Costs for Canada's UN Security Council bid keep mounting

The vote to send a new country to the Security Council table at the United Nations is creeping up, and so is Canada's spending to secure a seat around that table.

Canada is facing off against Ireland and Norway for a rotating seat at the table

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the United Nations General Assembly, at UN headquarters in New York. Canada is in contention for a seat on the Security Council in 2021. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

The vote to send a new country to the Security Council table at the United Nations is creeping up, and so is Canada's spending to secure a seat around that table.

Canada has been campaigning for one of the rotating slots on the UN Security Council for three years. There's one year left until that 2021 spot is decided, and the spending isn't slowing down. 

Documents obtained by CBC News under Access to Information law show the government has ramped up spending as the clock ticks down. Since 2016, $1.5 million has been spent on the campaign — $1 million in the last 10 months alone. 

The papers released include inquiries to the ministry from MPs about gifts to foreign dignitaries during Canada's pursuit of the Security Council seat. The replies revealed that there is no set budget for these gifts. Precise details on who received gifts were not provided due to privacy reasons, but the presents included everything from key chains to wild Sockeye smoked salmon.

Canadian officials have made dozens of trips for this campaign, and at least $1 million in additional money was spent in the 2016-2017 fiscal year on salaries for 11 government employees in Ottawa and New York dedicated to the bid full-time. Data was not provided for other years.

'Canada has a role to play'

Marc-Andre Blanchard, Canada's ambassador to the UN, says the money was already allocated to Global Affairs Canada in previous federal budgets. He expects the spending in this final year of the campaign to mirror the trajectory of what's been invested so far.

"What I'm saying to Canadians is it's in the interest of Canada to act, and in the interest of Canadians to be relevant as much as we can in this world," he said.

"Canada has a role to play at that table that will actually reflect incredibly positively on Canadians and Canada. And this is why it's worthwhile."

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The Security Council has 15 members.  Five are permanent representatives — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — and 10 non-permanent seats are chosen in rotating elections.

Canada has held a seat in almost every decade since the UN was founded after the Second World War, with the exception of losing a bid under the Harper government in 2010 and a previous failed attempt in 1946.

The spending still falls far below the $10 million spent to win the country's last successful bid in 1998. 

In comparison, Sweden spent $4 million on salaries, envoys and receptions in the last two years of its campaign and Australia reportedly spent just under $25 million when it won in 2012. 

No plan, no seat

Even though costs haven't hit that level, not everyone is pleased with the way Canada has approached this task. 

"We've not yet seen any articulated vision of why we actually want to get the seat," David Perry, a vice-president at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said. 

He pointed out that having a clear objective the government could point to — like a better engagement strategy for Asia — would paint a more transparent picture for Canadians and UN members.

Perry added that it's not a matter of throwing money at the campaign: The visibility of the prime minister and foreign affairs minister can be just as valuable as a dollar figure.

"It's tough simply because we haven't articulated a view of why they should vote for us."

Blanchard rejected the idea that Canada hasn't been clear with its objectives. He raised five points that Canada's security council tenure would focus on: Sustaining peace, promoting women, climate change, economic security and promoting multilateralism.

Canada has used past Security Council positions to fight apartheid in South Africa and limit the trade of blood diamonds.

Countries on the council also take turns chairing meetings and setting topics for discussion. It's that prospect that excites Blanchard. 

"You're the one who decides what to put on the agenda of the world for that period."

But Canada isn't a shoo-in for the upcoming seat.

Up against Ireland and Norway

Some have criticized the government for failing to provide more peacekeepers or to extend Canada's commitment to UN missions like the one in Mali. 

Canada was also in the hot seat as the prime minister defended his decision to ink a $15-billion deal to supply light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia in spite of its well-known human rights violations. 

Competitors Ireland and Norway both have records that may be hard to beat. 

Norway is the world's most generous foreign aid contributor, giving over one per cent of its gross domestic product to help developing countries. Canada gives about 0.26 per cent of GDP.

And while Canada has recently returned peacekeepers to the field, Ireland has double the number of blue helmets and an unbroken record of missions dating back to 1958. 

Trudeau poses for a photo as he speaks with members of the Canadian Armed Forces personnel serving on the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Gao, Mali, on Dec. 22, 2018. Canada could be criticized for not extending its role in Mali. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Perry says the world wouldn't miss out on much if Canada didn't win the vote, as the other two candidates are fairly like-minded.

"It literally puts you on a hot seat if there's a major issue and a confrontation," he explained, while acknowledging there are benefits to sitting around the table. 

"It would make it far more difficult for Canada to not express an opinion of some kind on an issue that might be uncomfortable for us, but it certainly does give you a potential to weigh in on issues that not being there doesn't afford you."

The competition is steep, but Blanchard won't speculate on Canada's chances at a successful bid. 

"The results are always surprising and so they're very difficult to predict. And so I will not make any prediction on this," he laughed.

Members will cast their votes by secret ballot next June, so Canada's fate will already be decided before it learns if all the investment has paid off.

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