A closer look at Canada's sometimes-tense foreign affairs

Ongoing tense relations with several major world powers have prompted Canadians to choose foreign affairs as the fifth most important issue heading into the election.

Foreign affairs is the fifth most important issue to Canadians ahead of the federal election

Canada's relations with some major foreign powers have Canadians concerned ahead of the election. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Given the news over the past year or two, it's not difficult to see why Canadians say their fifth greatest concern ahead of this federal election is foreign affairs.

Tensions between Canada and China have increased steadily since Canadian officials arrested Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in December.

Relations with Canada's strongest ally and biggest trade partner, the United States, have been on a veritable roller-coaster since the election of Donald Trump. 

And relations with Saudi Arabia soured after the foreign affairs minister tweeted about human rights in the kingdom. 


Meng Wanzhou isn't charged with a crime in Canada but that hasn't stopped Beijing from escalating a diplomatic standoff with Ottawa, taking what appears to be retaliatory action.

A judge in the Eastern District of New York issued a warrant for Meng's arrest in August 2018. She was detained at Vancouver's airport in December 2018 on a provisional arrest warrant, under the terms of an extradition treaty between Canada and the United States. 

According to an indictment unsealed in January, Meng and Huawei face 13 criminal counts of conspiracy, fraud and obstruction in the U.S. related to an alleged scheme to circumvent sanctions against Iran.

The extradition case is slowly making its way through the courts. 

Soon after her arrest, China detained two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, in a move widely seen as retaliation for Meng's arrest.

Michael Spavor, left, and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, are in Chinese custody, both having been charged with spying.
Businessman Michael Spavor, left, and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, right, were taken into custody in China earlier this year, allegedly for national security reasons. (The Associated Press/International Crisis Group/The Canadian Press)

China also stopped buying large quantities of Canadian canola, blocked meat imports and tightened up screening of Canadian imports. 

In early September, the federal government named a new ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, an international business consultant. Roland Paris, a professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa, said he sees the appointment as a positive signal that a frosty diplomatic relationship may be thawing. 

Canada-China economy

In early September, the deputy governor of the Bank of Canada told a business audience in Halifax that the Canadian economy is operating close to full potential, with low unemployment and inflation right on the central bank's target.

But Lawrence Schembri also sounded a note of caution: "The data show some areas of concern. Among these is the weakness in consumption … and, of course, we are concerned about the drop in business investment, which is likely linked to ongoing trade war and related uncertainty."

While China shut the door on Canadian canola in March, wheat sales are strong.

"Canada's share of total Chinese imports of wheat has rocketed above 60 per cent in 2018-19, up from 32 per cent in 2017-18," reports the latest edition of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Canada Grain and Feed Bulletin. 

Many Canadian canola farmers also plant wheat, though farmers say the boom in wheat is not enough to make up for the losses from not being able to sell their canola to China.

Farah Omran, a policy analyst with the C.D. Howe Institute, an economic think-tank, admits Canadians are in a time of uncertainty. And even just seeing negative headlines and hearing gloomy predictions about the global economy can cause Canadian consumers to ease up on spending in anticipation of an economic downturn. 


The best way to describe relations between Canada and the U.S. since Donald Trump took office is hot and cold, up and down — and entirely unpredictable. 

Since his election in 2016, Trump has called Justin Trudeau everything from "a very good guy" to "very dishonest and weak" after he left a G7 meeting in Quebec in June 2018.

Canada weathered a long, sometimes stormy renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which often had investors and markets feeling shaky and pessimistic. And the process threatened to hurt the economies of all three countries.

At one point, Trump took personal aim at Canada's top negotiator, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, saying the U.S. "didn't like" her very much. The U.S. ambassador quickly came to Freeland's defence

The three countries signed the new trade deal at the end of November 2018 — but that didn't mean all was peaceful on the U.S.-Canada trade front. 

In June 2018, the United States slapped new tariffs on Canada: 25 per cent on imports of steel and 10 per cent on aluminum, citing national security. Canada retaliated with tariffs on U.S. steel, aluminum and other consumer products.

After months of tense talks and refusal by Canada to ratify the new trade deal unless the tariffs were dropped, the U.S. agreed to lift them nearly a year later

Canada-Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador and froze all new trade and investment with Canada in August 2018 in an apparent reaction to a tweet by Global Affairs Canada. 

The foreign affairs minister herself had tweeted in a similar vein months earlier, with little to no reaction. 

Still, Saudi Arabia accused Canada of meddling in its domestic affairs. In addition to freezing trade, it also ordered all Saudi students studying in Canada to return home, though thousands remain in the country.

Tensions grew higher two months later, after the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, as Canada joined the international community in condemning Saudi Arabia. 

Freeland has repeatedly called for an independent international investigation to bring Khashoggi's killers to justice. Canada also imposed sanctions on 17 Saudis linked to the killing, freezing their assets and barring them from entering the country.

There has been little in the way of repairing relations in the months since.