Canada loses its ‘boy scout’ reputation in the eyes of the world

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves as he arrives for a luncheon speech to the Montreal Board of Trade in Montreal, November 15, 2013. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS)

You probably already know that Canada is no longer the world's boy scout.

Whether it's the environment, foreign relations, peacekeeping or refugee policy, Canada seems to be diminished in the eyes of some in the wider world.

Not all of it can be pinned on Stephen Harper's Conservative government – Canada was fudging its commitment to the Kyoto Accord on climate change long before the Tories took power in 2006.

But the image of a meaner, less altruistic, more self-interested Canada seems to have sharpened in the last few years. And while some will challenge the perception, the evidence keeps piling up.

According to a review by Harvard Law School's immigration and refugee clinic, Canada has become a more refugee-unfriendly place in the post-9/11 world, Toronto Star columnist Carol Goar reports.

“Canada is systematically closing its borders to asylum seekers and failing in its refugee protection obligations under domestic and international law,” the group's report states.

[ Related: Canada’s international reputation slipping under Stephen Harper ]

"This report points to an alarming trend," Deborah Anker, the clinic's director, said in a news release. "In the past, Canada provided the model upon which fairer treatment of refugees and better asylum processes developed in the United States. This report shows a deteriorating trend in Canada, and is quite disturbing."

The report traces the evolution of federal policies that Goar writes have been used to "transform Canada from a welcoming nation to an inhospitable bastion," all of which were enacted before Harper's Conservatives came to power.

"But his government has expanded them, intensified them and enforced them more rigidly than ever before." Goar writes. "It has hired gatekeepers who understand that their role is to discourage claimants."

A lot of Canadians have believed the country was being suckered by economic migrants arriving in the guise of fleeing persecution. Now apparently they have a government that agrees with them.

News about the Harvard report came the same week as the influential magazine The Economist declared Canada was no longer cool.

"When The Economist declared ten years ago that Canada was 'cool', with its mix of social liberalism and fiscal rectitude, it was a startling idea," the magazine's Canadian correspondent, Madelaine Drohan wrote in a Nov. 18 online piece.

"A country whose constitution soberly calls for “peace, order and good government” was portrayed as a moose wearing sunglasses."

". . . [T]he the Conservative government led by Stephen Harper will focus on entrenching [before the 2015 general election] policies that are decidedly uncool, such as promoting exports from Alberta’s tar sands while doing the minimum on climate change, and backtracking on the social liberalism that The Economist found so refreshing a decade ago."

Drohan ticked off a number of disappointments, from a failure to decriminalize marijuana, to the still abysmal record on the First Nations file, increasing household debt and Quebec's effective rejection of multiculturalism with its proposed values charter.

[ Related: Canada’s reputation is tops for third year in a row ]

The environment? Most Canadians already know the Conservative government's embrace of resource extraction as an economic driver, especially oil sands development and exports, has alienated groups concerned with climate change.

"The Canadian government’s handling of climate change is part of a pattern," Tony Burman wrote in the Star last month.

"Domestic political calculations here in Canada — rather than any high-minded sense of Canada’s international obligations — seem to drive the Harper government’s foreign policy decisions."

Ottawa's policy of making its scientists vet any public comments or writings with bureaucrats to ensure they conform with government policy also has earned it a reputation for muzzling its researchers.

The government's decisions to fold the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the country's main foreign aid conduit, into the Foreign Affairs Department and sharpen the department's longstanding business-oriented focus have created an impression of a "what's in it for us" attitude driving Canada's foreign policy.

"In a variety of areas including climate change, the damage being done by the Harper government to Canada’s global reputation is a stain that will stay with us for much longer," Burman wrote.

Former Progressive Conservative foreign affairs minister Joe Clark has also taken the Harper government to task for talking big on important international files while not following through.

Canada was once happy to work behind the scenes to try to resolve complex problems, Clark writes in How We Lead: Canada In a Century of Change, excerpted in the Star in October.

"Perhaps to a fault, we were known for our quiet and constructive work," he wrote. "By contrast, the Harper government’s performance in international affairs has shown more interest in the podium than in the playing field."

"With the exceptions of Afghanistan and trade, there is a curious and recurring pattern in the Harper government’s actions," Clark observed.

"It is unusually assertive in its dramatic gestures and declarations, but it has drawn back steadily from initiatives designed to actually resolve critical problems . . .

"Canada now talks more than we act, and our tone is almost adolescent —forceful, certain, enthusiastic, combative, full of sound and fury."

Of course the view of a lesser Canada is far from universal. Huffington Post political blogger Kokulan Mahendiran noted the Tories' opposition critics have been lamenting Canada's demise as international good guy since Harper took power in 2006.

"Instead of offering alternative solutions for real issues faced by this country, those opposed to the trice democratically elected Conservative government are attempting to deceive the public into believing that the world has come to shun them owing to who they've elected," he wrote in October.

"Apart from their constant flow of nebulous anecdotes, the evidence points to Canada not only having a stellar international reputation but arguably [one of] the best in the world."

[ Recent: More Americans know of Rob Ford than they do most world leaders ]

Mahendiran cited the BBC World Service's 2013 Country Ratings Poll that put Canada 2nd out of 22 major countries for being viewed favourably. Germany topped the rankings. And he noted Canada's financial system was ranked the safest, soundest by the World Economic Forum's Global Competitive Report.

And he pointed out Canada has done well in other yardsticks, from the livability of its cities to the quality of its education system (though that was before a recent survey found Canadian kids are slipping in math scores).

One thing both sides can likely agree on, whether they think Canada has lost its international mojo or simply is no longer a soft touch, most Canadians would rather not have the country personified by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

The world's best Chris Farley impersonator has dominated international headlines out of Canada (when there are such headlines), and is unarguably the best-known Canadian right now.

"Canadians, at least in my little circle, have a certain reputation," writes Jeff Lagasse, a columnist for Maine's Journal Tribune.

"They’re supposed to be the sane, mature ones. Sensible, and polite to a fault, they act as a check against American hubris."

Lagasse is not so much appalled at Ford as puzzled by his continued (albeit shrinking) support.

"Seriously, Canada, What's that all aboot?"

On second thought, maybe Ford does play a useful role for Canada, diverting international attention from some of the more debatable aspects of Canadian political evolution. Party on, Rob!