Does a change of ministers signal a new direction for Canada's foreign policy?

In this week’s Minority Report newsletter: Does Freeland's departure from Global Affairs signal a shift in foreign policy?

Newsletter: Everyone is focused on Freeland’s new role, but what about the ministry she leaves behind?

Liberal MPs Chrystia Freeland and Francois-Philippe Champagne arriving at Rideau Hall for the swearing in of cabinet in Ottawa, Wednesday November 20, 2019 (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

This article is part of CBC News' Minority Report newsletter, which is your weekly tip-sheet to help you navigate the parliamentary waters of a minority governmentSign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox every Sunday.

The unveiling of the federal cabinet this past week may not have unfolded with the same drama and Hollywood-level excitement that came with the presentation of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's first cabinet four years ago, but it did deliver the elements of a key storyline for this government: Chrystia Freeland's promotion to deputy prime minister from her previous posting in Global Affairs. 

But while the focus of that story is largely zeroed in on what she'll do in her new role, it got me thinking about what her successor in foreign affairs will do with the old one. 

Global Affairs got a new minister; François-Philippe Champagne. Freeland will continue to oversee the implementation of the revised NAFTA, but the rest of the international file — China, Saudi Arabia, the UN, trade deals — that's Champagne's turf. He's an international trade lawyer and favourite of the prime minister since his days as parliamentary secretary to the minister of finance. Champagne also served as minister of international trade and infrastructure in the last Parliament. But what will he do with this new role? 

"Canada is back" we were told at the outset of the Liberals' mandate in 2015. Even if you believe it to be true, you have to acknowledge the road "back" has been a bumpy one. Donald Trump's election and protectionist agenda set the world order upside down and Freeland spent much of her time in the portfolio dealing with the fallout. 

Aside from renegotiating NAFTA, the relationship with China went down the drain, and frictions with Saudi Arabia increased so much after that infamous tweet in the summer of 2018, that we no longer have an ambassador there. 

Francois-Philippe Champagne is embraced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after being sworn in as Minister of Foreign Affairs during the swearing in of the new cabinet at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Behind the scenes, people who work in this government tell me Champagne's appointment could serve as a reset of sorts, or at least there's potential it will be received that way by other countries. 

We got a signal of that last week, when a briefing note prepared by top bureaucrats was made public. The departmental review, from September, gave the green light for Canada to continue exporting military equipment to Saudi Arabia. 

International relations expert Bessma Momani said the document is telling.

It is, "... Perhaps, maybe, a signal to the Saudis that they want to move on," she said. "Maybe this is sort of a chance for the new Liberal government to, in fact, try and turn that page on these very finicky files." 

The sale of those light armoured vehicles to the Saudi regime was finicky and controversial from the start. Saudi Arabia has a terrible track record of human rights violations. About a year ago a UN investigation found that the Kingdom's crown prince and other senior officials bore responsibility for the brutal murder of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Canada responded by putting a halt on further exports of LAVs and committed to reviewing the deal. It's a contract worth billions and about 1,800 jobs in the vote-rich London, Ontario, area. There are said to be penalties for breaking the deal but how much those penalties are, has been shrouded in as much secrecy as the deal itself (hint: a lot).

Human rights groups like Amnesty International have asked the federal government to break the deal, not only because of the Kingdom's human rights track record, but more specifically, that record has raised questions about whether Canadian LAVs are being used in the war in Yemen (the foreign affairs briefing says they're not). 

A year later, cabinet still has to make a decision on the deal. We tried asking Freeland whether a decision was near during the election, but we never got a straight answer. Champagne takes the reins of that file now, as he has on many others.

China comes to mind right away as one such file that will almost certainly keep Champagne busy. For almost a year now Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been detained in apparent retaliation for the detention of Huawei's CEO here in Canada. Canola shipments from this country are still being blocked by the Chinese, though meat exports recently won a reprieve.

Champagne promised to raise those issues with his Chinese counterpart this weekend at the G20 meeting of foreign affairs ministers in Japan. 

There's been a lot of pressure on the federal government over the last year (before that too, but especially in the last year) to redefine its posture and policy towards China. There's even more pressure now, not just because of what's happening between our countries, but what is happening with China in Hong Kong and with the ongoing persecution of the Uighurs -- Beijing has faced international criticism for its treatment the Muslim minority in Xinjiang.

Suggested solutions are coming from two camps: take a harder line against China or attempt to make things 'better' again through improved diplomatic efforts, the latter being a variation of the John McCallum/Jean Chretien positions. 

There are reasons to consider both the latter and former. On the latter, Canada's dependence on the U.S. as an export market was the reason for our vulnerability in the recent NAFTA renegotiations. China is the biggest market to diversify toward, and there are many Canadian businesses with a vested interest in the economic alternatives China could provide.

On Friday China's new ambassador to Canada directly addressed the subject. 

"We do hope that those important people in the new cabinet will play an active role in making sure the relations of our two countries return to the normal track on the basis of mutual respect and equality," he told reporters. 

On the former - as I mentioned - it's hard to imagine what mutual respect can exist when two Canadians are going on now for a year of being arbitrarily detained and, like I said, there's also Hong Kong and the Uighurs.

But as with Saudi Arabia, a conversation about change has started. The Globe and Mail highlighted this week that Champagne praised China as a "beacon of stability" back in 2017. An aide of the new Chinese ambassador told me "we noticed". 

So the signs are there for at least somewhat of a revamp in the direction this country's foreign policy takes under the new minister. The jury's out on whether that's a good thing. 

This is just one part of the Minority Report newsletter. In this week's issue Éric Grenier looks at whether being named a minister gives you a better chance of being reelected . Plus, the Power Panel gives their advice on what the parties should be doing in the week ahead. To read all of that and more sign up for the newsletter here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox every Sunday.

The new Liberal minority cabinet pose for a family photo following their swearing in at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)


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