What does Canada’s new Liberal government mean to the Middle East?
Ottawa - Canada’s Liberal Party will return to lead the country after winning the October 19th federal elections, ending the nine-year reign of Conservatives. The Liberals won a surprise majority, taking 184 seats in the House of Commons out of 338.
Justin Trudeau, the son of the charismatic former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, is to be sworn in as Canada’s new prime minister on November 4th. Trudeau carried his party to a historic victory by promoting what he called “positive politics”, declaring Canada’s shift from conservatism to liberalism.
This move signals a new era of the nation’s foreign policy, specifically towards the Middle East and the Arab world. During the campaign, the Liberals promised to change Canada’s foreign policy and international presence. Now that they have gained the leadership, the Liberals will need to focus on implementing promises made during the campaigns.
When the image of the 3-year-old Syrian boy who died in the Mediterranean horrified the world, the Canadian public called on the government to respond. During the campaign, the Liberals promised to transport 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015, if elected to power. Trudeau assured the country that he planned to deliver on his promise.
“That’s something we’re getting cracking on right away,” Trudeau answered when asked October 24th about the refugee commitment in an interview with CTV. “I know this is a surprise to certain people within the political universe but the commitments I made in that platform, I’m going to keep.”
“It’s a good thing that the new government hasn’t forgotten about this promise,” said Aditya Rao, a law school student and organiser of Ottawa’s Refugees Welcome, an activist group that has rallied in Canada’s capital to raise awareness and pressure the government to bring in refugees.
“The challenge will be actually making it happen,” he added. “They’ve been elected on that mandate.” Critics, however, are sceptical of whether Trudeau’s fulfilling the pledge for Syrian refugees is feasible. Under the Conservative Party, Canada took in 2,300 Syrians over three years as of September, despite a commitment to accept 10,000. While he was a member of parliament, Trudeau demanded that the Conservatives expedite the processing of Syrian refugees.
Trudeau’s plans for refugee resettlement have gained the support of many Canadians, including the Syrian-Canadian community.
During his campaign, Trudeau expressed support for sending Canadian military planes with immigration officials to airlift Syrian refugees out of the Middle East. Canada conducted a similar mission in 1979, transporting Vietnamese refugees to Canada.
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, Canada has contributed more than $700 million to Syrian aid efforts. The Liberals said they would spend $100 million more to provide humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees in the region.
The Liberals also plan to end Canada’s role in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). One day after his victory speech, Trudeau notified US President Barack Obama that Canada would terminate its participation in the US-led coalition against ISIS.
The Royal Canadian Air Force has six CF-18 fighter jets participating in the bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. Canadian air jets have conducted more than 180 air strikes in Iraq and Syria.
Trudeau stated, however, that the country is not evading the fight against ISIS but rather is committing to “engage in a responsible way”. He has not indicated when or how the withdrawal would happen.
Bessma Momani, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and an associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, says that it is a politically “smart” move by the Liberals to distinguish their foreign policy from the Conservatives. She says ending Canada’s minor contribution of six jets to the bombing campaign would not “disturb the [US-led] coalition”.
Momani, however, says that complete disengagement from the fight against ISIS could result in unfavourable outcomes. “We don’t want to give the military combat completely to the Americans to decide how they want to do it,” she said, adding that she wants to see “a Canadian perspective involved in the decision-making about what air strikes are hit and why”.
Momani noted that Canadian input in the coalition bombing is important as it could decrease the possibility of having civilian casualties.
“We [Canadians] are much more cautious,” said Momani. “No one wants to see a loose bombing campaign.”
Canada also has special forces stationed in northern Iraq with a mission to train Kurdish peshmerga fighters. Trudeau vowed to keep the trainers in place. The Liberals plan for Canada’s contribution in the region to be training local fighters and increase humanitarian support.