MONTREAL — When he took office in 2015, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised, among other things, to bring Canada back as a leader on the world’s stage.
“Canada is back,” he said after signing the Paris accord on climate change, in 2016. He addressed the last two United Nations General Assembly since then, but he changed his mind this year about giving another speech at the Assembly, even though Canada is seeking a seat in the Security Council for the 2021-2022 term.
This year, Trudeau was initially scheduled to speak on Friday, as a head of government, just as Theresa May, prime minister of Britain, and other government leaders were originally prepared to do. But that lineup was changed recently to have Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, speak for the country instead, on Saturday morning, Sept. 29.
In its goal to win a seat in the UN Security Council, however, Canada’s strategy remains curious for the General Assembly opening session, in which many world leaders, from across the continents, speak before the UN’s 193 members to promote their national interests. (Prime Minister May’s place in the lineup has shifted to Sept 25, the first day, when Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron of France and dozens of others are scheduled.)
Paul Heinbecker was ambassador to the UN when Canada last had a seat in the Security Council, in 2000-2001. Heinbecker, the current Distinguished Fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation in Canada, says Canada’s tone toward the UN has changed since Trudeau became prime minister, noting that the government “is more interested in the UN than its predecessor.”
Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada from 2006 to 2015, had expressed less enthusiasm about the world body. He tried to get a seat in the Council in 2010 but lost to Germany and Portugal.
Ever since Trudeau announced in 2016 that Canada would try again to win a seat in the Council, the country has been campaigning for the much-sought-after position. That activity will most likely be in the forefront when Trudeau attends the General Assembly session from Monday to Wednesday, although he is not in the official roster of government leaders to address the chamber.
His original slot, Friday evening, Sept. 28, according to the schedule issued by the UN this summer, was changed early this month to Sept. 29, with the notation of (M), for “minister” — Freeland. A Canadian government official said that the prime minister changed his mind because a Friday night spot wasn’t interesting enough for Trudeau to attend, while his office said he had too much work to do at home.
Christelle Chartrand, a spokeswoman for the Canadian mission to the UN, said, “This year, we get the best of both worlds as Prime Minister Trudeau will address leaders of the world on two occasions in the General Assembly and we will get a chance to showcase Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Chrystia Freeland, named Diplomat of the Year, to the United Nations General Assembly for the first time.”
Heinbecker said that heads of states often skip the General Assembly, which can be true; like last year, President Vladimir Putin of Russia isn’t coming this year, nor is Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, yet Trudeau will be at the UN. Trudeau’s father, Pierre, a prime minister of Canada, spoke only twice in 15 years at the annual General Assembly session.
Justin Trudeau will deliver remarks in the chamber during the Nelson Mandela peace summit meeting on Sept. 24, discussing girls’ education. It is unclear what his second appearance will be in the Assembly, as his office noted. It is unclear if Canada is participating in the Trump-led meeting on Monday morning on the global drug crisis. This is Trump’s first event at the General Assembly this year, and 113 countries, including Mexico — and Canada at the last minute — have signed on to the document related to the “Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem.” The document, which was non-negotiable, includes a commitment to develop national action plans on reducing demand, expanding treatment, cutting off supply and strengthening international cooperation.
Trudeau is also scheduled to speak on Sept. 25 at the Council on Foreign Relations, in New York.
If Canada had wanted a better position in the lineup for the main General Assembly session, one European diplomat said, “Canada has to find a country willing to swap spots with them and they could not, hence the Minister will speak.” The spokesman for the UN secretary-general, Stéphane Dujarric, said in an email, “Who speaks and when they speak is the primary responsibility of the member state.”
Last year, Trudeau used his speech at the UN — to much applause in the Assembly chamber — to describe Canada’s legacy in its treatment of First Nations people as a “great shame.” Trudeau’s remarks were made on a Thursday, last year, when important heads of state may have come and gone.
Yet Trudeau’s absence from the Assembly’s green-marble dais this year could pose problems for the country’s quest to join the Security Council. Since he became prime minister, Trudeau has committed more money in foreign aid than his predecessor and demonstrated more commitment to UN peacekeeping operations, namely to the mission in Mali, a Francophone nation. Canada has provided, after much hemming and hawing, two Chinook battlefield transport helicopters and four armed Griffon helicopters to the mission this summer. The helicopters come with 250 aircrew and soldiers for the one-year stay.
Canada has also restored its contribution to Unrwa, the UN’s refugee agency for Palestinians, and became the agency’s 11th-highest donor in 2017. (Under Harper, Canada stopped contributing to the agency in 2010, for its alleged ties with Hamas, which some countries label a terrorist group.) Canada is now the UN Refugee Agency’s 7th-highest donor. Canada is the fifth-largest contributor to the UN system, after after the United States, Germany, Britain and Japan.
Canada’s effort to join the Council will be tough: it must compete for one of two available seats with Norway and Ireland, all part of the UN’s Western European and Others Group. The two latter countries have been building support for their candidacies for years.
Trudeau has a lot on his plate at home, as the parliamentary sessions have just taken off and pressure is increasing for him to sign a deal on the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta. After Trudeau was baffled by Trump’s post-G7 Twitter criticism of him this summer — in which Trump called the prime minister “very dishonest & weak” — Trudeau’s strategy toward such future high-level meetings remains to be seen.
Much can change in both the Canadian and the American administrations before 2020, when Trudeau’s term will be on a ballot and Trump may run again. But one thing is sure, as
Heinbecker remembers it, Canada’s position vis-à-vis the US in the Security Council will be tricky: “For Canada, we’re an ally of the United States, but I’m not sure about the Americans,” he said.
This article was updated.
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.