These are messy days in world affairs. Now, some say Canada has egg on its face

It's messy days in world affairs. Now Canada has egg on its face. Ottawa has drawn a deluge of international criticism in its second foreign-affairs crisis in a week.

Ottawa draws deluge of international criticism in its second foreign-affairs crisis in a week

A man in ceremonial robes stands with his head bowed in front of an ornate chair. There is a Canadian flag to his right.
Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota rises in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Monday. Rota says he is deeply sorry that he has offended many people by praising a member of a Nazi unit as a Ukrainian war hero. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

A warning to any Canadian thin-skinned about seeing the nation being portrayed in a negative light: There is no safe haven, right now, on international news sites.

Not after the veteran of a Nazi unit being celebrated in the House of Commons snowballed into a major global news story.

It was among the top-read stories on some foreign news sites, carried by the BBC, The GuardianNBCABCFox NewsCNNThe Washington PostThe New York TimesPolitico and countless others.

It led the morning newsletter of the conservative National Review, which noted Canada is already smack in the middle of that other international incident, involving India.

"For once, the Canadian government, our neighbors to the North, are actually outpacing us in political insanity and intrigue," said the U.S. publication.

That claim is deeply debatable, but the piece does make the serious point that Canada has now twice placed allies in a tough spot, most recently by unwittingly creating propaganda for Russia.

Russia Today, for example, had no less than four headlines about the Nazi-related debacle on its homepage and also promoted the story in other languages, including Spanish.

WATCH | Nazi debacle 'deeply embarrassing': 

Standing ovation for Ukrainian who served in Nazi unit 'deeply embarrassing,' Trudeau says

3 months ago
Duration 0:50
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Speaker Anthony Rota 'acknowledged his mistake' in inviting a Ukrainian who served in a Nazi unit to the House of Commons. Trudeau says he wants parliamentarians to refocus on standing against Russian propaganda and disinformation.

(Unsurprisingly, the Indian media were also all over it, with headlines carrying the words "slammed," "appalling," "red-faced" and "embarrassment.")

But National Review also expressed more sympathy in Ottawa's feud with New Delhi, saying its alleged act — the murder of a Canadian on Canadian soil — is unacceptable, no matter how important India is to the U.S.

'Flapping in the wind'

Events of the last week fulfil a prediction made two decades ago in a major review of Canada's foreign policy.

The study under the Paul Martin government argued, in summary, that the world was about to get a lot more complicated, with new powers challenging the U.S.-led order, and that Canada had better up its game.

It obviously didn't predict China's hostage diplomacy, or Saudi Arabia's cutting off of relations for five years, let alone the latest crises involving Russia and India.

Canadian PM Justin Trudeau and Indian PM Narendra Modi
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, walks past Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Raj Ghat, Mahatma Gandhi's cremation site, during the G20 Summit in New Delhi, on Sept. 10. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

It did not predict Canada losing votes, for the first time in its history, then the second, for a seat on the UN Security Council (losing to Germany and Portugal in 2010, then more recently to Norway and Ireland).

But the crises of recent days crystallize its key argument: We're entering choppier international waters and navigating them will take new diplomatic skill.

"A lot of our foreign policy is a rhetorical exercise aimed at domestic political gain," said David Carment, director of the School of Canadian Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa.

"We're like a flag flapping in the wind. At the mercy of other countries."

There is no simple solution, but Carment suggests three possible paths forward: more investment in diplomacy, less emphasis on domestic politics in foreign affairs, and maintaining independent positions, with or without U.S. backing.

That last point raises its own challenges. 

A man and woman hug tightly at the bottom of an airplane's ramp.
Former diplomat Michael Kovrig embraces his wife Vina Nadjibulla following his arrival on a air force jet after his release from detention in China, at Toronto's Pearson International Airport on Sept. 25, 2021. (Cpl. Justin Dreimanis/DND-MDN Canada/Reuters)

Roland Paris, a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, notes that Canada at least got supportive-sounding statements from the U.S. in the crisis with India. It's not clear what would happen under a future American administration.

He describes this as a third era in Canada's foreign policy. In the first half of its history, its closest ally, the U.K., was the world's leading superpower; in the second half the U.S. held and relished that role.

"Canada has long been sheltered from the rough and tumble of the brutal world of geopolitical competition," said Paris.

"No longer. And so we have to face the reality that Canada and Canadian citizens are more susceptible to these outside forces than they have been before."

What new risks might the country face?

An ongoing U.S. criminal case offers the hint of one possibility — that countries on poor terms with the U.S. might use Canada as a punching bag.

The indictment of six people accused of trying to force U.S. citizens to return to China, includes references to Canada.

One of them, a New York businessman, is alleged to have told his target, on behalf of Beijing, of the potential risks to him and his family unless he returned to China.

He also allegedly advised his target to meet some senior Chinese officials in Toronto.

Why? Because, according to the indictment, he said they'd rather meet him there, on Canadian soil, than in the U.S. 

The implication being that while Beijing was content to issue threats in the U.S. through a middleman, it was less willing to have its own, high-ranking people cross that same legal line. If laws were to be broken, anything rough and tumble, they'd rather do it in Canada. 

There are many differences in these latest controversies, and at least one key similarity. The dispute with India is a question of who is at fault, while with this latest debacle there can be no doubt. 

One case involves a recent death. The other, historic atrocities.

One is fuelled by outrage. The latest? Embarrassment.

And that's where the similarities begin. Because just as the government and opposition lined up, more or less, alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he levelled his accusation against India, so were both sides of the aisle singing together during question period on Monday, when they collectively referred — approximately two dozen times — to the Ukraine incident as an embarrassment. 


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.