Opinion Column

If 'Canada is back', let's start doing things

Terry Glavin

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks and gestures at a town hall meeting held at the University of Calgary campus in Calgary on January 24, 2017. The town hall was held during a party retreat in Calgary over the past two days. (Jim Wells/Postmedia Network)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks and gestures at a town hall meeting held at the University of Calgary campus in Calgary on January 24, 2017. The town hall was held during a party retreat in Calgary over the past two days. (Jim Wells/Postmedia Network)

"Canada is back, my friends," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau famously declared at the Paris climate summit in November 2015, just weeks after having routed Stephen Harper's Conservatives. "We're here to help."

As things have turned out, Canada is indeed back, and we're helping the UN meet its lofty obligations where it really matters, with pretty much the same gusto as Canadian governments have always managed to muster.

Which really isn't all that much.

By 2014, in the final throes of the five-year spending freeze, Canada's foreign aid spending had shrunk to about 0.24 per cent of gross national income. By last week, when the Liberal government unveiled its $650-million International Women's Day foreign aid reorientation to the purpose of sexual and reproductive health rights, it was almost a footnote that Canada's overall foreign aid spending was 0.26 per cent of gross national income.

Trudeau's Liberals were back doing what Harper's Conservatives had done with their Muskoka Initiative, a $3.5-billion initiative aimed at reducing infant mortality and improving maternal health.

That's a good thing, although a downside to Harper's approach was that he tended to pay for these sorts of things from unallocated foreign aid funds. And, surprise, surprise, Trudeau's International Women's Day pledge will be financed from "unallocated funds."

The difference is mostly about tone, and at the moment it's mostly because Trudeau's youthfully exuberant brand is so radically different from the fusty-accountant image that Harper projected.

The key thing that determines Canada's place in the world is not Canada, but the world, and the world is suddenly a more dangerous place than it was during the early years of Harper's Conservative majority government. The Syrian catastrophe -- a damning testament to the United Nations' irrelevance, the Obama administration's retreat from the world and Vladimir Putin's chokehold on the UN Security Council, quickly erupted into the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.

The "world stage" has become even more of a bedlam.

But last November's elevation of the populist demagogue-weirdo Donald Trump to the office of president of the United States has not left only Americans reeling in a polarized dystopia.

The nation state formerly known as "the world's last great superpower" is rapidly losing any influence in global affairs. The State Department is looking at cuts of up to 37 per cent of its budget and all its foreign aid budgets. Departmental accountants have been told to find ways to lop off 50 per cent of American contributions to key UN programs.

This couldn't be happening at a worse possible moment. "Now, more than 20 million people across four countries face starvation and famine," the UN's humanitarian chief, Stephen O'Brien, said last week.

Without global leadership and immediate international co-ordination, "people will simply starve to death and many more will suffer and die from disease."

The worst crises, apart from Syria, are now unfolding in Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Nigeria.

Said O'Brien: "We need $4.4 billion by July." And there's no telling where the money is going to come from.

If Canada is back, whatever that might mean, and if Canada is here to help, then we're going to have to do a great deal more than anyone in the Liberals, the Conservatives or the New Democrats imagined that we'd need to.

It's time Canada started actually helping.

Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.