Tweeting from the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau repeatedly insisted that both Canada and members of the transatlantic military alliance are committed to defending democracy. But his government’s track record of publicly supporting anti-democratic forces runs counter to that rhetoric.
The NATO summit has centred on the ongoing war in Ukraine and the question of whether or not that country would be invited to join the alliance. On Tuesday, leaders of NATO’s 31 member countries signed an agreement not to give Ukraine a firm timetable for membership, over concerns that doing so could draw the nuclear-armed bloc into a direct confrontation with Russia.
During the summit, Canada announced $541 million in “new funding and projects to support Ukraine and strengthen transatlantic security,” along with plans to double the Canadian Armed Forces’ presence in NATO-member Latvia, which shares a border with Russia.
At the summit on Tuesday, Trudeau tweeted: “Canada is making significant investments in defence and security. And we’ll continue to stand strong against threats to democracy and the rule of law – and stand ready to strengthen the Alliance’s collective defence.”
The same day, he wrote: “Canada remains committed to providing [Ukraine] with the support they need. We are always going to defend democracy – both at home and around the world.”
Despite Trudeau's tributes to "always" defending democracy, the prime minister had shared a photo of himself earlier that day shaking hands with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the authoritarian president of NATO member Turkey, which during the summit agreed to support Sweden’s NATO membership bid.
“We're committed to working together and upholding the principles of peace and collective security around the world,” said Trudeau of his meeting with Erdoğan.
Erdoğan recently won re-election in Turkey following years of what has been described by Human Rights Watch (HRW) as the Turkish president’s “onslaught on rights and democracy.” This has included efforts to close down the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and court-imposed political bans on some of Erdoğan’s other rivals.
After Erdoğan's election victory in late May, Trudeau offered warm words of congratulations, stating: “Together, Canada and Türkiye will continue to work to build a more prosperous future for people in both countries and around the world.”
Turkey is not the only country with an anti-democratic government that Canada has stood shoulder to shoulder with in recent years. Here is a non-exhaustive look at some of these states and movements.
Anti-Democratic NATO Members
Besides Turkey, examples of other NATO member countries with deeply authoritarian governments include Poland and Hungary. While Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s far-right government, which has an ambivalent position vis-a-vis NATO, has received a muted reception from Trudeau, the same is not true of Poland.
Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, who ran for election in 2015 with the right-wing and ardently pro-NATO Law and Justice Party, recently signed a highly controversial bill creating a commission ostensibly tasked with investigating “Russian influence” in Polish politics. Critics say the move will in reality be used to harass political rivals, and potentially ban them from running for office.
In its 2021 report on the country, HRW warned: “The Polish government continued to undermine rule of law by strengthening its control over the judiciary and smearing journalists and human rights activists critical of the government.” Duda’s government has also overseen an increase in attacks against LGBTQ people and women’s rights activists.
Trudeau met with Duda in March 2022, with a PMO statement suggesting that the two leaders share a common goal of defending democracy. The Canadian prime minister also “commended the remarkable efforts by the Polish government” during the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Trudeau’s only pushback against Duda in the past year reportedly came in a closed-door conversation about the country’s anti-LGBTQ record during the Polish president’s visit to Toronto in June. Notwithstanding, Canada and Poland have strongly bolstered their military and economic ties over the past 12 months.
While frequently contrasted against the Russian government, a right-wing authoritarian regime that clamps down on basic democratic rights, Ukraine has also been criticized for anti-democratic measures taken during its fight against the Russian invasion. This has included heavy-handed restrictions on journalists, and outright bans on religious organizations and political parties accused of holding pro-Russian sympathies.
Restoring Ties With Saudi Arabia
Perhaps the most conspicuous blot on Canada’s claim to supporting democracy is its ties with the dictatorship of Saudi Arabia. As The Maple recently reported:
“Global Affairs Canada (GAC) announced … that it is restoring diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia after a nearly five year spat that nonetheless saw trade between the two countries largely continue apace… The news of the formal restoration of diplomatic ties came between rounds of executions carried out by the Saudi dictatorship and that have been described as ‘callous’ and ‘unfair’ by international human rights monitors. Meanwhile, there is little sign the kingdom is taking meaningful action to address a range of other serious human rights abuses.”
A majority of Canadian arms exports to non-U.S. countries in 2022 went to Saudi Arabia, which has waged a brutal bombing campaign in neighbouring Yemen since 2015. As The Maple reported:
“According to GAC’s recently published ‘2022 Exports of Military Goods’ report, Canadian arms manufacturers exported a total of $2.1 billion in goods to non-U.S. countries last year. Of those, the dictatorship of Saudi Arabia alone accounted for $1.15 billion in goods, more than 54 per cent of the total.”
The report also showed that Canadian military exports to the state of Israel in 2022 were valued at more than $21 million. Reports published by multiple international human rights organizations in the past two years stated that Israel maintains a constitutionally entrenched system of apartheid that strips Palestinians of basic rights, and which critics argue disqualifies Israel’s supporters’ claims of the country having the only functioning democracy in the Middle East.
While the Trudeau government has offered some words of criticism against Israel’s current far-right government, these have not been matched by actions.
Meanwhile, GAC instructed International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan to lobby the anti-democratic Qatari monarchy for a potential light-armoured vehicle deal with General Dynamics Land Systems - Canada during his visit to the FIFA World Cup last fall.
Supporting Coups In Latin America
The Trudeau government has also backed anti-democratic forces in Latin America. These include:
Bolivia: In 2019, the Trudeau government supported a coup that ousted left-wing Bolivian president Evo Morales and installed far-right leader Jeanine Áñez, a Christian fundamentalist and racist, having rejected Morales’ first-round election victory based on debunked claims of irregularity. After Áñez twice postponed new elections, Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo won re-election with more than 50 per cent of the popular vote.
Venezuela: In another failed attempt to remove a left-wing government, Canada supported and funded forces aligned with the self-described “interim government" in Venezuela, which collapsed following a crisis of legitimacy at the beginning of this year. The so-called “interim” government’s claim to power had no constitutional basis, and the group twice failed to seize power by military means. Canada was among the last countries to quit its recognition of the “interim government.”
Peru: More recently, Canada supported a political coup in Peru, and has offered only mild statements against violent crackdowns on Indigenous protesters. As The Maple reported in March:
“International trade minister Mary Ng emphasized Canada's support for Peru's deeply unpopular government in a meeting with the country's prime minister at a mining convention earlier this month, but her ministry says it also respects the right to ‘protest safely’ amid a violent crackdown on largely Indigenous demonstrators.”
Editor's note, July 13, 2023: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Vilnius as the capital of Latvia. In fact, it is the capital of Lithuania. The story has been corrected.
Now, let's turn to the members' corner...
Covering all of the Canadian government's acts of support for anti-democratic regimes would far exceed the length of this newsletter. The same is true of NATO itself, whose past military interventions have had disastrous consequences for democracy and human rights. Here's what else you need to know.