After parliamentary elections in Canada, the Conservative Party that was in power for almost a decade lost its leadership to the Liberal Party. Such a power shift could change Canadian foreign policy and its approach to Russia.

Political life in Canada can hardly be called dull and colorless after recent parliamentary elections, having just witnessed a shocking reversal of fortunes for the nation’s three leading political parties. The results have not only stirred up Canada’s political scene, but also raised speculation that the country could shift its foreign policy priorities.

The Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which has ruled Canada for the past ten years, lost 60 of its seats in the House of Commons, retaining only 99 members of parliament, ending up in second place. The center-left New Democratic Party (NDP) moved from second place to third, while the victory went to the Liberal Party, which increased its seats in parliament five-fold. Now it will command an absolute majority with 184 MPs.

The leader of the Liberals is the eldest son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau – the 44-year-old Justin Trudeau, who led a spectacular electoral campaign, convincing Canadian voters in the correctness of his Liberal Party’s initiatives to support the purchasing power of the “middle class” and increased investment into education.

Economic concerns, not foreign policy, matter most

Traditionally, Canada has been characterized by a very pragmatic foreign policy: the main objectives of national diplomacy were creating economic growth and the best conditions for Canadian firms operating in international markets. Thus, it is no coincidence that Canada’s foreign ministry is called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.

The nearly ten years of Conservative rule have shown that the main political and economic partner of Canada remains the United States. The U.S. and Canada, by the way, share the longest unguarded international border. The Canadian armed forces number less than 70,000, and in general, the national security issues are solved within the framework of NATO and via special U.S.-Canadian agreements.

Participation of the Canadian Air Force in the bombing of Libya and in attacking the positions of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, as well as Canadian troops participating in campaigns in Afghanistan shows that Ottawa’s foreign policy in recent years has been closely tied to Washington’s.

The Conservatives believe that in the future Canada must closely coordinate its anti-terrorism strategy with its partners in NATO. University of Montreal Professor David Mandel unsurprisingly notes that, “It has been a long time since Canada had such a pro-American government as that of the Harper Cabinet.”  

However, foreign policy and national security were not among the dominant issues on the electoral agenda. Yet, both the Liberals and the New Democrats have criticized the foreign policy followed by the Conservative government.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair called the participation of Canadian military aircraft in the bombing of the jihadist bases in Syria an error, while Justin Trudeau feels that the current foreign policy is not effective. Thus, he sarcastically said that Stephen Harper’s loud demand that Vladimir Putin “Leave Ukraine” fell on deaf ears, because “Canada has such a small role in world politics...”

The new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau does not dispute the need to continue working for the support of free trade at the global level, and he is also a supporter of maintaining friendship with the United States. Nevertheless, at the same time, the leader of the Liberal Party stands in favor of a more diversified foreign policy.

Relations with Russia: Still no signs of change on the horizon

If we look at all the leading Western powers, then in the past few years, Canada has been demonstratively the toughest when it comes to relations with Moscow. Primarily this is connected, without a doubt, to the events in Ukraine. Vasily Sokolov, expert at the Institute of USA and Canada Studies, is right when he noted that, “Canada’s attitude towards Russia is highly dependent on the local Ukrainian lobby.”

This Ukrainian lobby historically has held anti-Russian positions. Official Ottawa reacted very harshly to the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Stephen Harper had this to say on the issue: “Russia is deliberately opposed to the good things that we are trying to achieve in the world.”

After the events in Ukraine and Crimea, Canada openly supported anti-Russia sanctions and, in comparison with its allies in NATO, wanted these to be even tougher.

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Just in 2015, Ottawa twice expanded the list of Russian officials that are denied the right to come to Canada. This provoked an angry reaction from the Russian Foreign Ministry, noting in one communique that, “The Harper team is trying to suck up to the pro-Bandera community in Canada, just to get more votes in the upcoming elections.”

Should we expect a warming in Canadian-Russian relations after the victory of the Liberals, given that Justin Trudeau is a more pragmatic and less ideological politician than his conservative rival?

It will take some time to get an exact answer to this question. It is obvious that the Liberal Trudeau will also have to take into account the “Ukrainian factor.”

Therefore, one week before the elections, at a meeting with the leaders of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, he assured those present that if he won the election, the Liberals would continue to support the Ukrainian people and the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

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And when it comes to the foreign policy followed by Putin, the new Prime Minister of Canada noted that this policy demonstrated “dangerous behavior in Eastern Europe, is harmful to Syria, and very provocative in the Arctic.”

Moreover, Justin Trudeau assured voters before the elections that Canada would continue to coordinate its policy with regard to Russia with its Western partners, in order to force the Kremlin to make changes to its foreign policy. For now, then, we can hardly expect a “thaw” in Russian-Canadian political relations.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.