OTTAWA — The former director of Canada’s spy agency says recent Conservative and Liberal governments have “failed abominably” on foreign policy work with China.
Richard Fadden, who led the Canadian Security Intelligence Service until his retirement in 2016, told an audience Thursday that he sat in on cabinet meetings for years “listening to ministers and prime ministers trying to come up with foreign policy.”
“The success rate has been pretty low” for each government, he said on a panel at the Summit on Canada’s Global Leadership in Ottawa.
The frank words by the ex-national security adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former prime minister Stephen Harper come a day after U.S. President Donald Trump signed a bipartisan bill supporting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
Watch: China furious after Trump signs Hong Kong legislation. Story continues below video.
“Mr. Harper’s government, Mr. Trudeau’s government both tried very hard to articulate a Canadian policy… and they both failed abominably because there was no consensus in cabinet at all,” Fadden said. “And there’s no consensus in Canada about the policies.”
Protests in Hong Kong have continued for six months after opposition to a controversial, now-scrapped extradition bill ignited decades of simmering tensions between the semi-autonomous region and Beijing.
Trudeau called for the “de-escalation of tensions” in Hong Kong back in August, but has remained relatively quiet since. The region is home to approximately 300,000 Canadian citizens.
Two separate issues have exacerbated Canada-China relations in the last year: Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou’s arrest at the Vancouver International Airport and her ensuing extradition hearing; and the continued Chinese detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
The relationship between the two countries has turned frosty. In May, China’s former ambassador to Canada described bilateral relations to be at “rock bottom.”
Fadden said Canada doesn’t have close relations with countries that don’t share similar principles, suggesting that strategic diplomacy could make the country less isolated.
He recently identified China and Russia as two “biggies” among states that are “prepared to use virtually any means to attain their goals.”
“Our values are not always shared by the rest of the planet,” Fadden told the crowd. “We have a bad habit of simply assuming that we are correct and everybody else is wrong.”
Fadden said in the three years since he retired, conversations he’s had around the world about Canada have reflected little praise for Canadian diplomacy. “We have a reputation of lecturing the planet. And that’s not enough. Telling people they’re not doing things properly is not good enough.”
Panellist Bob Rae, former interim leader of the federal Liberal party, agreed. Canada needs to engage with the world by contributing more resources or risk not being taken seriously, he said, suggesting there’s little value in being the “best sermonizers in the world.”
He added the government shouldn’t feel intimidated to be upfront with the public and state it doesn’t have a position on Hong Kong. But the “dramatic shift” in China’s foreign policy will likely impact the entire world, he said.
Chinese government and Hong Kong officials have repeatedly dismissed international opposition to its handling of human rights and democratic issues as “unwarranted” interventions into its internal affairs.
Rae suggested another avenue for criticism: China’s promise to the world of “one country, two systems.”
“That is an area where one can say to the Chinese, look, we’re not interfering in your country. We’re discussing with you a commitment that you made internationally to other countries and the United Nations… let’s have that discussion.”
The Liberal government hit reset on its foreign policy last week.
Trudeau appointed Francois-Philippe Champagne as Canada’s new foreign affairs minister — a role previously held by now-deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland. Champagne has said securing the release of Canadians Kovrig and Spavor is an “absolute priority” for him.
The Liberal government maintains that both men are being held arbitrarily while Chinese officials claim the two Canadians were arrested on charges related to national security.
Kovrig and Spavor have been detained in China for nearly a year.
Champagne is not the only one meeting with Chinese counterparts to patch the relationship. The government representative in the Senate met with the Chinese ambassador to Canada on Monday. A photo from the pair’s meeting was posted on the Chinese embassy’s website.
Sen. Peter Harder’s office would not say which side asked for the meeting.
The Ontario senator “was pleased to meet with the new Chinese ambassador to discuss a broad range of bilateral and multilateral issues,” a spokeswoman wrote in an email.