Canada’s International Altruism: Reconciling our Self-image with Reality

Madeline Rowland

The image of Canada as a global peacekeeper and champion of development is a salient part of our collective national consciousness. The formation of the (now-defunct) Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in 1968 secured the position of aid and development on the political agenda, at least for CIDA’s 45-year lifespan. Prime Ministers of the past have made significant and necessary contributions to the international community, with Lester B. Pearson winning a Nobel Peace Prize for his creation of neutral peace keeping forces and Pierre Elliott Trudeau committing 0.5 per cent of Canada’s Gross National Income (GNI) to aid spending.

Canadians, understandably, cling to this ‘golden era’ of Canadian aid and the laudable image it created for our country on the global stage. However, evidence that we can no longer lay claim to this image has been mounting for decades. As the Harper age draws to a close and the new Liberal majority government begins the task of governing, we, as a country, should take a moment to soberly consider our international track record in recent years. It’s time to reconcile our self-image with reality, and consider our next move.

First, we should consider Canada’s recent record on aid and development. In recent years, Canadian spending on aid has hovered around 0.3 per cent % of our GNI, which falls very short of the United Nations 0.7 per cent target. Not only has spending decreased, but the very institutions that dole out Canadian aid dollars have changed. In 2013, CIDA was amalgamated with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to form a new consolidated foreign ministry, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD). This merger caused critics to worry that aid and development would take a backseat to trade and diplomacy. Just two short years later, Justin Trudeau’s cabinet announcement has revealed further, if superficial, changes to the ministry. The DFATD acronym has been laid to rest, and Canada’s foreign ministry will now be known as ‘Global Affairs Canada’.  It is unclear whether the ministry’s mandate will be altered, but the Privy Council Office has stated that the name change was made to reflect the new government’s priorities.

Presumably, the place that aid and development occupy within Global Affairs Canada will be revealed over time, and Trudeau’s ‘sunny ways’ and doctrine of positivity are inspiring hope that they will not be ignored. However, Canadians who have been paying attention to our country’s development track record in recent years will likely retain a healthy degree of skepticism moving forward. Disturbing trends of development funding being tied to corporate, foreign policy and trade interests, as well as the Harper era’s devastating cuts to the aid program may be difficult to reverse.

The biggest challenge for our new Prime Minister will be carving out a long term space for aid and development on the national agenda, and ensuring that our aid dollars are given to those who need them most, instead of those who can do political or economic favours for Canada. A scenario in which aid is mutually beneficial may not be inherently bad, but it certainly does not align with Canada’s perception of itself as a purely altruistic donor.

Second, we should consider peacekeeping and Canada’s relationship with the United Nations. Canada has not contributed soldiers to a UN mission since 2001. This is not due to a decline in the UN’s peacekeeping presence; in fact, the current number of UN troops deployed all over the world is at an all time high of 92,000. In 1995, Canada was the 6th largest contributor to peacekeeping missions. Over the next 20 years, an array of factors caused us to fall drastically in the rankings to 62nd out of 126 countries. Perhaps this massive decline was due to Canada’s military engagement in Afghanistan in the mid-2000’s, and the massive amounts of resources this necessitated. Maybe public perceptions of peacekeeping were marred by the failure of the Balkan mission or by the horrific killing of civilians by Canadian peacekeepers in Somalia. Peacekeeping is certainly not a silver bullet for conflict resolution or the protection of civilians in precarious situations; perhaps the political will for channeling resources into it simply evaporated with the recognition of its complexity.

Canada must find substantive ways to reassert itself as a positive force on the international stage. This will not be an easy undertaking. Our new government has years of damage to undo, but the trends of aid erosion and passivity in the international community are not so entrenched that they cannot be undone by enough political will and public outcry. With Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau sworn into office and a Liberal majority government formed, there is hope that Canadians will finally have a government with the necessary political will to address these issues.

The Liberal party is pledging to renew Canada’s support for peacekeeping by investing in missions and providing specialized resources, like medical and engineering teams, where necessary. The party’s platform also promises to provide steady funding for aid initiatives, and to shift the national development strategy’s focus to the world’s poorest countries. A recently leaked transition memo also shows that senior public officials in Ottawa are urging the new administration to revive Canada’s commitment to development and the UN. All these changes indicate that the political tide may be turning. If the Liberal government can practice what they preach, Canadians can begin to lay claim to our beloved peace-making identity once more. Until then, we as a nation need to come to terms with who we are, instead of clinging to who we’ve been.


Madeline Rowland is a 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts in International Development and Political Economy from the University of Guelph. Her main areas of academic interest include social policy, the welfare state, urban issues, and international affairs. When she is not in the library, she can be found reading the news incessantly, watching Seinfeld reruns or eating donuts. 



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s