Canada, We Can Do Better

I am here at 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 has 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. Moments ago the world’s leaders agreed and signed into effect the 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 floor of the United Nations is packed, people like Bill Gates and Mark Zucherberg of Facebook fame are here. Young activists like Mulala Yusafzai, a Nobel Peace Prize winner are here. Celebrities are blogging and geniuses such as Stephen Hawking are publicly imploring the world to pay attention. More than 160 heads of state and government from all corners of the globe are here. The media is here in droves. The city is locked down around the U.N. with the tightest security it has seen.  Diplomatic convoys race around importantly with sirens blaring and helicopters are seen overhead. There are police and ridiculously obvious undercover security agents everywhere while bus drivers complain about the traffic delays. All of this hoopla is about a global effort to make the world a better place.  It is about addressing the potential of our species not just to survive but prosper and to “leave no one behind”.  Proudly, Canadian civil society leaders are also here.  Our Canadian youth delegation is representing us from coast to coast to coast, meeting with officials, participating in discussions and expressing their aspirations. They are in the main United Nations building as I write 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 here in New York.

So is 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 just released a Sustainable Development Goals report entitled “Keeping Score” that examines each of the seventeen goals and how Canada has been addressing them, what our potential is and giving specific 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 recent leadership on subjects like maternal and newborn child health but also points out where we have slipped on the international stage with climate change or addressing poverty at home and abroad. Unfortunately the general trend in Canada is that we have backed away from international leadership and cooperation.  Once known for our peacekeeping, our open arms with refugees and our environmental leadership at meetings like this, today we are not even on the map. Instead it is the Pope and the G77 who seem to be leading 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 Canada to collectively realize there are refugees who need our help and the world is watching. Germany is offering to shelter 800 thousand, Turkey over a million; Canada has taken in 2374 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 shaming us in the international press.   Of the ten thousand peacekeepers that contribute to keeping our world safe right now only fifty-six are Canadian; hardly a leadership position, especially after shutting down our peacekeeping training centre two years ago. Of the four lonely countries that were opposed to the rights of indigenous peoples, which underscores the Global Goals, Canada was the only one that voted against this twice and the only UN member not to support it.   Not only do we oppose forward movement at climate change discussions we have consistently not met our global commitments.  Countries like the United Kingdom recently reached the agreed upon global target for development assistance  (0.7% GDI).  They 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 been cutting back our generosity to an all time low, which now stands at a paltry 0.24% of gross national income.  This is despite 94% of Canadians stating in a recent poll that they are in favour of this kind of international cooperation.  Ironically, Canadians believe we are generous and cooperative. It is as much a part of our national identity as hockey, but both the international community and the facts point 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 talks or cutting contributions toward assisting in the fight to end poverty the undeniable trend has been noticed by others. If we keep score it is hard not to feel we are losing.  Our Canadian pride is taking a hit.

Today we find ourselves in the middle of an election. This is the reason we are told our Prime Minister is not in New York with other Heads of State and leaders. Each of the parties will discuss international issues soon during the Munk Debates and it remains to be seen how they think we will cooperate globally in the future? What will our 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 has been oriented toward our role in the world during this election.  Few, if any, of our potential leaders have commented on the Global Goals. None, as of the time of writing this have been vocal or present on the Global Goals through media releases.  Not even today’s events have stirred up a response. That is a major oversight and an indication of how isolated we are in the arena of international politics right now.  Even the CBC, normally proud to cover international issues, seems to have dropped the ball. Perhaps this is what happens when we cut the CBC budget forcing as much as 25% in staff layoffs.  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 here in New York. It is hard to ignore the fame the Pope is getting for paying attention to the plight of our world.  Right now the top stories around the globe are about what he said here in New York on this momentous occasion.  The speaker of the United States Congress resigned today citing inspiration from the Pope’s visit.  Things are happening here in New York…the world is paying attention here even if we are not.  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. 

Written by Michael Simpson in New York, September 25th 2015

Executive Director, BC Council for International Cooperation

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