Rethinking Canada’s place in the world

Questions & Answers
Former Canadian prime minister Joe Clark is involved with McGill's Institute for the Study of International Development (Photo: Michelle Valberg)

Former Canadian prime minister Joe Clark is involved with McGill’s Institute for the Study of International Development (Photo: Michelle Valberg)

Former prime minister Joe Clark has been taking stock of Canada’s role on the world stage and he isn’t comfortable with what he has seen. One of Canada’s longest serving ministers of foreign affairs (between 1984 and 1991), Clark has published a new book, How We Lead: Canada in a Century of Change, which argues the case for a change in direction. A professor of practice for public-private sector partnerships at McGill’s Institute for the Study of International Development, Clark recently discussed the book with McGill News contributor Jake Brennan, BA’97.

You are a member of the advisory board for McGill’s Institute for the Study of International Development (ISID). What do you think the strengths of that particular institute are, and what role can such institutes play?

I should have known, but I didn’t, how well-known McGill is in the rest of the world — more than any other Canadian university.

And, of course, one of the great assets of McGill and of ISID is the convening power of Montreal. People want to come here. That means we can draw people, and thus have conversations in Canada, that we might not otherwise.

ISID now has the capacity to be much more engaged in research and can attract a wider range of people than it had before. It is also setting up executive courses, the most recent one in Ghana, on corporate social responsibility. That’s a brand new field and they have had a great deal of interest. I have taught at a couple of them. And there is a session every year on parliamentary democracy, and I am part of that.

International development is one of the elements of soft power that you have criticized the Harper government for moving away from. Why do you think Harper’s Conservatives have altered Canada’s international profile to one of a tougher trade and military-based foreign policy?

It is partly that he is appealing to his base, but people forget that this was quite a young party when it became a government and it did not really inherit most of the more positive traditions of my party, which was merged into it. Certainly, I remember — and I made this point in the book — that on the question of [Canada's opposition to apatheid], that was such a key point to Mr. Mulroney and myself, because we considered it part of our legacy established by Mr. Diefenbaker. There is no sense of legacy [today], so that’s part of it.

The other part is that this is a government of people who were essentially outsiders and I think they regard diplomacy as an insider’s profession and are consequently suspicious and uneasy with it. They are not natural multilateralists, to understate the case. And domestically, too: there hasn’t been a first ministers’ conference in a long time.

They came into office against two backgrounds. One: our military had been underfunded when they came to office. They properly wanted to restore a balance. Secondly, I think they are naturally more inclined to hard power manifestations. That’s why [we had] the preoccupation with the war of 1812 while we were downplaying our role, for example, in peacekeeping.

When the Cold War ended, we replaced an arms race with a trade race — there was a much greater emphasis on trade, more attention was paid to the economy, national debt, and high finance in Canada and other developed countries.  Is the shift in this country that out of line with that in other countries?

No. In terms of a focus on fiscal responsibility, that clearly became a preoccupation in the nineties and beyond. But the United Kingdom, for example, a government with somewhat similar orientation in terms of priorities to ours — it certainly follows a traditional economic focus and is active militarily — has also maintained its international development very strongly and with virility. One doesn’t necessarily exclude the other.

Prime Minister Harper has announced that he is not going to the Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka, citing human rights concerns there. What do you make of that decision?

[The Harper government] has a very interesting view of political principle: they think it is enough to state it, and state it emphatically. But the real value of countries of principle is they get into the fray, they try to change things on the ground. The British, with the Commonwealth conference, are an example of doing that. And that has been the Canadian tradition for a long, long time — we have stayed engaged.

In the book, you say that Canada is the world’s most successful society at managing and respecting differences.  Are you worried about the Quebec Charter of Values?

I am quite worried [about the Charter.] First of all, the identity of Quebec was a legitimate issue in the sixties, through the Lévesque and other eras. But a lot of that change has been accomplished. There is now a sense of Quebec as a distinct society, confidence in the French language, all of those kinds of things. There has also been within the PQ itself this remarkable determination to try to reach beyond the pur laine and bring in people who came from everywhere and who wanted to be identified as Quebeckers. The Charter seems quite inconsistent with that determination.

Beyond creating tensions within Quebec and between Quebec and the rest of the country, it will raise questions in the rest of the world.

I should say, I know the federal government has indicated it will undertake a review of the constitutionality of these things, which I think is a good thing to do. I think that a rational debate would yield a rational result.

Canada just earned a Lifetime Unachievement Award at the Warsaw climate talks. We’ve been named “Fossil of the Year” five times in a row by an international coalition of environmental groups for our perceived inaction on climate change. What impact has the current government’s approach to environmental issues had on how we are seen in the world?

The federal government made a very big mistake in the approach it took to international environmental conferences and we could be paying a very heavy price on the Keystone pipeline. The repeated Fossil of the Year Award ingrained among people who take the environment seriously a sense of apprehension about the government of Canada. That’s going to be very hard for us to overcome, I think. Particularly if it’s a close vote and the president has to consider all of his potential constituents. But that’s not a talk about a pipeline. That is a conversation about the consequences of our actions.

There is another factor on the environment. We are more subject to the consequences of climate change than most other countries. They are huge, and when we had a positive attitude towards these things, that gave us room to explain [our positions]. The Maurice Strong legacy – dare I say, the Brian Mulroney legacy – created that kind of latitude, which we’ve squandered now. It’s an indication of what not to do internationally. We can make some very reasonable arguments about the unusual challenges faced by a country with winter and huge geography. If our reputation is positive, people will argue with us, but may say at the end of the day, ‘Okay, you are committed to principle here. We understand these problems.’ Otherwise, they won’t.

You see the world evolving beyond the dominance of superpowers. Do you believe the U.S. will continue to decline and China will continue to rise in power and importance in this century?

I think the U.S. is, in fact, the most resilient of societies, and I think that it will overcome a lot of its problems. The regime in China has been highly authoritarian. That is sometimes valuable in getting things done quickly, but it will make it an increasingly difficult society to manage. I think they will both be very influential. I don’t think there will be superpowers anymore, which is why leading from beside is very important.



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7 Responses to “Rethinking Canada’s place in the world”
  1. Heinz Gasser says:

    I liked this article, because I was not aware a former prime minister could be so critical of our conservative government led by Mr Harper. It sounds good for the future of our country. Hope Mr Harper listens to Mr Clark’s opinion.


  2. J. Robert Roy says:

    We need to bring back Progressive Conservatism, this spoken by a Liberal.

  3. Norman Lazare says:

    If only the Harper Government would embrace Kyoto and agree to transfer huge sums of money from Canadian taxpayers to the Swiss Bank accounts of Third World despots in the name of the anthropogenic global warming scam,Joe Clark could be at peace with his environment on so many levels.This interview helps to explain why he, himself, ran a hapless government.

  4. Mr. Clark is a great Canadian statesman. I hope his book causes all of us to reflect on a time when Canadian politics was somewhat more principled and outward-looking, and our politicians more dignified.

    J. Wright

  5. Roland Nogue says:

    Always a man of reasoned dialogue, often misunderstood when in office, we would do well to listen to this former Prime Minister.

  6. Robert Beard says:

    This man lives in the past and refuses to accept that the federal Progressive Conservatives failed as conservatives. Joe Clark is one of the people who is personally responsible for the creation of the Reform Party, by his actions or inactions. This led to the vote splitting on the right which allowed the Liberals to rule supreme and do their damage to Canada. It was only when he finally left the political scene that the two right wing parties amalgamated to take back control of Canada. Joe Clark acted like a poltergeist, in that he haunted us due to his perceived injustice of the defeat of his nine month government through a carelessly allowed motion of no confidence. You failed miserably Joe, get over it and stop bashing those who have succeeded.

  7. Arif Shahabuddin, BA 1999 says:

    Imagine just how much trouble Canada would be in politically and economically if Jean Chretien had not shown backbone with respect to the Bush-era American demands For Canada to join the Iraq fiasco? Chretien pissed off the Americans but saved the country years of grief. I have no doubt that Harper (out of conviction) and I daresay Paul Martin (out of acquiescence) would have given the Americans whatever they wanted. Canada would have been bankrupt and prostrate today, but for Chretien. The Harper government and the current Conservative Party is no good for Canada. It would be good to have a Liberal Party that could get its act together. It would be good to have a Conservative Party (e.g. Progressive-Conservatives) that represents Canadian values. Joe Clark is admired by those of us in the States who are aware of his accomplishments and intelligence. I would insist that the Conservative Party pay heed to this great Canadian.