A new Canadian identity

“The whole issue of how we perceive ourselves is translated through the eye of the camera. The question of how images really appear to us in many ways always fades into the archives of our mind,” Lloyd Axworthy explained, appearing at Wilfrid Laurier University this past Saturday.

The event was orchestrated as the final instalment of the Global Citizenship conference, held on Mar. 5. Axworthy appeared as the key note speaker, sharing his perspective on how Canada’s international image has changed in the years following the resolution of the Cold War.

“It’s a very strange time. How does the image make for the reality and how does the reality translate into action? What is our global responsibility as a citizen?” Axworthy inquired.

“Canada is now number 58 in the roster of countries around the world that do peacekeeping. That used to be our standard branding.”

For a long time standing, Canadian forces were revered as providing the best peacekeeping program in the world Axworthy explained. However, he said, “We don’t do it anymore because we don’t want to go there. It’s not robust enough.”

Axworthy stated that part of the Canadian image involved a long tradition of being involved in the protection of human life, not because there was anything tangible to gain from it. Rather, Canadian intervention abroad was a function of the belief that it was immoral to allow the loss of innocent lives to continue. “That has really seeped away from our image on the world stage and that area has become very faded,” he clarified.

“I don’t say that with glee, I say that with sadness,” Axworthy continued.

“We have such an incredible and privileged opportunity to play the role. We have a highly professional armed forces, a very stable budget. And so we are expected to translate those advantages into a distinctive Canadian role. We should be able to put in place the kind of effort and commitment to really respond to the pain of others.”

When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union fell into dissolution, there was a realization that the old rules and wisdoms regarding the Cold War were over. Canada was charged with the responsibility of reinventing its global image. During that time, a human security agenda took to the forefronts of foreign policy. This was followed by the assertion that, “The protection against risk and threats to individuals and people is as important as the risks and threats of nations.”

Axworthy explained that the Chrétien government was committed “to protecting people regardless of whether they have Canadian passports or not. One of the first examples of that is when we were approached to become involved in the campaign to ban landmines.”

In 1997, the mine ban treaty was signed in Ottawa and subsequently ratified by 40 states. Formally known as the Ottawa Treaty, the initiative was regarded worldwide as an acclaimed success with a total of 156 state parties signed on.

Axworthy was nominated for the Nobel peace prize for his leadership with the Ottawa Treaty.

“This year, the fatality rate from landmines is about 15, 000, ten years ago it was more like 80 or 90,000. And that didn’t take a big public relations firm to brand Canada as a newfound comet in the sky. It just took some serious diplomatic work,” Axworthy explained.

“Following on the landmines campaigns, Canada is in a unique position to do something with the international criminal court.”

The only new institution internationally that has been developed in this new millennium, Axworthy explained, is the international criminal court. An important impact the Canadians had is that this world statute was taken as an international treaty on crimes against humanity and it was written into the Canadian domestic federal law in the criminal code.

“That has provided the ‘image’ model example for a wide variety of other jurisdictions around the world and we provide very strong counselling and advice to recruit people from law schools to go around the world and say well help put that statue into domestic law.”

“Now you can say there’s an emerging, embryonic rule of law, a sense of justice, beginning to shape internationally,” Axworthy concluded.

Axworthy is best known for his position as Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1996 following a cabinet shuffle. He has since retired from politics in 2000 and has returned to a life of academia. He is currently President of the University of Winnipeg.