islamic State.

Once elected, the Liberal’s new Foreign Minister, Stéphane Dion, declared that going forward, Canada would take a more “balanced” stance towards Israel and the Palestinians, after ten years of unilaterally siding with the former even while it was massacring civilians. The Liberals also promised to reopen diplomatic relations with Iran in order to de-escalate tensions and provide easier consular access to travelling Iranian Canadians. They also pledged to end Canada’s combat mission in Iraq, and committed more troops to United Nations peacekeeping missions around the world.

Despite these noble promises, what the Trudeau government has actually done while in power stands in direct contradiction to its stated aims in the region, and resembles little more than a rhetorical counterpoint to the Harper years.

Afghanistan

Canada’s complicity in the torture of Afghan detainees was a highly visible human rights and political issue, especially in 2009 when the Liberals attempted to topple the Harper government for rejecting a public inquiry into the emerging allegations of abuse. Trudeau himself stood in parliament in 2010 and chastised the Conservatives for “avoid[ing] difficult questions on how much the government allowed to happen around the torture of Afghan citizens.” Many hoped that, if elected, Trudeau would open an investigation into the torture allegations in collaboration with Canadian military personnel, and at the very least put measures in place to stop it.

Once in power, however, Trudeau took the opposite position, rejecting calls from opposition parties to face “difficult questions” through a public inquiry. As Canada entered its eighteenth year of military presence in Afghanistan, a UN report released in 2019 indicated that a whopping 77 percent of detainees were “providing credible and reliable accounts of being subjected to the most brutal forms of torture or illtreatment,” and subsequent reports maintained that torture was widespread.

Still, under Trudeau, Canadian complicity in these war crimes has not been taken seriously. At the time of writing, an investigation into allegations of war crimes committed by the United States and the Taliban in Afghanistan has been opened by the International Criminal Court, which could also examine Canadian actions and negligence vis-à-vis the torture of detainees.

Soldiers from the Reconnaissance Squadron, 1st Battalion, the Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group, during a dismounted patrol in the Panjwa’i District of Kandahar Province. Photo by Shilo Adamson.

Iran

In 2015, the Liberals campaigned on repeated promises to Canada’s sizeable Iranian-Canadian community that diplomatic relations with Iran, which had been severed under Harper, would resume. This was well received, as many had family in Iran and were facing considerable challenges, particularly after Canada suspended diplomatic relations with Iran and expelled Iranian diplomats from the country in 2012. The Iranian community responded by volunteering widely for and donating to the Liberal Party to restore their ability to travel safely and visit family.

After the 2015 federal election, however, the Trudeau government dragged its feet on the issue in spite of a successful denuclearization deal negotiated by the Obama administration which resulted in the lifting of sanctions on Iran. Close to 16,000 Canadians signed a parliamentary petition asking the government to keep its word. But the Liberals broke their promise to re-establish relations by backing a Tory motion to end diplomatic talks with Iran. Interviews conducted with MPs revealed that the vote was encouraged by lobbying undertaken by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), a prominent pro-Israel organization, and by former Liberal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, currently Canada’s special envoy on anti-Semitism.

Iraq

While the Liberals pledged to end Canada’s “combat role” in Iraq, roughly 500 Canadian Forces personnel remain on the ground as part of the anti-ISIS Operation Impact and to command NATO’s mission in the country. Canada’s military mission in Iraq began in 2014, but just last year, Iraq’s parliament unanimously passed a resolution demanding foreign troops leave their country, and a reported 250,000 Iraqis marched in the streets calling for the same.

Despite this, Canada has made no plans to leave and signs indicate Canadian personnel will simply take the lead from the United States on whether to remain there indefinitely—in opposition to the desires of the Iraqi people.

More disturbingly, the Trudeau government is now facing calls for an independent inquiry following “allegations the military failed to respond to a complaint three years ago that Iraqi forces being trained by Canadian troops had committed war crimes.” The Canadian Press reports that, when Canadian soldiers raised the issue with their commanders, they were told to ignore the videos and “carry on.” In March 2021, the federal government announced it was extending the Iraq mission for another year.

Israel-Palestine

Elsewhere, there have been minor changes to Harper’s policies (returning some funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and changing one symbolic vote at the UN on Palestinian self-determination), but under Trudeau, Canada has maintained its staunch support for the State of Israel—no matter the extent of its violence or continued expropriation of Palestinian land.

In 2019, the Liberals modernized a trade deal that encourages illegal Israeli settlements to flourish, sold military equipment used to uphold the occupation, and opposed an International Criminal Court investigation into Israel’s human rights abuses.

Trudeau has also continued Harper’s war on Canada-Palestine solidarity networks, repeatedly condemned the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, scolded students for protesting the presence of Israeli soldiers on Canadian university campuses, and unilaterally adopted the flawed IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism (which has been opposed by countless academics, civil liberties groups, and municipal governments because of its chilling effect on free speech and political expression).

It’s no wonder Trudeau’s actions towards Palestinians have been described as “Harper-era policy on autopilot.”

Peacekeeping

Canadians have long held a perception of their country as a “peacekeeping nation.” A monument to Canadian participation in UN peacekeeping missions was even erected in Ottawa in 1992, complete with a quote from former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson.

Indeed, Trudeau’s 2015 electoral platform admonished Harper for not committing to peacekeeping and pledged to recommit to supporting international peace operations with the UN. However, since his election, Trudeau has totally abandoned the promise to re-engage and assigned even fewer troops to UN peacekeeping missions than the Harper government.

Instead of leading the world in providing peacekeeping forces, in 2017 Canada pledged to increase its own military spending by 70 percent and concurrently has become a world leader in weapons exports to the Middle East.

Canadian Forces LAV 25 Coyote and LAV III Vehicles seen at Patrol Base Marianne in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Canadian Forces Combat Camera.

Saudi Arabia and Yemen

The sale of billions of dollars of military equipment to Saudi Arabia has been condemned repeatedly by Canadian human rights advocates, civil society groups, and academics. Since Trudeau had campaigned on a “feminist foreign policy” predicated on peacekeeping and compassion, arming the Saudi dictatorship to the teeth while it waged a brutal and deadly war on neighbouring Yemen seemed contradictory in the extreme.

The Liberals attempted to deflect responsibility for selling the weapons in various ways: claiming they were “considering” cancelling the deal, blaming the previous government for “tying their hands” (the Trudeau government had in fact given the final approval following the 2015 election) and even claiming that the sale was not concerning because, in the words of UN Ambassador Bob Rae, the weaponized military vehicles sold to the kingdom were only “jeeps.”

Ultimately, as Trudeau implicitly extolled the benefits of his record arms sales to Saudi Arabia (such as more jobs and avoiding the billions in potential penalties for cancelling the contract), the people of Yemen continued to suffer the consequences of Canada’s complicity. Now widely deemed the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world, over 20,000 civilians have been killed and four million people displaced. A UN report has even cited Canada as one of the parties responsible for perpetuating the war. This is in stark contrast with the Biden administration which announced it would end “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.”

Trudeau has not lived up to his promise of “real change” or a shift away from the militaristic policies of his predecessor. Instead, he has embedded a more insidious phenomenon, one dubbed the “Trudeau formula” by Canadian journalist Martin Lukacs. It is defined by grand virtue-signalling rhetoric that helps dissuade social movements from leading more aggressive challenges to government actions even when those actions represent a destructive and unjust maintenance of the status quo.

While Harper made his loyalties to imperial and corporate interests in the region obvious, Trudeau has endeavoured to keep his contracts with arms manufacturers “more discreet.” When critical questions are raised by activists, the prime minister typically attempts to placate Canadians with more symbolic gestures or progressive rhetoric. This was evidenced in 2019 when Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel Jubeir, responded to a statement by Trudeau that his government was looking to extricate itself from the arms deal agreement, saying such remarks were only for “domestic consumption.” He didn’t expand on his comments, but they spoke volumes.

Trudeau has not faced a total absence of strong civil opposition to these policies. Some civil society groups mounted a highly effective campaign to oppose Canada’s bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council because of its atrocious record of complicity in human rights abuses against Palestinians. Canada’s UN representatives scrambled to mitigate the impact of the campaign, but the bid was lost and Canada ultimately received fewer votes than the Harper government had during its failed attempt in 2010. Another group of Canadian activists also made international headlines for its powerful attempt to block Canadian weapons shipments to Saudia Arabia. In spite of these actions, the Trudeau government has not changed course in any meaningful way.

The Liberals continue to espouse a “feminist foreign policy,” but in practice they preside over a patriarchal, militaristic, and violent approach to the Middle East—all while leaning on the assumption that they will not be scrutinized as forcefully as an unabashed right wing government. This is to say nothing of the impact of these policies on Arabs and Muslims within and outside of Canada. In the wake of a mass shooting of Muslims in Québec City in 2017 and the very recent murder of a Muslim family in London, it is worthwhile to question whether Canada’s imperialist foreign policy across the region is influencing a rise in Islamophobic attitudes at home.

Indeed, if these policies continue, it signals that the world assuredly does not “need more Canada,” but less of it.

Omar Burgan is a researcher based out of Ottawa, the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people.

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