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With an election coming up in 2019, Canada through an SDG lens

By on January 11, 2019

CIHR Health System Impact Fellow

It’s almost that time again in Canada – the federal government is gearing up toward October, when the next election will be held. The scenario is already quite different from that of the last election in 2015, when public efforts to oust a right-leaning government whose policies had become largely unpopular, proved successful.  Strategic voting within the electorate led to a landslide win for Justin Trudeau and his team. Many of you will remember him proclaiming that ‘Canada is back.’

So, how has the Canadian government done over the past few years?

Well, commitments to change domestic policies around taxation, climate and the environment, the legalization of marijuana, and electoral reform are a tall order for any government.  Canada under Trudeau was no exception.  Trudeau has shortfalls domestically (climate action being one of them, see below for some more detail), but in the international arena, his actions are more promising.

Canada’s international status as a friendly but firm middle power is undeniably ‘back’ – with a new development assistance plan, a strong set of trade negotiations with Europe and neighbours in North America, and avoiding (as much as possible) a diplomatic disaster during its 2018 G7 presidency. Canada has demonstrated leadership in global politics under Trudeau.

As a self-declared feminist, Trudeau has put his (that is, Canadian taxpayers’) money ($650 million CAD) where his mouth is, backstopping a global gag rule ordered by the current occupant of the White House. Supplemented with a feminist international assistance plan, and a willingness to tackle the SDGs at local, national, and international levels (cf the recent Voluntary National Review), Canada’s approach to SDG implementation appears to be genuine.

Interestingly, the Trudeau government sees itself as aligned with the SDGs both domestically and internationally, particularly around gender equality (5), no poverty (1), good health and well-being (3), quality education (4), clean water and sanitation (6), and peace, justice, and strong institutions (16). It also views its federal sustainability strategy as consistent with the “environment” SDGs (7, 13, 14, and 15), and considers its pan-Canadian framework for clean growth to be aligned with SDGs 11, 12, and 13. Yet according to a civil society shadow report, Canada is not on track to reach the 2030 goals, despite 8 ministries championing the advancement of the SDGs.

The promised electoral reform project has been abandoned, a highly contested gas pipeline is in the works — much work remains to be done domestically. The SDGs will need to span across all groups in society to fully ascribe to the “leave no one behind” rhetoric – that means meaningful policy and program interventions particularly for Indigenous peoples, immigrant/refugee groups, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQ2 community.  Internationally, Canada’s arms sales, extractive operations overseas, and lagging ODA expenditures fall short of our SDG commitments.

All this to say that as we take stock of how our federal government has performed in recent years, the SDG framework is a useful tool for policy analysis.

The argument that Trudeau has counted on branding feminism as a thematic priority (watch for the Women Deliver conference in Vancouver this year) to appeal to the electoral base rings true (did someone say neoliberal feminism?). But even taking this into account, it’s fair to say that the current global political order is a challenging environment for multilateralism, and Canada is perhaps one of the last remaining proponents, pushing for (non-binding) international agreements like the SDGs and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, among others. As with the money-where-our-mouth-is thinking, the remaining 8 months until the election will be important to find out whether the electorate believes in Trudeau the same way the rest of the (multilateral) world does.

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