Address by Minister of Foreign Affairs to the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations


February 21, 2020 – Montréal, Quebec

Check against delivery. This speech has been translated in accordance with the Government of Canada’s official languages policy and edited for posting and distribution in accordance with its communications policy.

Thank you for this warm introduction.

What a pleasure to be back here at CORIM [Montreal Council on Foreign Relations].

The last time I was here before CORIM, I was Minister of International Trade.

CETA [Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement]—our free trade agreement with the European Union—had just entered into force, thanks to the foresight of Pierre-Marc Johnson, former premier of Quebec. We had also just signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. And today, as you know, we are finalizing the ratification of the new NAFTA.

This means that today, Canada has privileged access to nearly 1.2 billion consumers thanks to modern and progressive trade agreements, making Canada the only G7 country to have a free trade agreement with all other G7 members. It is a fact that I take pride in repeating in all the forums around the world.

This is great news for our economy and for our businesses. For our artists, for the environment, for youth.

I’ve repeatedly said it, over the past 35 years: CORIM has carved out a place for itself as the ultimate Montréal, Quebec and Canadian platform to offer those who share an interest in world affairs an exceptional forum for discussion.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak to you about the mandate given to me by Prime Minister Trudeau, for Canadian foreign policy, as we enter this third decade of the 21st century.

Canada’s interests, values ​​and principles are at the heart of everything we do on the international stage.

From our commitment within multilateral institutions, to our trade agreements, through our defence and promotion of human rights.

This approach is more relevant and more important than ever in an increasingly unpredictable world.

A world in which the international system, as we know it, is under severe strain.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As you know, our world is going through a period of deep transformations and uncertainties.

We see this with, among other things, a rise in populism, a rise in protectionism and a growth in economic and technological inequalities.

We also see it with a rise in economic, political and diplomatic power from the West to Asia.

We see this with a decline in human rights and an upsurge in the selective application of international law.

Finally, we see this with a profound questioning of multilateral institutions and of the rule-based international order.

Indeed, we are seeing the emergence of a multipolar world with new epicentres of influence and competition over ideas and models of governance.

Around the world, human rights are increasingly under threat.

From the devastating plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar, to a rise of antisemitic and Islamophobic rhetoric and behaviour, to attacks on front line human rights defenders. From impunity for those who abuse their power, to the flouting of international law.

Add to this portrait the immense demographic transformation taking place in the world. By 2050, the world’s population could increase by 2.2 billion, almost half of which in Africa alone.

The 10 countries with the youngest populations in the world are all in Africa with a median age of around 16 years. This continent will offer immense possibilities but will also have its share of difficulties to overcome if the international community does not maintain the necessary support for stability, economic security or education. It is with this in mind that I went to Africa three times in three months to listen, exchange and help.

All this, without mentioning the existential threat of our time: the climate crisis, as the recent fires in Australia remind us so well.

And to those who still doubt the urgency of this crisis, our message is clear on all the stands: Yes, the climate crisis is very real! And yes, we must take immediate urgent action to deal with it individually and collectively.

And this climate crisis cannot and must not be used as a political or partisan issue.

The climate crisis is the moral challenge of our time, and Canada will continue to play a leading role in the fight against climate change.

When it comes to the climate crisis, the cost of inaction and failure far, far exceeds the price of action.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We live in a complex world.

A complex and increasingly unpredictable world, as evidenced by the coronavirus epidemic or the situation we are currently facing with Iran.

But in this complex and fraught world, there are also hopeful signs.

Inspirational people around the world are advancing our societies and improving the lives of marginalized people.

There is a growing consensus that there is an urgent need to act on the climate crisis, largely among young people who are bravely sounding the alarm. The young Canadian Autumn Peltier, the water rights warrior, is a prime example.

There is also a growing consensus on human rights, including women’s rights, the rights of LGBTQ2 people and democratic rights.

From Venezuela to Sudan and beyond, people stand up and demand that their government respect these rights. Canada is proud to stand by their side.

Increasingly, women are taking their place at the negotiating table, whether to resolve conflicts, conclude trade agreements or rule cities and countries.

Canada is proud to have a feminist foreign policy, not because it looks good, but because it produces tangible and measurable results. I witnessed it first hand during my recent visit to Mali and across Africa. It is not a question of strengthening the power of women, they are already strong; it is a question of removing the obstacles to their full emancipation, to their leadership.

Our agenda on women, peace and security is a central element of our policy.

In fact, during this mandate, I will strengthen the foundations of this policy by working with civil society to launch a white paper on Canada’s feminist foreign policy.

In short, we live in a world where the possibilities for international collaboration and cooperation are limitless, largely thanks to the standards and multilateral institutions established over the past 75 years.

Since the end of the Second World War, we have witnessed one of the longest periods of peace between great powers in history and the unprecedented creation of wealth, even if it is true they are not distributed fairly.

This remarkable feat is based on the principle that major international challenges require global solutions. The idea that the challenges facing humanity cannot be solved within the confines of states alone.

Hence the existence of a framework of institutions and standards commonly known as the rules-based international order.

A framework that all countries, no matter how small, can count on to defend their interests while ensuring the collective interests of the entire international community.

It is a framework through which we have been able to advance Canada’s foreign policy priorities for decades. As Henri Lacordaire said, “Between the weak and the strong, it is the law that liberates.”

But rules-based international order is under threat today.

This is why it is necessary to support and modernize the multilateral system in order to ensure its sustainability while adapting it to the new realities of today.

And this is where Canada can and must play a leading role on the international stage.

It’s not only in our national interest, it’s also what the international community expects from Canada.


Because Canada has not only always been a champion and defender of multilateralism, but Canada has also been at the root of the institutions, principles and values ​​that drive multilateralism.

In the earliest days after World War II, for example, Canada was there, helping to create the Bretton Woods institutions.

In 1947, Canada was among the 23 nations that signed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which would later become the World Trade Organization.

Canada is a founding member of the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO].

A Canadian, John Humphrey, was actively engaged in shaping the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which still today serves as the foundation to protect the dignity of all people.

Another Canadian, Lester B. Pearson, earned the Nobel Peace Prize for devising the form of military intervention that has come to be known as peacekeeping.

And that’s not all.

Let us remember Lloyd Axworthy, who was the architect of the Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel mines.

It was also Canada, when we sat on the UN Security Council, that pioneered the concept of the “responsibility to protect,” a mechanism to protect victims of genocide. Like the women’s peace and security agenda, a very Canadian initiative.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to assert and exercise our leadership internationally.

And the good news is that we have everything to succeed and assume this leadership.

Canada has a voice at almost every table: the G7, the G20, La Francophonie, the Commonwealth, NATO, the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] and so on.

The very principles on which our country’s confederation is founded—peace, order and good government—resonate in many corners of the planet.

But let’s be clear: our reputation and credibility rest on our ability to demonstrate to our partners and allies how—in concrete terms—our principles and values ​​guide our diplomacy.

Let me now present to you the priorities that will guide my mandate as minister of foreign affairs; priorities to advance Canada’s interests through multilateralism, trade and human rights.


First, Iran and the tragedy of Flight PS752, a tragedy that illustrates once again the importance of diplomacy and multilateralism and the need to adapt quickly to circumstances.

We chose dialogue while remaining firm so that justice could be done for the families of the victims.

Canada has shown leadership with the creation of the International Coordination and Response Group for Victims of Flight PS752, which ensures that the international community speaks with one voice vis-à-vis Iran.

And despite the pitfalls, despite the lack of diplomatic relations with the Iranian regime, we were able to quickly dispatch investigators to the field and repatriate the bodies of the victims, according to the wishes expressed by the families.

That being said, much work remains to be done in order for Iran to fully assume responsibility for this tragic event, including a full and transparent investigation, the need for Iran to get the black boxes downloaded and analyzed without delay and a swift compensation settlement for the families of the victims based on international standards.

We owe it to the families to get all the answers to the questions surrounding this terrible tragedy.

We will continue to hold the Iranian regime accountable.

We will judge Iran not by its words but by its actions. The world is watching.

Regarding the black boxes, I repeat here the call of Canada and the international community to Iran: the black boxes must be transferred to France to be analyzed without delay, in accordance with Annex 13 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation.


Now let me talk about China.

First, on the coronavirus epidemic and the global effort to contain it.

As with the Zika virus epidemic in 2016, the Ebola virus in 2014, the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009 or even SARS in 2003, it has always been vital that countries work together to prevent diseases from spreading.

Renowned Canadian epidemiologist Dr. Bruce Aylward leads a team of WHO [World Health Organization] experts from around the world to China to study the coronavirus.

Throughout this crisis, we have been in constant contact with international partners to work together as efficiently as necessary.

And thanks to the cooperation of the Chinese and Japanese authorities, we were able to repatriate nearly 550 of our citizens to the country.

However, it should not be inferred that Canada’s relationship with China has returned to normal.

As you know, our relationship with China is complex and multidimensional.

The year 2020 marks 50 years of diplomatic relations between our two countries, and we are currently going through a turbulent period in our common diplomatic history.

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been arbitrarily detained for over a year.

Our top priority remains to secure their release.

We are also working to obtain clemency for Robert Schellenberg, sentenced to death by China.

Here again, faced with a difficult and complex situation, Canada is not going it alone.

A multitude of international partners share our opinion: the actions of a state within the framework of an international treaty must not generate reprisals against its citizens abroad.

That said, however difficult and complex it may be, Canadians know that our relationship with China remains important in many ways.

Finding the right balance is a delicate operation. There will always be issues on which we will have differences and issues on which we will have overlapping positions. You have to learn to live with this complexity.

I believe in dialogue even if it means having difficult conversations. That’s the nature of diplomacy.

And, yes, it’s possible to work with China on the reform of the WTO [World Trade Organization], while at the same time not be aligned with China on human rights.

Will we continue to emphasize the importance of global rules, principles and protections endorsed by the global community, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the Vienna Convention?


Our relations with China will always be guided by the interests of Canadians, as well as by our commitment to the rules and principles enshrined in international law.

Another priority is our campaign for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Let me first put this approach and the importance it has for Canada into context.

As the Prime Minister once said, obtaining a seat on the Security Council is not an end in itself.

A seat on the Security Council is above all a vehicle for promoting the principles and values ​​that shape our vision of international relations. A vision based on strong and effective multilateralism, and on an international rule-based order.

We are witnessing a major questioning of the capacity of international institutions to respond to the crises of our time, particularly in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

As the model of liberal democracies is put to the test, there is an urgent need to develop new tools and new ways of doing things and to create a new consensus to better face these challenges.

Our campaign for a seat on the Security Council is therefore an opportunity for our government to demonstrate our leadership in the face of the great challenges and crises of our time.

The campaign is an opportunity to assert Canada’s interests, principles and values ​​to give credibility to multilateralism, strengthen it and better adapt it to the realities of today.

From our chairing of the UN Peacebuilding Commission to the Alliance for Multilateralism and the Lima Group to restore democracy in Venezuela.

From the Ottawa Group to the WTO, to the Vancouver Principles for the protection of children in armed conflict.

From La Francophonie (which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year), including APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] and the Commonwealth.

From the Ocean Plastics Charter to the Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations, through to our co-presidency of the next Global Conference for Media Freedom in Quebec on September 17 and 18, 2020—Canada is showing leadership on many international initiatives.

Some will say that the fight for a Security Council seat is not worth it, or that it’s too late.

My answer to that is, it’s never too late to fight for women’s rights, human rights, the environment and democracy.

As for those who criticize the Security Council as outdated and ineffective, we agree that reform is needed. But allow me to paraphrase Winston Churchill, by saying, “It may not be perfect, but it’s the best thing we’ve got!”

Indeed, the UN Security Council is still among the most important tables in the world where major decisions and discussions on peace and security are held.

And it’s a place where Canada can have both relevance and influence.

My speech would not be complete without, of course, talking about our bilateral relationship with the United States.

We are allies, partners and friends, inseparable from our geography, our personal ties and our economic ties.

The new NAFTA opens a new chapter in our relationship. A new chapter that will provide more prosperity, more opportunity and more stability.

As evidenced by the sometimes difficult negotiations of the past two years, our government will always look after the interests of Canadians without compromise.

I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Prime Minister and my predecessor, Chrystia Freeland, for their tireless work, which allows us today to see the future in a much more positive light.

In conclusion, the aims of our foreign policy and my priorities as minister are certainly ambitious.

They have to be because Canada is an ambitious country.

In a polarized world, the international community is asking that voices, like that of Canada, be raised to support and renew multilateralism, contribute to stability and prosperity, and defend the principles of law attached to it.

Many will say that in a context of minority government, we will have to act quickly to achieve our objectives.

But as the African proverb says so well: “If you want to go fast, walk alone. But if you want to go far, let’s walk together.”

And that is what I intend to do during my mandate. Go far for Canada and with Canadians.

Hence the importance of an inclusive approach, where the provinces, the business community, businesses, artists and civil society, in collaboration with our international partners, are all shoulder to shoulder, with us, for a greener, safer, more inclusive and more prosperous world.

Thank you.

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