Stéphane Dion hasn’t been making too many friends lately.
In April, Canada’s foreign minister gave export permits for most of a $15-billion deal to ship combat vehicles to the human rights hotbed of Saudi Arabia, despite previously blaming the former Conservative government for tying his hands with the deal.
A few weeks ago he rejected a cross-party effort to get Canada to adopt an American-style Magnitsky Act to punish Russian human rights violators. Even though it was in his own party’s election platform last year, Dion said it was unnecessary and that it’d only further antagonize Russia, with whom the new government’s keen on a “reset.” His stance has earned him a lot of scorn from both home and abroad.
But Dion, a man best known in Canada for once leading his party to its worst defeat since 1867, actually has a few defenders, and they both popped their heads up last week.
One of them is Chris Westdal, a “a former Canadian ambassador to Russia and current chair of the board of Silver Bear Resources, a TSE-listed company building a silver mine in Yakutia, Russia” who took to the Globe and Mail’s opinion pages to say that “Magnitsky-style sanctions make no sense for Canada.”
So what did I think?
Our home and native land (или наш дом и родина?)
First, both of these guys make what I feel are some subtle little appeals to Canadian nationalism in their pieces that might be lost on the non-Canadian reader.
Canadian nationalism, in its most immature and narrow form, is an insecurity-driven quest to try to prove we’re different from Americans and that, therefore, any attempt to differentiate ourselves from Americans is a good thing.
Westdal doesn’t use this card much, though he does point out that “Canada is not the United States,” a truism every Canadian hears (or says) more than once in their life.
But it’s in response to Michael McFaul’s criticisms of Dion where Westdal throws it out on the table, saying that a Magnitsky act would be “a thoroughly U.S., one-size (ours)-fits-all perspective to a Canadian foreign policy issue.”
It’s a strange point – what’s so uniquely American about targeting Russian human right abusers? But to someone inclined to follow the we-gotta-be-different-from-the-Americans-in-every-way-eh train, this makes some sense. We need to do things our way, right? Even without any knowledge of whatever’s in question, saying “but this is how the Americans do it!” can get a reaction out of at least a few Canadians.
On the other hand, Paikin goes all-out face-painty Team Canada on us:
“There are two paths that Canadian grand strategy can walk over the decades to come: either we remain heavily dependent on the United States, or we gradually develop a sense of strategic promiscuity.”
Aside from the weird rhetorical flourishes of talking about our “grand strategy,” he has to know as well as I do that Canada will always remain “heavily dependent on the United States.” More than two-thirds of our exports go south of the border. It’s the largest bilateral trading relationship in the world, with upwards of $600 billion in trade across the border every year. Yeah, talk about “strategic promiscuity” (uh, OK?) all you want, but you can’t avoid the elephant that basically follows you around while you’re trying to score with the Russians.
But the way he brings multiculturalism into the argument really throws me.
For the uninitiated, “multiculturalism” is a word that carries a unique weight in Canada. Think of it less like the American melting pot and more like a patchwork quilt. Difference is to be celebrated, not discouraged. I’d say it’s something many of us cling to and believe in, even if we’re not always aware of it.
Apparently our multiculturalism can lead us to international glory, says Paikin:
“Multiculturalism is in our national essence. Within our borders, we bring people of many backgrounds together. If we decide that we wish to serve as a bridge between major global powers— that is, if we bring our multiculturalism into the international sphere—then we will develop the incentive to obtain the capabilities necessary to act in that capacity. If we work toward being significantly more populous and more fluently multilingual (among other assets), then we can be a first-tier builder of world order this century.”
Our country’s ability to be particularly good at bringing people of different backgrounds and cultures together (incidentally, a point I agree with) means we can be “a bridge between major global powers” like the US and Russia? This is going to help us “increase our global influence and contribute to international peace?”
Come on, dude. Really?
You really think guys like Putin and Sergei Lavrov are going to care what we have to say because we use our active listening skills, non-judgmental demeanours and unique Canadian-ness?
Using Canadian multiculturalism to justify closer relations with Russia is one of the strangest arguments I’ve heard in a long time.
Whose economic interest exactly?
If it’s in Canada’s economic interest to reset relations with Russia and reject a Magnitsky act, these guys can’t really explain why.
“We seek re-engagement with Russia…to try to do business – to invest, to trade, to make jobs,” Westdal tells us, before concluding that a Magnitsky act would hurt our economic interests in Russia. But as far as economic interests go, that’s it. Yes, I know you’ve got a word count in an op-ed to cope with, but still.
But at least Westdal (and the Globe and Mail) are upfront with his own economic interest in Russia. Remember, he’s the “current chair of the board of Silver Bear Resources, a TSE-listed company building a silver mine in Yakutia, Russia.” He’s also involved with Canada Eurasia Russia Business Association (CERBA), whose economic interests in Russia should be obvious. By the end of the article we still know more about Westdal’s personal economic interest in Russia than Canada’s.
That’s probably with good reason. Before sanctions resulting from Putin’s annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine, Canadian foreign investment in Russia was around C$5 billion, according to some guy from CERBA in 2014. That might sound impressive, but keep in mind Canadian firms had twice as much money invested in Peru last year. Yes, Peru, with about one-fifth the population of Russia.
But “re-engagement” with Russia might be in someone’s interests – Canadian transportation giant Bombardier.
Bombardier’s got a joint venture in Russia, a 50 percent stake in a Russian signaling equipment producer and, to top it off, a mention in the Panama Papers linking them to corruption in Russian Railways – whose onetime president Vladimir Yakunin once described Bombardier’s recently-resigned CEO, Pierre Beaudoin, as “family.”
Bombardier is one of the few big Canadian companies with an economic interest in Russia – and they’ve got the government’s ear:
“Records from the The Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying, show that Bombardier CEO, Pierre Beaudoin has met with senior government staff, including the PMO and Minister Dion, over 40 times since the October election – mostly since January.”
If there’s an overarching economic interest in rejecting Magnitsky and reengaging Russia, no one’s coming close to making the case.
What war? And what Ukraine?
This is where both these guys really lost me.
Remember, Canada has sanctions against Russia because of, uh, “everything” that’s gone on here in Ukraine – you know, that whole annexing-Crimea-and-sending-troops-into-eastern-Ukraine-but-pretending-we-didn’t thing. We don’t have sanctions against Russia because they, like, beat us at hockey or something. Putin did something that continues to deserve international condemnation, including from us.
But Westdal bothers mentioning Ukraine only once (my bold):
“We seek re-engagement with Russia not to be nice, but to serve major, compelling Canadian national security interests in Eurasia, the Middle East and far beyond. We do so to try to turn the rising tide of a new Cold War, to try to stop the ruinous tug of war for Ukraine.”
At least he mentions Ukraine, but “tug of war?” We’re not having gym class outside today, man.
I got to randomly stumble upon two soldiers’ funerals week on the Maidan over the past few weeks here. Four coffins in total with, thankfully, only one of them open casket. Seven Ukrainian soldiers were killed on Tuesday. Five more were killed today. We all know it’s Russian guns and bullets killing these men, delivered across an international border they don’t want OSCE monitors going near. If it’s a “tug of war,” only one side has to let go to end it.
To his credit, Westdal at least uses the words “Ukraine” and “war,” even if in one of them was in a bad pun. Paikin doesn’t even bother mentioning Ukraine or even use the word “war,” outside of the Sputnikesque “avoiding post-Cold War triumphalism and toning down the incessant demonization of Vladimir Putin” – language I’ve personally heard from people I don’t think Paikin would want to be associated with.
A short conclusion, unaided by any Jump to Conclusions mat
I don’t think these arguments are about to persuade many people – but if some of them are in Stéphane Dion’s circle (and Zach Paikin may well be someday, given that he tried to become Liberal party policy chief when he was just twenty years old), Vladimir Putin might just put us back on his friends list.