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Canada’s New Trudeau Government Faces Old Policy Challenges

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is seen during a meet-and-greet with constituents at the Jarry Metro station in Montreal, Quebec, on the morning of Sept. 21, 2021.

This week’s Canadian election, returning Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to power with another minority government, has done little to shift the balance of power at home but has put sharper edges on several of the nation’s ongoing foreign policy debates.

At the forefront is the question of the next government’s approach to China, which, in the view of cybersecurity expert Marcus Kolga, played an unwelcome role in the campaign.

“Foreign disinformation and influence operations were an issue during the election,” said Kolga, who told VOA that the next Trudeau administration “needs to recognize the many foreign policy challenges and threats Canada faces from malign foreign regimes, like Russia, China and Iran.”

“In British Columbia, actors aligned with Beijing targeted incumbent [members of parliament], who have in the past been critical of the Chinese government’s mass human rights abuses,” Kolga said.

Kolga, who specializes in the use of disinformation, pointed to the case of Kenny Chiu, a Hong Kong-born MP who “was targeted by an anonymous disinformation campaign after he introduced legislation to curb the influence operations of malign foreign regimes, and ultimately lost his seat.”

FILE - Flags of Canada and China are on display during for a China-Canada economic and financial strategy dialogue in Beijing, Nov. 12, 2018.
FILE - Flags of Canada and China are on display during for a China-Canada economic and financial strategy dialogue in Beijing, Nov. 12, 2018.

Analyst Charles Burton at the Ottawa-based MacDonald-Laurier Institute, also sees China as a pre-eminent challenge for the new government.

He noted that the opposition Conservative Party’s campaign platform had called for a “closer alliance with the United States and likeminded democracies to meet the challenge of China's gross violations of the norms of diplomacy and trade that are successively undermining the post-war international rules-based order.”

Much on the minds of many Canadian analysts is the nation’s omission from AUKUS, the new security pact among the United States, Britain and Australia that was announced last week. Both Kolga and Burton see that as a Trudeau administration policy choice rather than a snub.

Also left out of last week’s announcement was New Zealand, which like Canada belongs with the other three to the so-called Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group. That country has already demanded that Australia’s promised nuclear-powered submarines not dock in its waters.

Nevertheless, Washington-based intelligence expert Graham Plaster sees prospects for future cooperation between Canada and the AUKUS trio.

“Trudeau has said AUKUS is focused on nuclear submarine technology, and therefore not relevant to Canada,” said Plaster, the CEO of The Intelligence Community Inc., a security consulting firm.

“But emerging technology for security will be one of the common themes of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance going forward, so Trudeau's move towards a more cohesive partnership with the Biden administration may include revisiting this platform position.”

For many Canadians, there are more urgent policy issues to be addressed that hit closer to home.

“Canada needs to get its act together and be the global climate leader it claims to be,” said Betsy MacDonald, who ran unsuccessfully for parliament on behalf of the left wing New Democratic Party in the Atlantic province of Nova Scotia.

“Drastically cutting our emissions must be a priority in the near term, and we’ll be fighting hard on this goal,” she said in an interview.

And for 38-year-old Michael Townsend, who describes himself as a “technologist, maker, and artist living in downtown Toronto,” the biggest issue is Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other “regimes with less-than-stellar human rights records.”

“I predict more of the same from our foreign policy,” Townsend said.

David Tetreau, who works in the oil and gas sector in the western province of Alberta, said he would like to see the next administration push for free trade arrangements with Commonwealth countries, especially Australia and New Zealand.

And unlike many prominent security experts, Tetreau hopes Trudeau will mend ties with China after a series of high profile spats between the two nations.

“Maybe make up with China a bit?” he said.