The traditional way of looking backwards in order to move forward

Once upon a time, in a Canada long, long ago, the seeds of what would grow to become Canada’s role as a middle power were planted. Tending this crop was Lester “Mike” Pearson, then minister of external affairs for the federal government. During a stop at the Civic Auditorium in downtown Winnipeg, Manitoba, Pearson, who would soon become Canada’s 14th prime minister, gave a speech about his role defusing the 1957 Suez Crisis, and what he said would change the life of one young person in the audience.

Now, more than 50 years later, in a presentation delivered at York’s 50+50 Symposium on Saturday, March 28, Canadian statesman Lloyd Axworthy recalled that pivotal moment as he delivered his presentation “International Relations: What’s a Nice Middle Power Like You Doing in a World Like This?”.

Above: Lloyd Axworthy addresses the 50+50 Symposium audience

“I was a senior in high school and I was told by my history teacher that it would be in my best interest to go downtown to the Civic Auditorium in downtown Winnipeg to listen to a politician,” said Axworthy. “During that time in my life, the idea of listening to a politician wasn’t high on my list of things to do, that is until I was told that 25 per cent of my mark depended on it. Then all of a sudden it appealed to my wonderful sense of academic discipline and off I went to listen to Mr. “Mike” Lester Pearson.”

Pearson, recalled Axworthy, did not fit his Hollywood image of a politician. “He did not have a chin, not much hair, he lisped a bit and he wore a bow tie,” said Axworthy. “But once I began to listen to Mr. Pearson, something happened to me and I began to understand what it meant to be a Canadian.

“As Mr. Pearson described coming out of his Nobel Prize experience, he talked about the way in which our behaviour as Canadians on the global stage – including our capacity to negotiate, our diplomacy and the fact that Canadians were used to a more complex and diverse society – were attributes that gave Canada the ability to ride over the increasingly vicious and restrictive conditions of the Cold War.”

Axworthy, who is now the president and vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg, described how Pearson talked about parlaying those unique Canadian attributes into what would become the proposal for a peacekeeping mission to separate the squabbling parties involved in the 1957 Suez Crisis, an innovation that cemented Canada’s unique role as a middle power.

“It struck a chord with me,” said Axworthy. Much of what makes Canada’s past and present role as a middle power is in part what Pearson was describing, including Canada’s blended European and Aboriginal history. “We’ve borrowed much from the historical experience of our First Nations peoples and what Mr. Pearson was saying to me as a high-school senior was that we need to draw on those rich traditions.”

Fast forward 50 years to a dinner of the Treaty Commission of Manitoba held earlier this year. Axworthy was asked to attend and there he met with the committee of elders from the Crow Nation. As he listened to the elders read from the Book of the Crow People, Axworthy said, he was reminded of Pearson’s words. The Crow People talked about their rich traditions including the innovative governance of one of their 19th-century chiefs, Plenty Coups. Troubled by the arrival of European explorers and loss of the buffalo, the mainstay of the Crow Nation, Plenty Coups counselled his young people that rather than going to war with the Europeans, they should obtain an education and learn the ways of the Europeans. His people were able to acquire these skills and develop a new set of skills, said Axworthy, that are apparent to this day.

“When compared to many other First Nations of the time, the Crow People survived and maintained their traditions and did this in a very important way,” he said. “It was called the traditional way of looking backwards; it wasn’t the traditional way of hanging on with grim teeth to face what’s ahead. It was how they should build on their values and the intrinsic sense of their people to find a modern and contemporary idiom in which to express that sense and in which to counsel it.”

When one considers Canada’s role as a middle power, its foreign policy and its traditions are steeped in the Canadian way of doing things, said Axworthy. “For Canada, our identity has seeped through a long series of generations and what has developed is an interesting chemistry that bubbles away and that can’t be found anywhere else. It is just who we are and that translates into the world today. We are not better, we are just different.”

That difference has made the difference in a world fraught with big guns and ambitions. “Canada is unique. Right now, there are countries tromping around in their big league boots saying they are bigger, smarter and tougher than anybody else because they have a nuclear weapon,” said Axworthy. “Did you know that in 1945-1946, Canada had a nuclear weapon and was a full participant in the Manhattan Project? Canada had full access to all the technology and all the capacity to build our own bomb.

“But in some kind of quirky Canadian way, inside cabinet with no debate in the House of Commons, Canada just decided to say ‘No thanks, we don’t want to do this, we don’t want to be a nuclear power. We would rather use what we have and translate this into peaceful uses’,” said Axworthy.

Canada had made the first voluntary choice not to adopt this weaponry and that choice gave the country a privileged role as a middle power. “We have interesting people in this country, who, based on their roots, think differently on the global stage. Canada was thinking for itself.”

That capacity has led Canada into leadership roles including the campaign to abolish landmines, human security initiatives in the wake of the genocide in Rwanda and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which Axworthy said includes not only protection of human rights, but the protection of group rights including those covering Aboriginal peoples, same sex marriages and women’s rights. “This goes back to the time of Louis Riel in 1854. The Métis First Nation understood this concept and in 1982, we drew on our traditions to put that concept into our charter.”

Where does Canada go in the future? Axworthy said that for Canada to continue to be successful and respected as a middle power, it must continue to draw on its history, unique heritage and Aboriginal traditions to go forward. The most significant challenge, he said that is facing Canada today is the opening up of the Northwest Passage and the impact on climate change in the Arctic.

“We are on the front line of the climate change debate. Canada needs to develop a made-in-Canada solution to deal with the new dynamic,” said Axworthy. “Canada is now in a very new landscape in which each tree and twig is totally intertwined. How does our role work? Can we still be the convener, initiator and the mediator as a middle power should be, or are we going to be swept aside?”

The solution, said Axworthy, depends on what Canada does next and if the current and future governments understand the significance of the Canadian differences. “We need to build on our First Nations traditions, our history and our differences to go forward. Right now the frontline is the Arctic. Other countries are eyeing the Arctic oil and resources, there are no rules and they can do what they want. We are back in a free-for-all Wild West of armament. The European Union, China, Russia and Japan all want to be players in the north,” said Axworthy.

“Who is taking the lead as mediator and in setting up a new framework to determine how fishing takes place, what to do with oil spills and preservation of Inuit culture? Should that not be us? Global warming represents probably as great a risk as nuclear weapons for totally disrupting the way we live. Should we not be out front using every single ounce of our intellect, our diplomacy, traditional knowledge and energy to say ‘let’s get a solution to this before it is too late’?” he said.

The answer to those questions remains to be seen, said Axworthy. But like a cryptic crossword, the solution lies in the clue "looking back to go forward".

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor