Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s management of Canada’s foreign policy has been widely criticized in recent months—particularly after the embarrassing loss of its seat on the UN Security Council in October 2010. Yet, having recently secured a comfortable parliamentary majority in Canada’s May 2 elections, Mr. Harper and his Conservative Party colleagues appear poised to take a more assertive stance on global affairs.
The first substantial indicator of this departure from its foreign policy status-quo was Canada’s June 14 announcement that the Harper administration had formally decided to side with the Libyan rebel forces instead of the embattled Qadhafi government.
As part of an “enhanced engagement strategy,” Canada has chosen to recognize the National Transitional Council of Libya (NTC) as the “legitimate representative of the Libyan people going forward,” said newly appointed Foreign Minister John Baird in an announcement to the House of Commons. Baird also promised that he would meet NTC representatives in their stronghold city of Benghazi (a promise he fulfilled on Monday) and that Canada’s response against Colonel Muammar Qadhafi’s regime would be robust.
“After three months of energetic diplomatic, military and humanitarian engagement, the world’s resolve to protect the civilians of Libya against attacks and threats of attacks from the Qadhafi regime has not faded,” Baird continued in his address. “It is gaining momentum. But our work is far from over. And so we must look at doing more in terms of humanitarian aid. We must continue our military assault on Qadhafi’s command and control centers.”
Calling for a “full and impartial investigation,” Baird also said he was disgusted by reports that the Libyan regime was using torture and sexual violence against the Libyan population.
Mr. Baird’s nomination to lead the foreign ministry came as a surprise when it was announced. Known as the “pit bull” of Parliament due to his scrappy and aggressive tone, Baird replaced then-Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon, who was defeated in the Conservative Party’s parliamentary sweep in May. Thus far, Baird has been deft in addressing difficult questions during the daily question-and-answer sessions in Parliament and appears to be sticking to his promise to “fight hard for what I believe in.”
Canada’s recognition of the NTC certainly reflects Baird’s position, as has his endorsement of a 90-day extension of Canada’s participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led military campaign in Libya. And Parliament appears to agree with the Harper administration position—with the only dissenting voice coming from Member of Parliament Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party.
With Canadian forces retreating from Afghanistan in July, the Libyan conflict now tops Canada’s foreign affairs agenda. Last year’s humiliating defeat at the United Nations Security Council was a blow to Canada’s international standing. It now seems Harper is taking steps to turn things around.
*Huguette Young is an AQ Online contributing blogger based in Ottawa, Canada.