A NATION OF DIPLOMATS © David Watts 22/03/2010

To say someone is diplomatic means they’re tactful. They speak carefully, saying what needs to be said without being offensive. It means they’re courteous, say “please” and “thank-you.”

These are things much of the world associates with Canadians. We say “sorry” as well as “thank you,” and when we take a stand, we don’t attack or dump on our opponents.

But there’s more to diplomacy than being tactful and polite. Diplomacy is about dealing with differences without polarizing over them. To call Canadians a Nation of Diplomats, then, is more than saying we’re diplomatic, just as a diplomat is more than a diplomatic person.

A diplomat is a pro. He or she can put forward a point agreeably whether others agree or not, to discuss sensitive issues without their becoming sticky. Not all Canadians are diplomats.

But Canada, a country whose name means Meeting Place, has produced first rate diplomats. As a middle power, we have often functioned as a broker and go-between for other nations.

Since its beginnings, Canada has been a space where people from very different backgrounds can come together. As a state, Canada was put together by diplomacy, not conflict.

And Canada has an international interest in the practice of good diplomacy. Let us look at each of these features:

Canada’s star diplomat was Lester B. Pearson, one of the founders of the United Nations, who won the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize before going on to become Prime Minister six years later.

Another was Chester Ronning, born in China to Canadian missionaries. When he returned to his birthplace aged 90, villagers were staggered by his perfect Chinese. “I am Chinese” he said.

“You don’t look Chinese,” they insisted. “I guess I’ve lived among whites so long that I’ve come to look like them,” he suggested.

Others of note include career diplomats George Ignatiev, Charles Ritchie and Ken Taylor who rose to prominence in the American Iran hostages crisis. Most are unknown because their job entails representing others, not themselves.

In additional to professional diplomats, a number of our elected politicians have acquired international stature presenting Canada’s position on the world stage. PM John Diefenbaker led the fight against apartheid in the Commonwealth, a stand continued by Brian Mulroney.

As Foreign Affairs Minister before he became PM, Louis Saint-Laurent created the opening by which India and Pakistan could remain within the Commonwealth after become republics.

As Finance Minister before becoming PM, Paul Martin headed the International Monetary Fund. And in his last term as PM, Pierre Trudeau undertook an international peace initiative.

Provincial politicians Stephen Lewis and Gary Doer have become international advocates, named by prime ministers of a different political party, who recognized their sterling qualities.

Negotiating ranks high as a skill of successful Canadian PM’s. Of 8 who served seven years or more, 4 came from backgrounds of labour law or diplomacy. This may be because Canada is such a diverse federation that constant bargaining is needed is needed to make it work.

Other states have called on this experience. In the years before the US and Communist China had relations, Canada was a go-between. It has also been a link between the US and Cuba.

From the 1790’s when Quadra and Vancouver debated Spanish and British interests on our west coast while remaining personal friends, Canada has been a place of creative encounters.

Hunted in the US, Lakota Chief Sitting Bull trusted RCMP Supt Jas Walsh in Canada in 1877.

After World War II and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Canada was the one western country Japanese Crown Prince Ahahito was prepared to pass through on his way to Europe.

And in 1983 a meeting between the USSR Ambassador and Agriculture Minister Gorbachev on a farm near Windsor, Ontario laid the groundwork for glasnost and the end of the Cold War.

These connections in, and passages through this country show how Canada has been viewed as fair-minded and a safe haven, even by former adversaries. This is the mark of a good diplomat.

Along with this is Canada’s début as the first modern state born without revolution or civil war.

Confederation of 1867 came about through diplomacy, not conflict, at conferences held in the three years preceding: in 1864 at Charlottetown, in 1867 at Quebec and in 1867 at London.

At all three it was the force of persuasion that carried the day. And the man to emerge as leader signed his name in the register of the first conference as “John A. Macdonald, cabinet maker.”

The spread of an eastern alliance of four provinces to a transcontinental sweep of ten was also a result of planning and diplomacy. This is why aboriginal title is so important in our history.

For unless sovereignty over a territory is extinguished by conquest of one people by another, the legitimacy of a new régime rests upon terms agreed between the two peoples.

The treaties negotiated in the name of Her Majesty the Queen by Ottawa with First Nations were not simply generous concessions by a new power to the earlier inhabitants. They are the minimal terms by which the newcomers can claim the right to be there under international law.

The process of Confederation, the centrality of treaties, the skill sets of many of our leaders, our history and orientation as an international meeting place, and our preference for bargaining over battle—these are the basis on which Canada can be called A Nation of Diplomats.

However, there are two situations not amenable to political bargaining.

One is the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Charter. Many of these, reflecting our most basic values, can be changed only by unanimous agreement of the federal government and all the provinces expressed through their legislatures.

They are virtually non-negotiable because, as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said at the time, “You don’t barter human rights for wheat and oil, or political freedoms for codfish.”

It took years to enshrine these rights in law. This is an achievement not to be bargained away.

A second non-negotiable area is the existence of the state and its ability to protect its citizens.

In October 1970, a small group of armed men, committed to Québec independence by violence if needed, kidnapped two men in public life and demanded terms for their release.

Their demands were read over public radio system while the Prime Minister was out of the country. The PM returned to Ottawa, adamant there should be “no negotiation with terrorists.”

Through the next days and weeks, when police powers were extended, and the armed forces were called out to back them up, the Prime Minister made his point again:

“If the state is susceptible to blackmail, all other rights it claims to guarantee are useless.”

The government’s response was seen as draconian at the time. But the lack of any major subsequent outbreaks of domestic terrorism may be attributed to that firm stand.

In the 40 years since the October Crisis, with the adoption of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms and new, less draconian emergency powers legislation, we can now affirm:

“Canada is a nation of diplomacy, shaped by peaceful process of bargaining, and guaranteed by the rule of law.

“We have had leaders of great diplomatic skill. Our country has been the site of significant meetings of minds internationally, and we have been agents for the spread of these principles throughout the world.

We are committed to the ascendancy of reason over passion, of tolerance over arbitrary rule.

Yet our capacity for accommodation is not unlimited.

On certain occasions, internationally and within our borders, bargaining in good faith has been subverted by bullying. At such times our response has been the Simple No of a person of peace, and patience has given way to willingness to stand for these principles with our lives if need be.

It is our commitment to the principles of peaceful coexistence and bargaining that gives us the strength to stand up for them. To paraphrase a US President, “We will never fear to negotiate, but we will never negotiate out of fear.”

Nor will we accept the abrogation of these rights and the peaceful society they create, for expediency. We will not forego holding elections because of their costs, or the sitting of our assemblies because of the strenuousness of debate. Our peace and freedoms come at a cost.

May we prove worthy of this heritage of Diplomacy, Order and Good Governance.