We can do better, Canada | Embassy News

Published in Embassy News: Wednesday, 10/07/2015 12:00 am EDT

Our leadership on maternal and newborn child health is laudable, but we have slipped on addressing climate change and poverty at home and abroad.


Last month I travelled to the United Nations in New York with Kareen Wong, our communications officer at the British Columbia Council for International Cooperation, along with seven other passionate youth from across Canada.

The Pope had just finished making an impassioned speech recognizing that the environment has “rights” and that we need to step up to the plate on the major issues of the world, from refugees and poverty to the environment. The world’s leaders agreed and signed into effect seventeen global goals to guide us until 2030.

It is an agenda described in the document as belonging to the last generation that can “save the planet,” and it is not short on ambition.

The UN floor was packed. People like philanthropist Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame were there. Young activists, like Malala Yousafzai, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, were there. Celebrities were blogging, and geniuses such as Stephen Hawking were publicly imploring the world to pay attention.

More than 160 heads of state and government from all corners of the globe were there. The media was there in droves. The city was locked down around the UN. Diplomatic convoys raced around importantly with sirens blaring, and helicopters could be seen overhead. There were police and ridiculously-obvious undercover security agents everywhere.

All this hoopla was about a global effort to make the world a better place. It was about addressing the potential of our species not just to survive but to prosper and “leave no one behind.”

Proudly, Canadian civil society leaders were also there. Our Canadian youth delegation represented us from coast to coast to coast, meeting with officials, participating in discussions and expressing our aspirations. They were in the main United Nations building as I wrote this, attending the special sessions and plenary discussions on how to make this agenda work. Trying, in their own way, to participate in the international ethos and agenda that is building in New York.

So was it a proud moment for Canada? Yes and no.

We can be proud of our civil society efforts and our consistent messages that align with the global agenda. In British Columbia, for example we released a Sustainable Development Goals report entitled Keeping Score that examines each of the seventeen Global Goals and made recommendations on issues such as “universality” that will require us to address challenges in Canada as well as abroad.

The report glows about Canada’s leadership on maternal and newborn child health, but also points out where we have slipped on the international stage in terms of addressing climate change and poverty at home and abroad.

Unfortunately, the general trend in Canada is that we have backed away from international leadership and co-operation. Once known for our peacekeeping, our open arms towards refugees and our environmental leadership at meetings like this, today we are not even on the agenda. Instead it is the Pope and the G77 that seem to lead the way. It is not however, that we are not missed.

Indeed, it took the tragic picture of a dead three-year old refugee named Alan Kurdi lying lifeless on a beach for Canadians to collectively realize there are refugees who need our help. Germany is offering to shelter 800,000, Turkey over a million; Canada has taken in 2,374 since January 2014, yet we still live with the impression we are leaders.

Like cold water on our face, the international community has been blunt about our performance and shamed us in the international press.

Canada’s contribution of 18 troops, 85 police officers and nine military observers in 2015 is hardly a leadership position, especially after shutting down our peacekeeping training centre a couple of years ago. Of the four lonely countries opposed to the rights of indigenous peoples, underscoring the Global Goals, Canada was the only one that voted against the indigenous goal twice—and the only UN member not to support it.

Not only do we oppose forward movement at climate change discussions, we have consistently failed to meet our global commitments. The United Kingdom recently reached the agreed-upon global target for development assistance at 0.7 per cent of GDI. Britons are duly proud of this.

Countries like Norway and Sweden reached this target years ago and now exceed it with a strong sense of global solidarity. Canada, on the other hand, has continued to cut back our generosity to an all-time low, a paltry 0.24 per cent. This is despite 94 per cent of Canadians stating in a recent poll that they favour this kind of international co-operation.

Ironically, Canadians believe we are generous and co-operative. It is as much a part of our national identity as hockey, but both the international community and the facts point in another direction.

Whether it is not showing up at the United Nations, shutting down our peacekeeping centre, not pulling our weight on the refugee situation, dragging our heels at international climate talks or cutting contributions toward assisting the fight to end world poverty, the trend has been noticed by others. If we keep score it is hard not to feel we are losing.

Today we find ourselves in the midst of a federal election. This is the reason we are told our prime minister was not in New York with other heads of state and leaders. So what will Canada’s role be toward realizing the global goals? Will this generation actually save the planet when it comes to climate change?

So far, the Canadian silence on these questions has been deafening. Very little media coverage or debate, apart from the Munk leaders’ debate, is oriented toward our role in the world.

Few candidates have commented on the global goals. None have been vocal or active on the subject through media releases. That is a major oversight and an indication of how isolated we are in the arena of international politics right now.

It is hard to pay attention to what is going on in the world, and Canada’s place in it, when there is nobody to cover the stories. But it is hard, too, to ignore the international fuss in New York. It is hard to ignore the fame Pope Francis is getting for paying attention to the plight of our world.

We are bound to either wake up in Canada or be woken up. Indeed, not only can we do better, we must do better. Hopefully events here in New York will nudge us in the right direction.

Michael Simpson is Executive Director of the British Columbia Council for International Cooperation. editor@embassynews.ca
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