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Federal Election 2021: The unexpected role of foreign policy


While foreign policy discussions tend to fade into the background during federal elections as candidates shift their focus to issues that directly affect voters, this election is different. From the onset of the campaign, which overlapped with the Taliban seizing control of Afghanistan, foreign policy has played a more significant role in the campaign than in recent years. The situation in Afghanistan is not the only aspect of foreign policy to feature heavily in this election, with opposition party leaders continuing to use these issues to highlight the Liberals’ inaction throughout the campaign, including during the final Leaders’ Debate.

Here’s a closer look at how foreign policy has inserted itself into the 2021 election:


Images of the Prime Minister, having just had Parliament dissolved by newly-installed Governor General Mary Simon, strolling out of Rideau Hall, were juxtaposed with scenes of chaos in Kabul. The volatile situation in Afghanistan was the spark that forced leaders to address thorny foreign policy issues on the campaign trail since the election was called. According to a poll conducted by Nanos Research, a total of 45 percent of Canadians who were surveyed rated the government’s performance regarding this issue as either poor or very poor.

Further, according to earlier research done by the non-profit Angus Reid Institute, four out of five Canadians are paying attention to this issue, and are waiting to see how it plays out before deciding whether or not the evacuation mission was a failure on the part of Canada’s leadership. While this data also showed that 59 per cent said the situation overseas will have no impact on how they vote, one fifth of respondents said the events in Afghanistan have made them less likely to support the Liberals. The data shows that the incumbent Liberals can solidify support if Justin Trudeau can demonstrate his potential to play the “elder statesman” role on the international stage for a third term.

During the English Leaders’ Debate, Erin O’Toole highlighted the callousness of Mr. Trudeau’s decision to call an election as Afghanistan was falling to the Taliban with 1,200 Canadians and hundreds more translators waiting for help from Canada: “You put your own political interests ahead of the well-being of thousands of people. Leadership is about putting others first, not yourself.” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh agreed with Mr. O’Toole that calling an election during the crisis was a “poor display of leadership.” As Mr. Trudeau defended his government’s response in Afghanistan, Green Party leader Annamie Paul delivered him a low blow when she said, “it seems like we got better information on our smartphones than Mr. Trudeau got from our entire intelligence service.” Mr. Trudeau shot back at his opponents, accusing them of talking down the work by the military and diplomats to get 3,700 people out of Afghanistan, and 43 more with the help of Qatar earlier that day.


Between Meng Wanzhou’s impending extradition verdict, the incarceration of the two Michaels, and ongoing trade tensions, it is obvious that Canada should be having a serious discussion about how to approach its relationship with China. Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau shared before the election that the government did not know when China would release a verdict on Michael Kovrig.

Further, at the onset of the election, the federal cybersecurity agency warned that Canada could be a target for foreign interference in the federal election. After the 2020 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Canada’s leaders should be concerned by how some members of the public may respond if they suspect interference in this federal election. But while China may be top of mind for Mr. Garneau and members of the security establishment, the Liberals have been quiet on the larger topic, only making one reference to it in its platform, which identified China as an authoritarian state alongside Russia and Iran.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives have outlined a plan to harden the line on China, allowing Mr. O’Toole to leverage it against the Liberal Party, citing inexcusable inaction in the face of clear human rights abuses. During the English Leaders’ Debate, he said that Mr. Trudeau had been “absent” on Huawei, not standing up for the 300,000 Canadians in Hong Kong, and failing to fight to free Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. To quote, “Canada is the country that was leading the fight against apartheid, we created the UN Human Rights Code. We should be leaders for our values, and you’ve let the Michaels down. And we have to get serious with China.” However, experts have since warned that the Conservative Party’s plan on China could make the already turbulent relationship worse. Mr. Trudeau defended his government’s efforts to get the Michaels home, retorting: “If you want to get the Michaels home, you do not simply lob tomatoes across the Pacific.”


Variants like the Delta strain are emerging in underdeveloped nations in which much of the population has yet to even receive a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. According to research conducted by Abacus Data in May, a large majority of Canadians (85%) are at least somewhat worried about new variants developing elsewhere and coming to Canada. Further, 78 percent of Canadians recognize that if we don’t vaccinate everyone in the world, new variants will continue to surface. Two-thirds agree that the global vaccination rate impacts us all, and that none of us are fully protected until all of us are vaccinated.

With vaccine hesitancy becoming more of an issue in Canada, and new variants increasing the odds that Canadians will need booster shots, we would have expected to see federal party leaders focusing on how we can end this pandemic collectively. Yet, the only discussion of substance on the issue during the campaign has been on whether party leaders support mandatory vaccinations for federal workers and federally regulated industries.

As Mr. Trudeau contends for a third term, Canada’s foreign policy has come under scrutiny, and while voter intention might not be directly swayed by these issues, Canadians are paying attention. If the electorate is looking for better leadership on the international stage, has Mr. Trudeau convinced the public that he is the right person for the job? Likewise, has the opposition demonstrated how their approaches to these issues would be more effective?

NATIONAL's team will be monitoring these issues and seeking answers to these questions in the final stretch of the campaign.

Consult our 2021 Federal Election section to get the latest perspectives from our experts.