Canadian Foreign Relations

Through its history, Canada has taken a series of increasingly bold steps to develop from a British colony into an independent nation. Both the world wars were turning points, with Canada's military sacrifices giving it the strength and confidence to demand its own voice on the world stage. In the postwar era, Canada has maintained its role in both Western and global alliances. However, relations with the United States – because of its singular importance to Canadian security and trade – have dominated Canada's foreign policy since Confederation.
Through its history, Canada has taken a series of increasingly bold steps to develop from a British colony into an independent nation. Both the world wars were turning points, with Canada's military sacrifices giving it the strength and confidence to demand its own voice on the world stage. In the postwar era, Canada has maintained its role in both Western and global alliances. However, relations with the United States – because of its singular importance to Canadian security and trade – have dominated Canada's foreign policy since Confederation.

Harper and Obama

Confederation and Foreign Affairs

The colonies that united in Confederation were essentially self-governing in internal affairs. Nevertheless, the British North America Act gave legal force to the union, but said nothing about foreign relations. It was assumed that those relations were virtually the exclusive concern of the British government. The authorities then conducting Canada's business with the United States were the governor general, the British ambassador in Washington and the British foreign secretary in London. The governor general consulted his Canadian ministers and transmitted their views to London; but final authority rested with the British government.

Early Relations with the US

The Canadian government acquired influence over the US relationship only gradually. An important landmark was the Treaty of Washington in 1871, which resolved dangerous issues between Britain and the US left over from the American Civil War. In developing the treaty, the British government nominated as one of its five negotiators Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. This recognized both Canada's growing status and its concern with the issues; but Macdonald was present as a British delegate, not as a representative of his country.

Macdonald had serious disagreements with his British associates, particularly over the Atlantic fisheries. Although unhappy over this aspect of the treaty, he signed it; and the treaty was advantageous to Canada in other ways, because it restored friendly relations between the British Empire and the US.

Sir John A. Macdonald

In 1874 the Liberal government of Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie prevailed on Britain to accredit George Brown (along with the British ambassador in Washington) to seek a reciprocity treaty similar to that of 1854, which the US had terminated in 1866. Macdonald and his colleagues had tried for this in 1871, without success. Brown failed likewise. Macdonald, on returning to power in September 1878, enacted the National Policy. Tariff reciprocity with the US continued to be a Canadian goal, but successive American administrations gave no encouragement. Trade policy remained Canada's most persistent problem with the US, with fishery troubles a close second.

In 1880, with Britain's reluctant consent, Alexander Galt was appointed Canadian high commissioner in London. In 1882 a Canadian commissaire général was appointed in Paris; he doubled as a representative of Québec until 1912. He had no official diplomatic status, however. No further development of Canadian representation abroad took place until after the First World War.

Imperial Relations

In the latter part of Queen Victoria's reign, British anti-imperialism (reflected in the withdrawal of British army garrisons from central Canada in 1870-71) had given place to support for the Empire, at least in English-speaking Canada. Imperialism gave an outlet to the growing nationalism, and the desire to play an expanding part in the world. When British General C.G. Gordon's forces were cut off in Khartoum, Sudan in 1884, there was considerable demand in Canada for a contingent to go to Africa to assist the British. Macdonald deliberately damped this down. But when Britain sought to raise at its own expense a body of Canadian voyageurs to help a rescue expedition find its way up the Nile River (see Nile Expedition), no objection was made.

The beginning of the South African War in 1899 raised more serious questions. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier's Liberals were now in power in Canada. Québec, the main source of Laurier's political power, was largely unmoved by the imperial enthusiasm of other provinces. On the question of contributing a contingent of soldiers, Cabinet was deeply divided. Ultimately, Laurier was forced by the majority to send a battalion of volunteers.

Battle of Paardeberg

Further volunteer contingents followed. By the end of the conflict in 1902, Canadian troops had distinguished themselves in a foreign war for the first time – which fueled an emerging sense that Canada could and should speak with an independent voice on the world stage, apart from Britain.

Reciprocity and Alaska Boundary Dispute

Relations with the US continued to turn largely on commercial policy. In 1888 while in opposition, the Laurier Liberals had adopted "Unrestricted Reciprocity"; on it they fought and lost the election of 1891, Macdonald's last victory. Thereafter the Liberals abandoned unrestricted reciprocity. When the Liberals finally took power under Laurier in 1896, the government would come to grief, in due course, over reciprocity, but meanwhile he had to confront the Alaska Boundary Dispute, the last great boundary dispute between Canada and the US. This old controversy acquired new importance during the Klondike Gold Rush.

Alaska Boundary Dispute

The handling of the dispute by US President Theodore Roosevelt aroused bitter resentment in Canada, as did the behaviour of British representative Lord Alverstone, who voted with the Americans when the tribunal on the issue met. Nevertheless, as with the Treaty of Washington, this settlement served Canada's paramount interest – by removing an obstacle to friendly relations between the British Empire and the US.

Naval Controversy

Canada's relationship with the Empire found a focus in the series of Colonial and Imperial Conferences, the first of which was held in London in 1887. During the British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury's government (1895-1902), the colonial secretary was the energetic Joseph Chamberlain, who envisaged an Empire more organized and centralized than the informal affair that had grown up.

In Laurier, Chamberlain met a determined defender of the status quo. Laurier regularly declared that Canada was well satisfied with things as they were and had no demands to make; Canada had its autonomy and intended to keep it. After the turn of the century, the menace presented by the growing German navy led to demands both in Canada and Britain for some Canadian naval assistance. Laurier's ultimate response was not a contribution to the Royal Navy but the beginnings of an autonomous Canadian navy, provided for by the Naval Service Act of 1910.

The general election of 1911 turned to an unprecedented extent on foreign policy. Any naval policy was unpopular in Québec. Robert Borden, the Conservative leader, played down the issue during the campaign, not wishing to expose divisions among his own supporters. Meanwhile, the Naval Service Act did Laurier much harm in Québec.

Foreign Policy and the 1911 Election

Elsewhere the biggest election issue was reciprocity with the US. The agricultural West had been pressing for freer trade, along with similar agitation in the US. The result had been the 1911 reciprocity agreement which provided for free trade in a wide range of agricultural products and a limited number of manufactured goods. Violent nationalistic opposition developed against this measure; manufacturers assailed it as a menace to Canadian industry, and it was claimed that it would open the door to political union with the US. Laurier lost the election, and Borden became prime minister.

English-speaking Ontario now succeeded Québec as the main seat of the government's political power, and foreign policy reflected this fact. Where Laurier had sought to stand aside from imperial entanglements, and had asserted no claim to influence in the imperial system, Borden was prepared to participate but attempted to exact a price. In England in 1912, he told British statesmen that Canadians would now expect "a voice" in the formation of imperial policy. When later that year he proposed that Canada should contribute three battleships to the Royal Navy, he clearly expected a quid pro quo in the form of such influence. Britain's Liberal government was loath to commit itself; and the Canadian Senate (still controlled by the Liberals) rejected Borden's naval contribution bill.

First World War

Everything changed with the outbreak of the First World War. Canada was automatically at war when Britain went to war against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Most of Canada was united behind the decision of Borden's government to actively support Britain and dispatch a Canadian Expeditionary Force. Over the next four years, nearly 61,000 Canadians would die overseas, and the country's soldiers would distinguish themselves at battlefields such as Ypres, the Somme, Vimy Ridge, and Amiens. Such sacrifice would present a stronger argument than ever before for a Canadian "voice" in the making of foreign policy. From 1914 to 1916, however, British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith still had nothing to offer.

Sir Robert Borden

In December 1916, Asquith was replaced as British prime minister by David Lloyd George. He realized that Canada, Australia and the other Dominions of the Empire could not be expected to continue making sacrifices without being called to Britain's councils. He therefore summoned Dominion leaders to an Imperial War Cabinet and an Imperial War Conference, which first met in March 1917, and between them discussed both the conduct of the war and imperial matters generally.

In April 1917 the Conference passed Resolution IX – largely Borden's work – which placed on record the opinion that any postwar adjustment of constitutional relations "should be based upon a full recognition of the Dominions as autonomous nations of an Imperial Commonwealth," and should give the Dominions and India "an adequate voice in foreign policy." The word Commonwealth would increasingly be used to describe the self-governing (later independent) parts of the British Empire.

Borden and the Paris Peace Conference

In 1918, the Imperial War Cabinet and War Conference met again for a second set of sessions, in which Borden was active. In 1919 the Imperial War Cabinet in effect became the British Empire delegation to the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the war. Largely thanks to Borden's insistence, the Dominions were accorded what amounted to dual representation in Paris: as nations in their own right, and as units of the British Empire.

In both capacities Canada signed the Treaty of Versailles and became a member of the League of Nations whose covenant was part of the Treaty. Thus the country acquired a new international status, won by its soldiers on the battlefield and confirmed by its statesmen's strong efforts at the conference table.

Creation of Department of External Affairs

A small Department of External Affairs had been created in Ottawa by statute in 1909, principally to ensure the businesslike conduct of the country's foreign concerns. In 1912, an amendment made the prime minister also secretary of state for external affairs, an arrangement that lasted until 1946.

For many years the department's most important official was Loring C. Christie, appointed by Borden in 1913 with the title of legal adviser. He was Borden's confidential assistant at the Imperial War Cabinet and the Paris Peace Conference, and a major contributor to the national achievements of the period. When in July 1920 Borden retired and Arthur Meighen became prime minister, Christie remained as Meighen's trusted adviser.

Imperial Conferences of 1921 and 1922

Meighen represented Canada at the Imperial Conference of 1921. This conference proceeded on the general assumption that it was desirable that the Empire should pursue a common foreign policy arrived at by consultation. Difficulties arose, however, over the renewal of the Anglo-Japanese alliance. Meighen, influenced by Christie, argued that the alliance constituted a serious obstacle to amicable relations with the US, so vital to the Empire and particularly to Canada; whereas Australia regarded the alliance as important to its security.

A disastrous break was avoided by Lloyd George's diplomatic tactics; at the subsequent Washington Conference of 1922 (attended by Borden and Christie), the Anglo-Japanese alliance was abandoned, to be replaced by a four-power treaty signed by Britain, the US, Japan and France, which agreed to respect one another's rights and possessions in the Pacific. This conference was the last important occasion when a British Empire delegation functioned as a unit at an international negotiation.

Mackenzie King and Canadian Autonomy

In the December 1921 general election Meighen was defeated by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King's Liberals. Although foreign policy was not a major issue in the election, in fact 1921 would change Canada's foreign policy even more than did the election of 1911. The Liberals took every one of Québec's 65 seats in the House of Commons, and it was inevitable that King's policies should be tailored accordingly. In 1921 Québec was strongly isolationist; the war and conscription had left deep marks. The result was the abandonment of unified diplomacy in partnership with the other countries of the Commonwealth, and the substitution of a separate national foreign policy.

At the Paris Peace Conference, Canada had been recognized both as a member country of the British Empire and as a separate nation; King's policies consistently emphasized the separate nation aspect at the expense of imperial aspect. Christie was frozen out of the Department of External Affairs in 1923 and lost his influence. His successor as the prime minister's confidential advisor was O.D. Skelton, who became undersecretary in 1925 and held that appointment until his death in 1941.

Skelton was not the deviser of King's policies, which were well developed before Skelton joined him, nor were their opinions exactly the same. King was an admirer of British institutions and practices, and unlike Skelton, always considered that in another world war Canada would have to stand by Britain. But King and Skelton entirely agreed in rejecting a common foreign policy for the Commonwealth and maintaining that in normal conditions Canada and Britain should pursue their own policies.

Skelton, O.D.

The Chanak Affair of 1922, with its bungled British request for a Canadian expeditionary force, had provided only too convincing a background for King's attitude. And he had given a striking example of his view of policy when in March 1923 he insisted that the Halibut Treaty with the US be signed by Canada alone, without the traditional participation of the British ambassador. He was delighted when the 1923 Imperial Conference accepted this procedure as normal.

Canada's First Diplomatic Offices

Under King, Canada achieved separate diplomatic representation in Washington. An arrangement for this had in fact been made in Borden's time, but no action had been taken. In 1927, Vincent Massey became the first Canadian envoy to the US with full diplomatic status. Legations were also opened in France in 1928 and Japan in 1929. Early in 1939 missions were established in Belgium and the Netherlands (served by the same envoy); this was the extent of Canadian representation abroad before the Second World War.

Canada's relations with the League of Nations began at Paris in 1919 with an effort to weaken Article 10 of the covenant, which bound members to defend the territorial integrity and independence of all other members. Successive Canadian governments continued to fight against this article (especially unpopular in Québec) until 1923. That year a resolution was put forward, leaving to each member the decision as to how far it was bound to use force in fulfilment of Article 10. The resolution failed to produce the necessary unanimous support in the assembly by only one vote, thus damaging the idea that international security was now a collective responsibility.

League of Nations Meeting

In 1927 Canada was elected to a non-permanent seat on the League Council, with the reluctant assent of King, who feared unnecessary commitments and complications.

Statute of Westminster

The Imperial Conference of 1926 resulted in a formal widening of Dominion autonomy. South Africa insisted on a definition of Britain's relation with the Dominions. The result was the Balfour Report which led to the 1931 Statute of Westminster, giving the Dominions complete legislative independence so far as they desired it. In Canada's case this stopped short of the right to amend its own constitution, the core of which was found in the 1867 British North America Act.

This reservation was the result of pressure from Ontario and Québec. It ended only with the Constitution Act, 1982. The word "independence" is not found in the Statute of Westminster. King would not hear of it in the discussions of 1926; but Canada's full independence may be said to date from that statute, on 11 December 1931.

Bennett and the Great Depression

By this time the Great Depression had brought Prime Minister R.B. Bennett to power in the 1930 election. Bennett, motivated by the desperate state of the economy, raised the import tariff, primarily as retaliation against the new American Hawley-Smoot tariff, though rates for British imports into Canada were also raised. At the Imperial Conference of 1930 he made a dramatic gesture, inviting the delegates to a special economic conference at Ottawa and proposing, not a general reduction of imperial rates, but a 10 per cent increase in rates levied against countries outside the Commonwealth.

British politicians saw how little the offer was worth; nevertheless, the Imperial Economic Conference finally met at Ottawa in 1932 (see Ottawa Agreements) in hopes that something might be done to alleviate the Depression. Bennett, theoretically an imperialist, was in fact an economic nationalist of the first order. The Anglo-Canadian trade agreement made at the Conference contained some concessions on both sides. But the achievement was much less than optimists had hoped, and there was ill will between British and Canadian negotiators.

Second World War

As the general election of 1935 approached, the world situation was worsening. Hitler had come to power in Germany in 1933, Japan was engaged in aggression against China, and Italy was preparing to attack Ethiopia. The League of Nations' effort to restrain Italy led to worries about an Anglo-Italian war. As a result Britain and France – and Canada too – scurried away from taking concerted action to save Ethiopia.

After the 1935 election returned the Liberals to power, Prime Minister Mackenzie King adopted a policy of economic conciliation, putting an end to a trade war with Japan and (more important) reaching a trade agreement with the US – something Bennett had lately pursued without success.

King supported the British policy of appeasement towards Hitler and Germany, sacrificing Czechoslovakia in the process. But ongoing Nazi aggression, including Germany's attack on Poland in 1939, was enough to make it clear to King and his British counterpart that war was inevitable. Unlike in the First World War, Canada was not automatically at war when Britain declared war on Germany. Only on 9 September, 1939 – a week after Britain and France's own declarations – did the Canadian Parliament formally approve going to war against Germany.

At first, King was cautious about committing Canadian forces to combat overseas – largely because he feared a repeat of the conscription crisis that nearly tore the country apart in the First World War. From 1939 to 1941, Canada contributed material supplies, air training and naval escort resources to the Allied war effort. By the end of 1941, however, Canadian soldiers were fighting on the ground against the Japanese in Hong Kong, and in 1942 (see Dieppe Raid) Canadians were engaged against the Germans in Europe. By the end of the war in 1945, more than a million Canadians had served in uniform on land, air and sea, and more than 43,000 had been killed. Despite this enormous contribution, King and other Canadians did not play a significant role among the Allied leaders of the US, Britain and the Soviet Union in determining the direction of the war (see Mackenzie King the War Effort).

Post-War Confidence and Internationalism

Even so, by 1945 Canada had become an economic and military power of some considerable size. The Department of External Affairs was expanding and its diplomats were internationalists who, unlike so many Canadians of the 1920s and 1930s, did not reject foreign involvement. A sense was emerging in the French and English media and in the population at large that Canada, because of its wartime sacrifices, was owed a share in international decision-making, and that the Great Powers would completely disregard the country if it was unrepresented in international councils. Canadians were finally ready to take on an active role in the world.

In 1946 the office of secretary of state for external affairs was finally separated from that of the prime minister. The first such secretary of state under this new regime was Louis Saint-Laurent. King's own retirement from politics in November 1948 was the end of an era.

O.D. Skelton's best legacy to the Department of External Affairs had been the group of able civil servants he recruited beginning in 1927, notably Lester Pearson, Norman Robertson and Hume Wrong. The professional standard established by these men and their colleagues was a great asset to a country beginning to make its way in diplomacy. Robertson became undersecretary in 1941, succeeding Skelton, and Pearson succeeded Robertson in 1946. When Saint-Laurent was about to become prime minister, Pearson entered Cabinet as secretary of state for external affairs.

United Nations and NATO

United Nations, the successor institution to the League of Nations, right from the UN's founding conference in San Francisco in 1945. When faith in the UN's effectiveness was undermined by the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West, Canada not only accepted but even advocated the idea of a western regional union for collective defence, and signed the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949. As a result, Canadian military units were sent to Europe in 1951 to serve under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). During the same period Canada dispatched an army brigade group to fight under UN command in the Korean War. These commitments led to large increases in Canada's Armed Forces.

Joining NATO marked a turning point in Canadian policy. Traditionally, Canada had been loath to accept commitments either to Britain or the US individually; it was easier to accept commitments to an organization of which both were members. It was becoming clear, however, that the Second World War had greatly weakened Britain's world position, and that confrontation between the superpowers – the capitalist US and the communist Soviet Union – was now the dominant fact of the international situation. Relations with the American neighbour eclipsed all other Canadian external problems.

Commonwealth and the Suez Crisis

As Britain gave up its imperial obligations, the Commonwealth became increasingly multiracial, a development that the Canadian government encouraged.

The new polity was severely strained in 1956 by the Suez Crisis, when Britain and France launched a military attack on Egypt following Egyptian nationalization of the Suez Canal Company. The UN, including the US, condemned the aggression, which was also strongly condemned by the non-white Commonwealth countries. Canada abstained from voting on a resolution demanding a cease-fire and Anglo-French withdrawal, but proposed an international peacekeeping force to supervise the cessation of hostilities.

Pearson, Lester B.

The Commonwealth stayed together, and Lester Pearson received the Nobel Peace Prize for his peace initiatives. Canada was at the height of its diplomatic influence.

John Diefenbaker

The election of 1957 brought the Progressive Conservatives under Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to power. During his period, until 1963, foreign relations turned largely on the military connection with the US. At the very beginning, the new government decided Canada would join the US in the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD).

Diefenbaker's personal relations with US President John F. Kennedy (1961-63) were poor (see Cuban Missile Crisis). And there was trouble over whether or not Canada should accept American nuclear weapons (see Bomarc Missile Crisis). In 1963 Pearson, as Opposition leader, reversed his earlier stand and said Canada should accept the nuclear weapons in order to carry out its obligations to the US. Diefenbaker's vacillations on the subject led to resignations from his Cabinet, and finally to the government's electoral defeat.

Lester Pearson

Under Prime Minister Pearson, Canadian-American relations were less acerbic than under Diefenbaker. However, US participation in the Vietnam War caused a good many Canadians to question the morality and good sense of the Americans. A positive development of 1965 was the so-called Autopact (Canada-US Automotive Products Agreement) for free trade between the two countries in motor vehicles and parts. One result was that large numbers of cars were produced in Canada for sale in the US.

The broad strokes of Canadian foreign policy changed little under Pearson, who had done so much to lay them down. The lesson the generation that had fought the Second World War had drawn from its experience – that security could be best ensured by the Western nations being united and strong – was still accepted and encouraged.

Pierre Trudeau

With Pearson's retirement in 1968 and his replacement as prime minister by Pierre Trudeau, there was a change of atmosphere. Trudeau was not, like Pearson, a member of the Ottawa establishment, and he had played no part in the war. The Prime Minister's Office became more important and the Department of External Affairs less influential. In 1969 there was a drastic reduction in the Armed Forces and a considerable reduction in the size of the foreign service. Later under Trudeau, Canada would reduce its military commitments to NATO.

The cut in military strength contributed to a decline in Canadian diplomatic influence, though this had already been in progress as the result of the postwar recovery of France and West Germany. In 1970 a series of government pamphlets entitled Foreign Policy for Canadians defined Canada's goals: to "foster economic growth, safeguard sovereignty and independence, work for peace and security, promote social justice, enhance the quality of life, [and] ensure a harmonious natural environment." These high-sounding phrases seemed to traditional diplomatists hardly a practical basis for foreign policy. Some feared that, taken with the measures of 1969, they were signs of a new isolationism.

In fact Trudeau pursued not isolationism, but a more independent path for Canada in the world. In 1982 his government completed the unfinished business of Canadian independence by "patriating" the Canadian Constitution – transferring the country's highest law from the authority of the British parliament to that of Canada. The British North America Act, a remnant of the colonial past, was updated with the Constitution Act, 1982, which also included the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Patriation: The Constitution Comes Home

Trudeau maintained Canadian traditional membership in NATO, the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations (G7) and other Western-leaning institutions. However, he also sought closer ties to the Soviet Union, pursued a friendship with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and gave diplomatic recognition to communist China long before other Western allies. Meanwhile Trudeau was willing to irritate American presidents, and he often did. And as he once aptly explained in a speech in Washington, being America's closest neighbour is like "sleeping with an elephant. . . one is affected by every twitch and grunt."

Canadian-American Economic Relations

Economic relations with the US – arguably Canada's most important foreign policy concern since the end of the Second World War – provided the worst problems of the Trudeau era. There was considerable popular anti-Americanism, sparked by resentment of US influence, and by continuing dislike of the Vietnam War, which lasted until 1973. Energy problems, following an oil crisis caused by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1973-74, caused friction between Canada and its neighbour largely thanks to the domination of the Canadian oil market by American companies.

In 1980 the Trudeau government announced the National Energy Program (NEP), one objective of which was at least 50 per cent Canadian ownership of oil and gas production by 1990. This almost coincided with the election of US President Ronald Reagan, and to his conservative Republican administration the NEP, much hated by the US oil companies, was an object of hostility. So was another Trudeau institution, the federal Foreign Investment Review Agency, which began to monitor foreign investment in Canada in 1974.

Before the Second World War, Canada had two great trading partners, Britain and the US. Exports to Britain exceeded imports; with the US the situation was the reverse. After the war, Canada's British market never wholly revived. By the end of the 20th Century, Japan was Canada's second-largest trading partner – a position that as of 2016 belonged to China. The US, however, still dominates Canadian trade.

United States Embassy in Ottawa

Canadian trade policy has for years been influenced in the direction of freer trade by adherence to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, first drawn up in 1947 and modified since. In recent decades bilateral or regional free trade agreements have also been pursued, sometimes successfully, with the US, with other parts of the Americas, with Europe and with the nations of the Pacific Rim.

Brian Mulroney

One of the main pledges of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives, elected to power in 1984, was to "refurbish" the relationship with the US, bruised by the many disputes of Trudeau's term. Mulroney cultivated President Reagan, and the two leaders' affinity was emphasized during Reagan's visit to Québec City (the so-called "Shamrock Summit") in March 1985. The new attitude appeared in the abandonment of the National Energy Program and the weakening of the Foreign Investment Review Agency, now to be called Investment Canada.

Mulroney and Reagan agreed to seek a comprehensive free trade agreement between their countries. Teams began negotiations, but 16 months of discussion failed to produce the desired result. At the last moment, the intervention of Cabinet-level negotiators from both countries brought about an "agreement in principle" on 3 October 1987, within minutes of a deadline set by the US Congress. The final document was published on 11 December 1987.

The complicated arrangement, which said all bilateral tariffs between Canada and the US would be eliminated over 10 years, had a mixed reception in Canada. Business interests in general favoured it, organized labour opposed it; the West was broadly favourable. The Québec government supported it and Atlantic Canada seemed uncertain about it, but Ontario was officially hostile.

The 1988 federal election was fought on the issue. Although polls showed that a majority of Canadians opposed the measure, the anti-free trade vote was split and Mulroney won a decisive victory. He formed a new government and had put free trade legislation through Parliament by year's end. In 1993, just before Mulroney left power, the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was extended to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the inclusion of Mexico.

The Mulroney administration was also enthusiastic about multilateral institutions such as the G-7 and the Organization of American States, which Canada joined in 1990 after decades of remaining outside that organization. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the government argued powerfully for an activist and even muscular UN, supporting efforts to drive Iraq out of Kuwait in 1990-91 and in peacekeeping endeavours around the world, some of which (as in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia) went far beyond the traditional role of monitoring ceasefire lines with the consent of all the former belligerents.

Mulroney and his external affairs minister, former Prime Minister Joe Clark, were also vocal in defence of international human rights. Thanks to them, Canada was in the forefront of the fight against apartheid in South Africa – often contrary to the wishes of governments in London and Washington.

Jean Chrétien

Economics shape Canadian diplomacy to a remarkable extent. At the end of the 20th century, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (previously External Affairs) housed both a foreign minister and a trade minister. Meanwhile a major review of foreign policy published in 1995 placed employment, prosperity and economic growth at the centre of Canadian priorities. Pierre Trudeau had led international peace missions in 1983-84, at a time of heightened Soviet-American tensions. In the 1990s, Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien instead led trade missions abroad (dubbed "Team Canada") in an effort to drum up commercial ties with Asia, Latin America and beyond.

In 1995, Chrétien began making deep cuts to the federal budget, including in the area of foreign development assistance, which was reduced by more than 20 per cent over three years. Along with the cuts, however, the Chrétien government – via Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy – was a leader in the global campaign to ban anti-personnel land mines and in the creation of an International Criminal Court.

Chrétien's government also supported a variety of UN peacekeeping missions, including to Rwanda before and after the 1994 genocide there. And it committed Canadian resources to the 1999 NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo.

During the terror attacks against the US in 2001, Canada gave refuge to hundreds of stranded commercial airliners and their passengers. Canada also participated in the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. However, the Chrétien government refused to give Canadian support to the subsequent US invasion of Iraq, irking new US President George W. Bush.

Stephen Harper

The election of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006 brought a renewed commitment to the Canadian combat mission in Afghanistan, started by Chrétien and strengthened by Prime Minister Paul Martin. The war in Afghanistan, along with its financial and human toll, would dominate foreign policy through most of the Harper years.

Canada in Afghanistan

At the same time, the Harper government realigned Canada in several ways on the world stage. Pursuing a more hard-line, pro-security agenda than his Liberal predecessors, Harper traveled frequently to the Arctic to assert Canadian sovereignty there, and offered staunch support to Israel at the expense of its Arab neighbours in the Middle East. His government gave scant support to international climate change efforts and even less to the United Nations – perhaps costing Canada a temporary seat on the UN Security Council in 2010. The Harper government was also publicly critical of the communist regime in China, at least until business concerns persuaded Harper to restore more friendly relations in the interests of Chinese-Canadian trade. He was also openly critical of Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Under Harper, Canada pursued free trade deals in Latin America and Europe, although some would only be ratified after his defeat and departure from office in 2015.

Justin Trudeau

The 2015 election of the Liberals under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signalled Canada's return to multilateralism, and the country's active re-engagement with international climate change agreements and with the United Nations. The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade was renamed Global Affairs Canada.

Meanwhile, the election of Donald Trump as US President in 2016 – along with his campaign threats to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, and to seek greater military spending from America's NATO partners – promised to make Canada-US relations in the coming years more complex and challenging than ever.

Further Reading

  • Documents on Canadian External Relations (1967, continuing); Norman Hillmer and J.L. Granatstein, Empire to Umpire: Canada and the World to the 1990s (1994); Canada Among Nations (1985, continuing); K.R. Nossal, The Politics of Canadian Foreign Policy (1985); C.P. Stacey, Canada and the Age of Conflict, 2 vols (1977-81).

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