The dawn of ‘real change’ in Canada

Tomorrow morning in chilly Ottawa, the Canadian capital, a new era of “real change” is poised to begin when 43-year-old Justin Trudeau takes the oath of office to become the country’s 23rd prime minister. In doing so, he will be following in the footsteps of his late illustrious father Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who was a great friend of the English-speaking Caribbean,
and a personal friend of our late Prime Minister The Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow.

Justin Trudeau
Justin Trudeau

Campaigning on a platform to bring “real change” to Canada, which resonated across the population but especially captured the imagination of young people, Mr Trudeau carried the Liberal Party, which his father previously led with distinction, to a comfortable victory in last month’s federal election to defeat the Conservative government of outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Given the Liberals’ mantra of “real change”, there are naturally high expectations of the incoming administration –– after ten years of Conservative rule that left a feeling among Canadians the country had somehow lost its way, especially what it traditionally had stood for, because of the economic and foreign policy stances of the Harper government. The Liberals’ “real change” agenda is about people-centred policies supporting growth of the middle class and an end to tax breaks that favoured the wealthy under the Conservatives. It is also about supporting families, giving young people an effective voice in government, building a strong economy, promoting a clean environment. It is also about fair, honest and open government, among other things.

The optimism among Canadians that better days lie ahead is also grounded, no doubt, in the nostalgia of the “Trudeaumania” era of the 1970s. Then under the charismatic leadership of the first Trudeau who enjoyed an almost rock star-type adulation, Canada prospered domestically and gained much respect internationally because of its principled stand on many global issues.

The current optimism, however, needs to be tempered. The change of government is occurring against the backdrop of a slowing Canadian economy that escaped almost unscathed from the ravages of the latest global recession. Promised change, therefore, is unlikely to be as swift as the population may be expecting.

From a Caribbean perspective, it will be interesting to see what will be the approach of the second Trudeau who, like his father, is no stranger to Barbados. At least, an improvement in the bilateral relationship is expected.

During the tenure of the first Trudeau, Canada was very generous in supporting the development of the region. Indeed, within the context of its foreign policy back then, Canada spoke of having a “special relationship” with the Commonwealth Caribbean. Major Canadian investment flowed into the region and played a pivotal role in the development of the fledging tourism sector.

Generous amounts of Canadian aid also supported the building of vital infrastructure, including the airport and seaport. The Commonwealth Caribbean at the time was the highest per capita recipient of Canadian aid in the world.

Under initiatives like the Canada Training Awards Project (CTAP), many Caribbean nationals benefited from scholarships to attend Canadian universities and other institutions of higher learning to acquire skills that were needed to support the region’s development.

It is unlikely that such generosity will return, given the fact that the world of the second decade of the 21st century is a fundamentally different place from the 1970s and 1980s. What Caribbean countries are likely to get from Ottawa is a more sympathetic hearing. However, our governments must be more effective in their lobbying to get results. They must also be mindful that international relations today are pretty much based on reciprocity.

As no public explanation of the decision was ever given, it seems the Caribbean missed out on a recent opportunity to reciprocate in the case of Canada when the regional airline LIAT was replacing its fleet. Despite the fact that LIAT had successfully flown Canadian-built Dash-8 100 and 300 series aircraft for more than 20 years, it opted for French-made ATR aircraft, even though there is a new version of the Dash-8 –– the Q400 –– which is somewhat comparable to the ATR 72-600.

France’s relations with the Commonwealth Caribbean do not come close to Canada’s. In this age of “you scratch my back and I will scratch yours”, decisions like these often matter in relationships among countries.

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