Understanding Canada’s Middle East Policy in a Tumultuous 2020

Understanding Canada’s Middle East Policy in a Tumultuous 2020

The new year began with two major crises in the Middle East, both of which have impacted Canadian policy and interests. First, the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani by the US in Iraq precipitating the downing of Ukraine Airlines flight PS752 in Iran, with 57 Canadians and 29 permanent residents aboard. Second, the Trump Administration announced a steeply one-sided ‘Deal of the Century’ for the Israel-Palestine conflict that effectively aborts the goal of a two-state solution, long a Canadian priority.


This is not unfamiliar territory for Canada. Many of Canada’s recent foreign policy crises centre on the Middle East, such as major diplomatic disputes with Gulf states in 1979, 2010 and 2018. Within Canada bitter arguments regarding Israel-Palestine are commonplace and Canada’s decision not to support the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was deeply contested, too. 

So, this begs a question, “What is Canada’s foreign policy toward the Middle East?” Though no such policy is clearly defined, in order to understand it, we can refer to two former Prime Ministers who have had an outsized influence determining two approaches Canada takes to the region: Lester B Pearson and Stephen Harper.

Canada is Deeply Engaged with the Middle East

The Middle East matters to Canada. It has deep demographic and cultural ties to the region. As an example, the victims of downed flight PS752 were part of a community of at least 210,000 Canadians of Iranian origin. There are approximately one million Canadians of Arab origin, while Kurdish, Turkish, Israeli (inter alia) communities are vital parts of Canadian society.


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Canada provides significant support to the US in the region. Although Canada chose to stay out of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it spent $1.3 billion on state-building and security development there from 2004 to 2018. Canada was also directly involved in the UN-authorised, US-led military confrontation with Iraq in the First Gulf War in 1990-91.

Canada has at times been very engaged as a political actor in the US-led Oslo Peace Process. This included acting as a shepherd to the most sensitive political discussions, as well as facilitating backchannel talks when official ones broke down. Canada is also a major donor to a Palestinian development model designed to support peace-building and provide security for Israel, spending at least $CAD 1 billion from 1996/97 to 2016/17. (Figure compiled by the author using Canada’s statistical reports on Official Development Assistance.)  

Canada has contributed to the US campaign against ISIS, allocating $3.5 billion to programming in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan for 2016 to 2021. Since 2001 Canada has also shaped its national security agenda based on a perception of threats from Muslim and Middle East extremists.

A Pearsonian Foreign Policy Approach

Historically, Canada played a leading role in the establishment of Israel. Supreme Court Justice Ivan C. Rand and then Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester B Pearson facilitated the partition of Mandatory Palestine and creation of Israel in 1947 and 1948. Canada would from 1950-69 be the third-largest donor to the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA) supporting Palestinian refugees from the land upon which Israel was established.

During the 1956 Suez Crisis, as Liberal Secretary of State for External Affairs, Pearson would help establish the world’s first large-scale UN peacekeeping force, UNEF I, to de-escalate tensions after a joint British, French and Israeli invasion of Egypt. The invasion threatened global stability and deeply angered the US, jeopardising the special alliance between Canada’s closest allies the UK and US.

Though pilloried by the opposition Conservatives for not supporting Britain, these events earned Pearson a Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 and ushered in a ‘Golden Age’ of Pearsonian diplomacy that came to define Canada’s post-British national, and international, identity. This established an image of Canada as an even-handed conciliator and fair-minded “peacemonger”.

This approach was exemplified in a 1980 “Stanfield Report” written by one-time Canadian Conservative party leader (1967-76), Robert Stanfield, when serving as “Special Representative of the Government of Canada Respecting the Middle East and North Africa”. His appointment came in response to a foreign relations crisis with Arab states, caused when a short-lived 1979 Clark Conservative government promised to move Canada’s embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

During the 1956 Suez Crisis, as Liberal Secretary of State for External Affairs, Pearson would help establish the world’s first large-scale UN peacekeeping force, UNEF I, to de-escalate tensions after a joint British, French and Israeli invasion of Egypt.

Stanfield’s report concluded, “Israel should remain a fundamental cornerstone of Canadian Middle East policy”. However, it also called for Canada to act as a mediator that encourages moderation and conciliation in the region. To do this, he said Canada should be fair to all parties and take positions that have goals of justice and reconciliation.

The Report reflected a Pearsonian Canada invested in a rules-based international system built on respect for international law and multilateralism. This was a Canada that would remain close to its Western allies, but be equitable with all nations, building bridges and fostering peace. Up until the mid-2000s, this approach was considered by many scholars the defining feature of Canada’s Middle East policy.

The Harper Approach

However, under the Harper Conservative government (2006-15) Canada adopted a different approach. It prioritised Canada’s relationship with Western allies with “shared values”, like Israel and the United States. It eschewed Canada’s role as a mediator, was suspicious of the UN and did not trust the international rules-based system to provide security for Canada or advance the cause of democracy abroad. To them, this could only be done under the hegemonic leadership of the US.

Language of shared values permeates statements like a 2011 declaration by Prime Minister Harper and President Obama describing Canada and the US as staunch allies who share common values, deep links among their citizens and deeply rooted ties. A 2015 Canada-Israel Joint Declaration speaks of a relationship built, “first and foremost on shared values” by peoples who “share a passionate belief in, and willingness to defend, the principles of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law”.  

The Harper government rhetorically rejected a fair-minded approach for a partisan pro-Israel stance.

By contrast, Harper in 2013 compared Israel to other Middle East societies as, “that light of freedom and democracy in what is otherwise a region of darkness”. That “light” being one which his government said in 2010 Canada must protect militarily, without being bound by any such treaty, and in 2012 referenced when permanently closing Canada’s diplomatic representation with Iran.

Certain Alliances Matter More

Regardless of approach, Pearsonian or Harper, Canada remains close to its Western allies, Israel, the US and the UK in the region. Realist scholars point to decisions in Washington as having particular influence on Canadian Middle East policy. Diplomatic historians state Ottawa is conscious of “their limited capabilities, mindful of their place in the western camp and cognisant of the importance of assisting their allies.” None preclude Canada from being a facilitator of dialogue or mediator of peace.

Though the current Trudeau Liberal government has indicated a desire to return to the Pearsonian approach, the party itself is divided on the Middle East. Until now it has mostly remained aligned with the Harper approach.


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