Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/1/2016 (1933 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
"AS Canadians, we know that protecting and promoting fundamental human rights must be an imperative for governments and individual alike," said Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau in a speech he delivered last August at Montreal’s LGBT Alliance parade.
There is no doubt that, like many Canadians, Prime Minister Trudeau firmly believes in the sanctity of human rights, as he states. But governing is about making choices. Though initially critical of the former Conservative government's facilitation of the $15-billion sale of Ontario-made armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, the new Liberal government won't cancel it -- at least for the moment -- even if Saudi Arabia is one of the worst human rights abusers on the planet. Too much money and too many jobs (3,000) are at stake.
In early January, when Saudi Arabia executed 47 men, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion delivered the rebuke that Saudi Arabia should "protect human rights, respect peaceful expressions of dissent and ensure fairness in judicial proceedings." In the Liberals' view, however, this mass execution has little to do with a deal to supply military hardware to Saudi Arabia. Reacting to criticism for this hypocritical position, government officials now state that though the government has "no intention of cancelling the deal," it reserves the right to reconsider it in the future.
Such hypocrisy did not start with the Trudeau Liberals or the Harper Conservatives. It goes back a long way. Canada might not currently sell arms or trade with pariah states such as North Korea or Iran, yet in the past the country has conducted business with a range of despotic rulers and repressive regimes whose respect for human rights was (and remains) atrocious.
Successive Canadian governments took the practical approach, evaluating each case on its own merits and convincing themselves Canada's long-term economic interests trumped questions about morality, ethics and human rights violations.
During the Cold War, Canada stood alongside other western powers in opposition to the Soviet Union and its "subversive aggressive Communism," as Lester Pearson, then the secretary of state for external affairs, put it in 1948. Still, in the 1960s and SSRq70s when the Soviets refused to permit Soviet Jews to leave the country, incarcerating many in asylums and prisons for even requesting permission to emigrate, the Canadian government and businesses conducted a healthy trade with the Soviets in many commodities, co-operated on professional and study exchanges and together organized the celebrated 1972 hockey Summit Series.
After Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries took over Cuba and Castro ultimately declared his allegiance to communism and the Soviets, Canada did not follow the U.S. policy of cutting off all ties with the Caribbean island. Then-prime minister John Diefenbaker was anti-communist and a champion of human rights, though he believed trading with Cuba was wiser than isolating it as the Americans did.
In November 1960, the Diefenbaker government did stop a sale of aircraft to Cuba, fearing it would be used for military purposes. Yet no matter how terrible the human rights abuses under Castro -- in the mid-1980s, Amnesty International reported on a litany of political executions, gulag-style labour camps and the use of torture in prisons -- Diefenbaker's successors, especially Pierre Trudeau, who was a close friend to Castro, promoted Canadian trade and tourism with Cuba, which exists to the present day.
For the past few decades, Canada has followed a similar policy with China, by most accounts the country that executes the most people in the world each year -- estimated in 2014 to be more than 1,000, compared with the more than 289 executed in Iran and the approximately 90 in Saudi Arabia (158 in 2015). In 1989, after the Tiananmen Square massacre in which hundreds of protesters were killed, the Liberals urged the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney to impose economic sanctions on China. Mulroney condemned the massacre but did not sever economic ties.
Once the Liberals were back in power under Jean Chrétien, they were much more enthusiastic about China's potential markets and less concerned about its human rights record.
In November 1994, Chrétien led a large Canadian trade delegation to China that was deemed a success. In a statement that has defined Canada's relations with China ever since, he remarked at the time, "human rights are not what we would like them to be... but to me, the best way to alleviate this problem is not to isolate China, but to help in the opening up of China."
This was a convenient excuse then to ignore China's human rights abuses, and still is. True, it is a difficult dilemma in dealing with countries such as China and Saudi Arabia and "some degree of hypocrisy is unavoidable in foreign affairs," as the National Post's Andrew Coyne has noted.
At the moment, however, Trudeau has embraced the Liberals' long tradition of self-righteousness, portraying himself and his government as morally superior, when the reality of the situation is quite different.
Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.