How Trudeau is shaping Canada's role in global development

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Photo by: Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND

The day after his landslide win against Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau had some words of encouragement for Canada’s allies: “Many of you have worried that Canada has lost its compassionate and constructive voice in the world over the past 10 years. Well, I have a simple message for you: on behalf of 35 million Canadians, we’re back.”

In the weeks that have followed, he has proceeded with a series of symbolic moves aimed at demonstrating he is prepared to put his own stamp on the new government’s approach.

Prime Minister Trudeau has nominated a diverse and gender-equal cabinet. He has changed the names of several ministries — the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development has become Global Affairs Canada; Citizenship and Immigration has become Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship; and Environment was renamed Environment and Climate Change. He invited all premiers of the country’s provinces and territories, along with the Green Party leader, to join him in Paris for the COP21 climate change conference. And he “unmuzzled” federal scientists, who had been banned from speaking to the media under the Harper government.

Many within Canada’s global development community are breathing a sigh of relief.

“We had been used in the past eight years to [the government’s] disinterest in international issues,” François Audet, scientific director of the Canadian Research Institute on Humanitarian Crisis and Aid, told Devex. “We’re now being presented with something that’s very positive.”

Paul Cadario, a senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and former senior manager at the World Bank, was even more outspoken. “It is hard for me to say how excited and pleased I am that monsieur Trudeau was elected,” he said. “I was very excited that the Liberal Party won, for positive reasons that have to do with the Canadian values that he and his caucus represent, and for the sunny and optimistic view he put forward for the future of our country.”

The new majority government — which Trudeau obtained with less than 40 percent of the popular vote thanks to Canada’s “first-past-the-post” electoral system — should grant him enough leeway to implement his program.

Yet despite his promise to bring Canada “back” on the world’s stage, little is known about the prime minister’s vision for global development issues, which did not feature prominently in the electoral campaign.

Devex analyzed his first steps and spoke to a number of Canadian observers to get a sense of what Canada’s global engagement will look like in the next few years.

Foreign affairs

Stéphane Dion, an academic and former Liberal Party leader was the frontrunner for the environment portfolio, which he held previously under Prime Minister Paul Martin. Instead, Trudeau appointed him to foreign affairs and handed him the chairmanship of a cabinet committee on the environment, climate change and energy, suggesting that the environment file will likely play a significant role in Canada’s foreign policy.

On the diplomatic front, Trudeau promptly sent a letter to the heads of foreign missions in which he announced a “new era” for Canada’s international engagement. According to insiders, ambassadors and high commissioners will now enjoy greater autonomy than they did under the Harper premiership.

Global Affairs Canada — previously DFATD — will continue to host trade, diplomatic and development activities under one roof. Paul Heinbecker, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, told Devex that this could be the opportunity for Canada to align its trade and foreign investment priorities with its human rights principles.

“Our policy in the past on arming people in war zones was pretty clear. We just didn't give weapons to war zones,” Heinbecker said. “We need to take a coherent look at these policies, and just because somebody can buy arms that we'd like to sell is not enough reason to sell it.”

Trudeau is also expected to renew his support to the creation of an ombudsman for the extractive sector’s international activities.


Among electoral promises made by the Liberal Party was to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of the year. Although Trudeau has stood firm on this number, logistical challenges have forced the government to push the deadline back to the end of February 2016.

“If it takes 30 more days … and we do things in a systematic and rigorous way, there is no problem,” said Audet, calling the measure “very generous.” The government has also reaffirmed its support for the refugee cause with a new 100 million Canadian dollar donation ($75 million) to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Less consensual is the government’s decision to screen heterosexual males out of the resettlement program because of security concerns, especially since the UNHCR already prioritizes families, women at risk and members of the LGBTI community. Single males fleeing the Syrian conflict can still come to Canada as refugees through private sponsorship.

International development

Trudeau named Marie-Claude Bibeau, a former employee of the Canadian International Development Agency — now merged into Global Affairs Canada — as minister of international development and Francophonie.

“This appointment is unique in our history,” said François Audet. “She knows the organization from the inside and has also worked on the ground in Benin.”

Trudeau’s mandate letter to Bibeau laid out the government’s international development priorities. They included refocusing Canada’s assistance to the world’s poorest countries, closing existing gaps in the Maternal, Newborn and Child Health Initiative regarding sexual and reproductive health services, and strengthening aid transparency, notably through “better data collection and analysis.”

Bibeau is also expected to work with civil society organizations and other stakeholders to propose a new policy and funding framework for Canada’s aid.


During the electoral campaign, Trudeau committed to increasing Canada’s participation in peacekeeping operations, drawing on decades of Canadian leadership in this regard.

Yet today’s peacekeeping operations have evolved, with a greater involvement of troops in direct conflict, and may require a different form of engagement than what Canada may have known in the past.

Trudeau’s wish to avoid having Canadian troops participate in direct combat was made clear during the campaign, promising to withdraw from the airstrikes against Isis in Syria. That promise, however, looks increasingly impossible to achieve.

“I’m not convinced he will be able to pull out as quickly as what he had planned, because unfortunately, the solution involves a military intervention, notably to defeat the forces of [Isis] and their military capacity,” Audet told Devex.

Climate change

“Canada is back,” said Trudeau once again in Paris, as world leaders gathered on the opening day of COP21. He pledged $2.65 billion Canadian dollars ($2 billion) over the next five years to help developing countries fight the effects of climate change, doubling his predecessor’s commitment.

But it might take a while before the country can reverse nearly a decade of climate skepticism that saw the Harper government pull out of the Kyoto protocol. Indeed, the newly appointed minister of environment and climate change, Catherine McKenna, came to Paris empty-handed, unable to commit to any specific greenhouse gas emission reduction targets above those made by Harper himself: 17 percent by 2020 and 30 percent by 2030, below 2005 levels.

“I think targets are meaningless unless you have policies that will actually get you to those targets,” explained Sarah Burch, assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management at the University of Waterloo. “Justin Trudeau and the federal government are going to COP21 without those targets in hand, but a promise to create them soon.”

While provincial leadership has allowed the country to move forward on the climate question, the challenge now facing Trudeau’s team will be to combine all of these policies into a coherent national framework.

From climate action and refugee relocation to the country’s broader external relations efforts, Canadians — and the global development community — will be watching Trudeau’s progress closely. If all the world’s a stage, then Canada is now relishing its moment in the spotlight.

What impact will Trudeau’s leadership, key appointments and policy shifts have on the work of Canada’s development community?

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About the author

  • Flavie portrait

    Flavie Halais

    Flavie Halais is a contributor based in Montreal who covers cities and international social issues. In 2013-2014, Flavie was an Aga Khan Foundation Canada International Fellow, reporting for Nation Media Group in Nairobi, Kenya. She’s also reported from Rwanda, Brazil and Colombia.