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Readings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Gerald SchmitzA positive Canadian appeal for global citizenship


The Call of the World
By Bill Graham
UBC Press, 2016, 470 pages

Next Tuesday Americans go to the polls after a campaign that has reflected an ugly negative and pessimistic national mood. Globalization is under attack from both right and left. In place of a confident internationalism the Republican presidential candidate offers a narrow exclusionary xenophobic nativism. “Americanism not globalism will be our creed,” trumpets Donald Trump, promising to “make America great again.” Never mind that the superpower’s stature is a measure of its global engagements.

Canada has so far been spared such demagoguery. We’ve also been fortunate to have in our national politics remarkable individuals with a farsighted vision of Canada in the world. Among the most distinguished is Bill Graham, a member of the Order of Canada who served as a downtown Toronto member of Parliament (1993-2007), chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee (1994-2002), Minister of Foreign Affairs (2002-2004), Minister of National Defence (2004-2006), Leader of the Opposition and interim leader of the Liberal party (2006).

Graham’s “political memoir” The Call of the World is not only one of the best autobiographies ever produced by a Canadian politician, it is a deeply informed and insightful commentary on Canada’s international relations, both in policy and practice, as well as a passionate positive appeal for active citizenship from the local to the global.

Citizen Graham, for all his distinctions, is one of the most accessible and down-to-earth MPs I got to know in over three decades as a researcher on Parliament Hill. (Full disclosure: I had the privilege of reviewing the manuscript, having worked closely with him — as research director of the House foreign affairs and international trade standing committee [SCFAIT] during his chairship, and then in 2003 as adviser to the minister for a foreign policy “dialogue” with Canadians.) Even as a minister he would sometimes ride his bike to the office and events. His record of honourable and fulfilling public service is without artifice or affectation.

Graham is also a great storyteller and this revealing, richly rewarding, and highly readable account of his life and career sparkles with fascinating anecdotes and recalled conversations, enlivened by some 60 photographs. He had a happy and privileged, but hardly ordinary, childhood. Only as an adult did he learn that his stepfather, a wealthy B.C. businessman, was actually his biological father. Growing up in elite company, he was blessed with first-class educational opportunity. At age 11 he was sent as a boarder to Upper Canada College in Toronto.

Entering university Graham also trained in the naval reserve earning an officer’s commission. With his friend Patrick Wooten he undertook an intrepid months-long journey driving by land rover across Europe to India and back, passing through regions and countries (the Balkans, Turkey, the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq) he would later visit under very different circumstances as Canada’s foreign minister. Already as a young man he was eagerly expanding his horizons of experience and developing keen powers of observation.

At the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, where he met his wife, Cathy, and of which he would become chancellor upon leaving politics, Graham was a brilliant student of law with an uncommon interest in international law. He would go on to earn a doctorate at the Université de Paris. In Paris he practised for a time with the firm Fasken & Calvin. Ultimately, though, he chose academia over a lucrative private practice, teaching public international law, international trade law and the law of the European Community at the University of Toronto, as well as McGill and the Université de Montréal. Committed to Canada’s linguistic duality, he also did work for the Bilingualism and Biculturalism Commission. For his promotion of the French language the government of France made him a “chevalier de la légion d’honneur.”

No ivory tower scholar, Professor Graham took his belief in the values of diversity, pluralism and mutual accommodation into domestic politics. He’d once been approached by Robert Stanfield to be the Tory research director but, impressed by Pierre Trudeau, gravitated to the Liberals and became active in federal campaigns, becoming the losing candidate for Toronto-Rosedale in 1984 and 1988 (by just 80 votes). He persevered, entering the Commons in 1993 and becoming SCFAIT chair in 1994 after participating in the Chrétien government’s parliamentary foreign policy review. Graham never treated international relations as a rarefied abstraction. By connecting the global with the concerns of his highly diverse constituency that included all income levels and many immigrants, he exemplified an approach that “all geopolitics is local.” He explains that, as SCFAIT chair and later foreign minister, whenever encountering representatives from other countries “I tried to make a connection through someone in my riding who had a difficult personal history or relatives left behind. ‘They expect us to work together to make a better world,’ I often said.”

In Parliament Graham was devoted to achieving civility and co-operation across party lines. He believed strongly in committee independence and commanded the respect of all members. I can vouch that every effort was made at consensus in SCFAIT reports (major ones were on the international financial institutions, circumpolar co-operation, nuclear weapons, the World Trade Organization, the Balkan conflicts, and Central Asia). Graham supported Lloyd Axworthy’s “human security” agenda (notably the convention to ban landmines, international criminal court, the “responsibility to protect” doctrine at the UN) and is a vigorous advocate for a multilateral rules-based liberal international order, including freer trade “accompanied by appropriate international standards.” But he is not uncritical, devoting a chapter to tackling “democratic deficits” in an era of globalization. His colourful observations about Canadian parliamentary life offer similar food for thought. He sees a strong role for elected parliamentarians in terms of domestic accountability, and in advancing a wider parliamentary diplomacy — drawing on his work with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Parliamentary Forum of the Americas.

In the wake of 9/11, and with SCFAIT embarked on a North American relations study, Graham was suddenly elevated to Cabinet in January 2002. In Parts 3 and 4 of the book Graham recounts his time as foreign minister under Chrétien (who called him “professor”) and Paul Martin who moved him to the defence portfolio after the 2004 election. More engaging than any academic treatment, at the same time rigorously reflective, it’s a penetrating candid insider’s commentary — from the minefield of the Israel-Palestine conflict, to the decisions not to join the disastrous 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq or participate in ballistic missile defence, to the sending of combat troops to Afghanistan’s Kandahar province (they arrived in 2006 after the Harper government had been elected).

Chapter 12, “The Unwilling,” is a masterful in-depth, behind-the-scenes account of how Canada resisted American pressures on Iraq. There was a family element too as his son Patrick, an intrepid foreign correspondent, was in Baghdad when the bombs started falling. That period coincided with the foreign policy dialogue I was working on, during which he observes how the cross-country “town halls ended up acting as something of a release valve for public anxiety about the war.” Graham played a key role in the Martin government’s subsequent international policy review and as defence minister became centrally engaged on the Afghanistan file, including choosing Rick Hillier to be chief of the defence staff. He was also prominently involved in the cases of Maher Arar, arrested in the U.S. and tortured in Syria, and Omar Khadr, the child soldier sent to Guantanamo and only repatriated to Canada in 2012.

On Afghanistan, in chapter 15 “The 3D War” (3D refers to the conjunction of defence, diplomacy and development), Graham offers a sobering frank assessment. While a putative “whole of government” approach was undermined by continuing inter-departmental quarrels, more serious is that the mission suffered from endemic flaws and underestimated challenges. “We knew much less about Afghanistan and the politics of the region than we should have,” he admits. With respect to the still controversial questions about Afghans detained by Canadian troops, handed over to Afghan authorities and subsequently tortured, Graham acknowledges the inadequacy of the agreement signed during the 2005 election: “Clearly our agreement was insufficient, and in retrospect we were all naive to believe that the Afghan system could handle the prisoners.”

In the aftermath of the Martin government’s defeat Graham was pressed into service as Opposition Leader and interim Liberal leader, stressful months that he does not recall with any fondness. For example, he “hated the whole business” of having to play the game of Question Period theatrics. More broadly, he laments the decline in parliamentary civility and tendencies — loss of committee independence, lack of constructive cross-party co-operation — he believes were encouraged by the Harper government’s “highly partisan” tactics. How can MPs accomplish anything, he asks, if “partisanship and rigid ideology get in the way of human beings willing to come together and collaborate for the common good?”

The world to which Graham demonstrates a Canadian calling isn’t one of pious principles and black-and-white “with us or against us” simplicities. It’s a much more complex place that requires an enlightened intersection of values and interests along with a measure of empathy he describes as “one of the most important tools in the conduct of diplomacy,” affirming his strong belief that “the Canadian experience, as a bilingual, bi-juridical culture, makes us particularly sensitive to see the other’s point of view.” It’s as a citizen not a partisan that he expresses disappointment in the Harper government’s retreat from the multilateralism of its predecessors, because the effect was to diminish Canada’s international presence. As he says, “We neglect our capacity to influence the world at our peril.”