TORONTO — In some big fights with some global heavyweights, Canadians are finding themselves in an unusual position these days: leading from the front.
By sticking to a foreign policy promoting feminism and human rights, the government of Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has become embroiled — wittingly and unwittingly — in some bitter recent high-profile battles with Saudi Arabia and China, while taking an uncharacteristically prominent role in the hemispheric campaign to oust Venezuela’s socialist president.
The result: Saudi Arabia announced a sharp downgrade in relations after Ottawa’s ambassador criticized its treatment of dissidents. China has detained several prominent Canadians indefinitely to protest the arrest of a leading Chinese high-tech executive at the request of the Trump administration. And the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has singled out the Lima Group — in which Canada and several Latin American governments play a leading role — for special criticism in the campaign to drive him from office.
“For over a century, Canada had dealings with a moderate U.S. government and suddenly it has to find its own way in the world,” said Michael Byers, chair of global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia.
It’s all a bit disorienting for many Canadians, but the Trudeau government — facing national elections by October at the latest — shows no signs of backing down.
“This is our neighborhood,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters last month in defending Canada’s prominent role in the push against Venezuela. “For Canadians, we have a very direct interest in what happens in our hemisphere. That is why we have been so active and will continue to be so active.”
The leading position has also left Canada exposed at times, especially with what many here see as the mercurial American administration and nontraditional president now in power in Washington.
In December, Canadian police arrested Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer for Chinese high-tech giant Huawei and one of the most prominent female executives in China, at the request of U.S. officials on sanctions violations and intellectual property theft, infuriating Beijing and leading to the retaliatory arrest of Canadians living in China. The Trudeau government said it was purely a legal extradition matter, but President Trump has repeatedly suggested he may drop the charges in exchange for a better trade deal with China, leaving the Canadians hanging.
For Mr. Trump to suggest he would drop the case against Ms. Meng if he gets a trade deal with China is “beyond the pale,” said Jon Allen, a fellow at the Canadian International Council in Ottawa. “They’d bloody well better charge her or we will look like fools.”
For their part, Chinese authorities have called Ms. Meng’s arrest an act of “white supremacy” and warned of “dire consequences” for Canadian interests if she is sent to the U.S. for trial.
Chickens and monkeys
Many Canadians wonder if America’s lack of response to China’s threats against Canada is a signal that hostile powers can attack America’s closest neighbor and other allies with impunity. Those who can’t take on Mr. Trump and Washington directly are turning their attention to U.S. allies.
It’s “kill a chicken to scare the monkeys,” said Colin Robertson, vice president of the Calgary-based Canadian Global Affairs Institute, citing an old Chinese proverb. “And for now, we are the hapless chicken.”
Ms. Meng’s arrest has heightened other Chinese resentments against Canada. In recent years Canadian governments have been under pressure to stop Chinese firms from buying Canadian technology and natural resource companies and to prevent Canadian firms from using Huawei technology for the country’s 5G network because of security and cyberespionage fears.
Yundong Yang, a spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa, called these concerns “absurd.”
Mr. Trudeau’s insistence on putting women’s rights at the center of domestic and foreign policy has led to some unexpected consequences, none more profound than a near diplomatic breach with Saudi Arabia over a tweet.
Last August, the Saudi royal government arrested several female activists in what Amnesty International described as a “draconian crackdown.” One of the women was Samar Badawi, the sister of Raif Badawi, a dissident blogger. In 2013, Raif Badawi was convicted of “insulting Islam” and sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes.
In 2015, Mr. Raif’s wife, Ensaf, and their three children fled to Canada to avoid persecution. They became Canadian citizens last year.
The day after Samar Badawi’s arrest, Ms. Freeland tweeted that she was “very alarmed” by the crackdown and her ministry issued a statement that Canada was “gravely concerned” for the safety of those arrested and urged the Saudi authorities to “immediately release them.”
While other Western governments had criticized the crackdown, Saudi authorities and their supporters quickly singled out Canada for what Riyadh described as “blatant interference in the internal affairs of the kingdom.” Riyadh suspended all new trade and investment with Canada.
In a tough response Ms. Freeland told reporters Canada would always speak up for human rights and women’s rights “and that is not going to change.”
The Saudis responded with more sanctions. Canada’s ambassador to Riyadh was expelled, flights between the two countries were suspended and 15,000 Saudi students attending Canadian universities, colleges and schools were ordered to come home.
Then the fight took a dark turn. A Saudi youth organization posted an image on Twitter showing an Air Canada plane heading toward Toronto’s CN Tower evoking images of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. Below the image was a warning to Canada not to stick its nose where it doesn’t belong.
“As the Arabic saying goes, ‘He who interferes with what doesn’t concern him finds what doesn’t please him,’” the post warned.
After an online backlash, the account pulled the tweet and issued an apology, stating the image was only meant to symbolize the return of Canada’s ambassador.
Throughout the dispute, American authorities stood back claiming the two sides had to work out their problems on their own.
“We can’t do it for them,” said then-State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert.
When Mr. Trudeau reiterated Canada’s position on human rights, the Saudis ordered all its nationals receiving medical treatment in Canada to be transferred and launched a series of tweets claiming Canada was one of the worst oppressors of women and its courts ordered the execution of a female rights activist.
While Ottawa faced fire and fury from China and Saudi Arabia, in Venezuela many were cheering Canada’s early and uncompromising opposition to the Maduro government, opposition that at times went faster and farther than the anti-Maduro campaign followed by the Trump administration.
Starting in 2017, Canada and members of the so-called Lima Group of Latin American nations have been urging Mr. Maduro to resign and pledging millions of dollars in aid to deal with Venezuela’s economic, humanitarian and refugee crises that threatened to destabilize the entire region.
Last May, the Trump administration joined the fight with sanctions on Venezuelan trade and later with threats of a military invasion.
Ben Rowswell*, Canada’s ambassador to Venezuela from 2017-2018 and now president of the Canadian International Council, said his country has already contributed more than $41 million to aid Venezuelans and applauded his government’s “courageous” and early stand against Mr. Maduro.
“Our embassy has hosted an annual human rights awards ceremony — a sort of Oscars for human rights for individuals and NGOs” he said. He added Canada could take stands in the region that would not be acceptable for Washington, given the long history of U.S. intervention in the region.
Sometimes their government “criticized me or other individuals but never Canada itself because of the respect for Canada among the Venezuelan people,” Mr. Roswell added.
But with Mr. Maduro hanging on and the Venezuelan military apparently sticking with the president for now, Canada may find itself with one more prominent, hostile government on its hands.
*Mr. Rowswell’s name and the full name of his organization were incorrect in the original version of the story. Both have been corrected.
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