Pursuant to Standing Order 81(4) on the main estimates for 2013-14, we have both ministers here today. We have the Honourable John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs. Welcome, sir. We also have the Honourable Diane Ablonczy, the Minister of State of Foreign Affairs (Americas and Consular Affairs). Thank you both for being here.
We have William Crosbie, and Morris Rosenberg, who is deputy minister. Welcome. We also have Mr. Patel who is here as well from Foreign Affairs.
Thank you all for being here.
We're going to turn it over to you, Ms. Ablonczy, for your opening statement, and then we'll go to Mr. Baird, then we'll go round the room for the next hour asking some questions.
Ms. Ablonczy, welcome, and the floor is yours.
Thank you, Mr. Chair and colleagues. It's good to be here with you.
As you know, I support Minister Baird in two areas, in the Americas and also in consular affairs. I'll give you a brief overview of our Americas work first.
Recognizing the importance of our own hemisphere, you may recall that made the Americas a foreign policy priority in 2007. So here we are, six years on, and I can tell you that our engagement in the region is very strong. We remain deeply committed to the three pillars of the Americas' strategy, which is to a more prosperous, a more secure, and a more democratic hemisphere. Hélène and I were talking earlier about how important each of those three pillars are. It's like a three-legged stool, without one of those pillars the stool tips over. Canada is working with our partners to increase economic opportunity, to strengthen security in institutions, and to foster lasting relationships, because that is the way people work together.
I can also tell you that I believe we've achieved concrete results in each of these areas. On increasing economic opportunity, the Americas, as big emerging markets, of course present great opportunities for Canada. We have more free trade agreements in the Americas than in any other region of the world—in fact, with the rest of the world combined—and we continue to work hard to increase trade and investment throughout the hemisphere. I should say we really believe this kind of economic growth and economic dynamism is going to bring greater social supports to countries in the Americas, and greater equality, which is a real issue for many of our neighbours.
Most recently, Canada gained observer status in the Pacific Alliance. For those who don't know, this is a very new trade agreement begun by Mexico, Peru, Chile, and Colombia, and Canada is an observer to that alliance now. We also contributed greatly through our Canadian companies to a $600 million, world-class international airport in Quito, Ecuador. I had the pleasure of being there to see that launched. This past February, I also was privileged to announce a coming into force of the latest free trade agreement in the Americas, the one with Panama. Panama is a country that boasts one of the fastest-growing markets in our hemisphere. It's also a strategic gateway to Latin America. You may be interested to know that our trading relationship with Panama increased by 62% in less than four years, so this agreement is going to open even more doors.
Strengthening security in institutions, increasing economic opportunities, as I mentioned before, require peace and stability. Security and governance challenges in the Americas continue to pose significant threats, locally of course, but also to Canada because we're so interconnected as a hemisphere. We've been working with our neighbours to jointly address the region's security challenges, especially fighting transnational organized crime and drug trafficking. We have a number of projects along this line, and I'll mention one. A couple of months ago I was in Costa Rica. We support the national police school there. We gave them new equipment, helmets, bulletproof vests, GPSs, and vehicles, so they can do their work better.
In Guatemala, we contributed state-of-the-art forensic equipment and training, and this has really helped to achieve results in Guatemala. This is not just because of what Canada has done, but together we've helped increase the crime resolution rate from 5% in 2009 to 30% last year, a very significant change.
Building and nurturing relationships with partners in the Americas is the foundation for engagement. The Americas, more than any other part of the world, really rely and put value on trusted relationships and personal ties, so we work hard to build those. As many of you know, Canada is very well regarded throughout the region.
Just a little bit on consular then, my other mandate from Minister Baird. Enhancing safety awareness for Canadians abroad is the priority of our consular activities. As you know, Canadians love to travel. We took 59 million trips out of the country last year, and that's with a population of around 33 million to 34 million. We really work hard to provide Canadians with timely and accurate information, and of course, high-quality consular services.
Fortunately, most trips go off without a hitch. They are hugely enjoyable for travellers. But even with the best preparation and advice, some Canadians do encounter difficulties. In fact, in 2012, more than 235,000 consular cases were opened. We work closely with other countries to work as quickly and effectively as possible when Canadians are caught in emergencies abroad.
I do consular outreach trips to the region. The last one was to Asia, which is a region that hosts hundreds of thousands of Canadian visitors, residents, and students each year. We meet with counterparts to discuss how we can better work together to resolve issues as they arise.
I want to now say something about travel.gc.ca. How many of you have ever looked at that website? We have a couple. I have to confess I was not familiar with that website before I took this job, so if you're not, you don't have to feel bad. Well, maybe you should, but I felt bad too. It's a tremendous resource for Canadians and we work very hard to make this a top-notch website.
We just relaunched the website, and it now incorporates information from all government departments, from Health, Agriculture, and Trade, so it's really a one-window information portal for travelling Canadians. We have had good response from Canadians to the new website. We had over three million Canadians visit the website since it has been revamped, and that's an increase of 21% over 2012. The number of separate visitors to the website rose by over 90%. We're very happy about that.
We also have a mobile app now for the website. The users of the mobile app have increased by over 100%. I asked, “Is it from 1% to 2%, or what?” So here's the number in case you're as curious as I am. It's from over 9% to over 19%. We still have a ways to go, but it's still significant growth.
We have also streamlined the registration of Canadians abroad service on that website. That allows people to register so we know where they are, and if there's some disaster or unexpected political upheaval, we can send them information about how to keep themselves safe. The registration has increased since November by 46% because we made it easier to use that resource.
We're also using new social media channels and kind of dragging ourselves into the 21st century. We really saw how that worked with the Boston bombing earlier this month. We have quite a few followers on our travel.gc.ca Twitter account, and the tweets we sent out about consular contact information, in case any Canadians needed support or assistance, were retweeted 2,400 times. We were able to amplify the reach of that message to a total of 2.3 million impressions just through Twitter, so we're pretty excited about that.
The Emergency Watch and Response Centre responded to about 500 calls from Canadians who were looking for information about their friends or loved ones. We had an unfortunately sad situation, but an opportunity to test how responsive we were able to be. We were very happy with the results.
So these are key services that really do support Canadians in need. I'd encourage you, colleagues, to spread the word about these tools to your constituents.
In conclusion, as you have seen, our engagement in the Americas is benefiting Canadians and our hemispheric neighbours. We're also committed to ensuring that Canadians are well prepared to ensure their own safety when they're abroad and that they receive the support they need when challenges and emergencies arise.
I thank you, Mr. Chairman and colleagues, for having the opportunity to be with you today. Minister Baird and I are very pleased to respond to your questions after you get a little more information from my colleague. Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and thank you very much, Minister.
It's a real pleasure to be here to update you on our government's foreign policy in action—our principled foreign policy focusing on protecting and promoting Canadian interests and Canadian values around the world.
As I've done in the past, I'll begin by focusing on some of the most pressing issues facing the international arena, particularly in the area of the security challenges that we face. I spent the better half of last month visiting a number of vitally important countries in the Middle East and in various meetings with our key international partners: the G-8, NATO, and the Commonwealth.
Two topics have come up again and again: the deteriorating situation in Syria and the increasing threat posed by Iran. In Syria the chaos and killing appear to have taken a barbaric new form. We've no reason to doubt reports from two of our closest allies—the United States and Israel—that the Assad regime appears to have used chemical weapons on the Syrian people recently. But I feel it's very important that we deal with facts as this would signal an unwelcome new phase in the Syrian crisis.
On April 7, our government announced a credit of up to $2 million to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to assist the United Nations-led investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. This unfortunately, though not suprisingly, continues to be blocked by the Assad regime. This is a regime that not long ago lost all legitimacy and humanity, and yet continues to sink to new lows. The Syrian crisis weighs heavily on the larger region. Its effects have created immense and urgent needs inside Syria and left its neighbours struggling to deal with the ever growing influx of refugees.
One camp in Jordan is now so large that if it were a permanent city it would be Jordan's fourth largest city. To put that into context, on a proportion basis that would be like the entire population of Canada going to the United States as refugees and the huge crisis that would pose on any country, let alone a small country such as Jordan.
Since January 2012 our government has provided almost $70 million to deal with the urgent and worsening humanitarian and security situation across the region. I will tell you what I've told my colleagues in the countries most affected: Canada will do more.
Colleagues, I must also tell you that there are real and growing fears in the immediate region, and more broadly, about the threat posed by Iran, especially if it were to develop nuclear weapons. Of course Iran's negative and nefarious influence on world affairs is well known and not new. That's why we and our international partners know that allowing Iran to weaponize its nuclear program—to hold the region and the world hostage as North Korea is attempting to do—is simply not on.
Let there be no doubt, Canada will continue to take strong action to isolate the regime in Tehran, prevent it from plying its trade of hate, fear, and terror, and hold it to account for its horrendous human rights practices, including the persecution of religious minorities and others.
Similarly, we continue to take a leadership role in addressing the threat posed by North Korea. Our sanctions are among the world's toughest. We work through the United Nations and other systems to deal with the threat while supporting our allies in working to protect our own citizens from potential harm.
In a complex and changing world I'm pleased to say that Canadians have much to be proud of. We continue to deepen bilateral relationships around the world, promote our values, and expand opportunities for Canadian businesses. This is no more obvious than during my recent trip to the Middle East where I visited Jordan, Iraq, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Israel, and the West Bank.
While in Jordan I had the honour of inaugurating Canada's new embassy building in Amman. In Iraq I announced a new permanent Canadian diplomatic presence in Baghdad. For the first time Canada now has official observer status in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah. Together with United Arab Emirates we launched the new joint business council, which is already identifying opportunities to enhance our commercial relations, allowing our people and our companies to benefit and contribute to both countries' prosperity.
Our government knows that the world is overflowing with new opportunities and that Canada must play an active role in order to strengthen its existing relationships and establish new ones. That is not a choice or an option; it is an economic necessity.
We are showing leadership, strengthening Canada's voice on the international stage and emphasizing our diplomatic presence in key areas of growth, while at the same time working on meeting our deficit reduction objectives.
We are achieving those results by making smart choices, working more effectively and using our international assets more strategically.
Wherever I go, I am pleased to find that Canada is held in high regard, even as a model for others. Our visibility on the world stage is clear and we are no longer taken for granted. I have every confidence this will continue with the Canadian International Development Agency, when it is merged with DFAIT to become the new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. This will only strengthen our efforts to protect and promote Canadian values and interests on the world stage. It will help us make the most of our international activities and investments. Let me assure you that Canada's commitment to poverty alleviation and humanitarian assistance is not in question here, and this question and this decision will have no impact on Canada's international assistance spending.
Our leadership in the area, such as through the Muskoka initiative, can only continue. Canada is bringing an integrated approach to bear, recognizing that in the globalized world there are economic opportunities connected to the freedom, development, and security of others.
Mr. Chair, I could go on and on, but I'd be very pleased to accept comments and questions from the committee and committee members.
Thank you to both ministers for your comments today and for your presence today.
Minister Baird, I just want to start with a question about the direction of the government. You've laid out some of the most recent events in terms of the direction of the government. I am a little concerned because recently you were in places that some of us would suggest you should not have gone. I'm thinking of East Jerusalem and the coffee, and meanwhile you seem to be taking us out of places that we should be.
It's not just you. It's the government, in general. It's the foreign policy direction. We did pull out of Kyoto, and that was noted. The northern dimension partnership in health we have pulled out of. The United Nations World Tourism Organization we have pulled out of. The International Exhibitions Bureau we have pulled out of. The International Tropical Timber Organization we're out of. We are the only country in the world to pull out of the UN convention on desertification and drought. We have withdrawn diplomatic presence in parts of Africa—in Niger, Malawi, Gabon, Cape Town. We seem to be weakening our position on the cluster munitions. That's going to be in front of Parliament sometime soon.
We did not assist Turkey to the extent we should have when it came to Syria, and we don't have presence in Kurdistan. You mentioned you were in Baghdad. We have gone from a part-time person to a full-time person in the embassy of the U.K., but there is nothing in Kurdistan, which many people would suggest is a very strategic asset to have. The U.K., U.S., Germany, Japan, and France are present there.
Most concerning to many here in Canada is the response to UN special rapporteurs in delaying their access to Canada. I hope the visit of James Anaya is going to be more welcome. He is going to be here on indigenous peoples.
You'll appreciate the fact that I see our pulling out of things as actually getting Canada pushed out of other forums. I'm thinking here of the East Asia Summit, which happened last fall. I am concerned about the most recent news about the International Civil Aviation Organization, and of course, we lost our seat at the Security Council.
My question to you is this. When it comes to getting back in the game—I've just listed numerous things from which we have pulled away—are you intending to campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council? We now know that three European countries are, and this is for the seat that will be filled in 2014. If so, do you plan to change the strategy that I have laid out here? Seemingly, we are pulling away from the world, not engaging.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Thank you to our ministers for being here.
Minister Ablonczy, this is more just a statement of affirmation about travel.gc.ca, which has been an invaluable tool for my constituents. We have made use of it regularly. In fact, when constituents come to me and ask for pins to take with them when they're travelling, we always give them the information about travel.gc.ca and encourage them strongly to put their information into that site so that they're registered with the country that they're going to.
I also want to compliment you on the effectiveness of the work that you've done preparing letters for parents who want to take children out of the country. You know well enough the situations that I've dealt with in my own constituency office, and I thank you for your work on those files. Creating that letter has made things much easier for parents who want to travel with their children, who need the confirmation that perhaps a parent who is estranged or a parent who is no longer in the home has signed off on that, and I thank you for that.
Minister Baird, in the budget we made very clear that we are amalgamating CIDA with Foreign Affairs. We are going to maintain a minister. It's going to maintain its budget, but it is going to be under the umbrella of Foreign Affairs. In the same way that we did in 2006 with the amalgamation of International Trade—and perhaps “amalgamation” isn't the right word—we've put them under that same umbrella of foreign policy.
I wonder if you could speak to the committee about how we are going to work that through with CIDA now working more closely with Foreign Affairs. How is it that our foreign affairs policy is now going to align?
We tabled legislation yesterday, which we hope this committee will have the opportunity to look at. That's certainly our proposal. We're very committed to international development assistance. I think there was a concern and has been a concern for some time that sometimes there was a foreign policy of the Government of Canada and foreign policy priorities of the Government of Canada, and then there were the development priorities of CIDA, and even their own foreign policy. So we hope there will be better integration.
I think, for example, of our ambassadors around the world who are providing development assistance if they are working on trade, on foreign policy, and on development. That will only lead to a more coherent policy. We can have experts on sub-Saharan Africa whether they be on trade, working to have economic growth in those countries, or whether it be on diplomacy, engagement with governments on issues of human rights, and other political issues with development, to ensure that everyone's in the same boat. We all have an oar in the water and we all want to row together.
The relationship between Foreign Affairs and Trade has worked tremendously well. I think both Diane.... Particularly dealing with the Americas, where our trade agreements have been strong in coming, the relationship is very good. We have every confidence that it will be just as good, or better, when joins the DFAIT team.
In many respects, when Diane is travelling in the Americas, she's dealing with foreign policy, she's dealing with development issues, and she's dealing with trade. When I'm travelling to a country—I was in the European Union in Brussels the other day—obviously I'm pushing trade. When is in India, working on the trade agreement there, he's pushing Canadian foreign policy as well.
We're hoping that with the management structure in the public service, with the ministers, we'll have greater coherence in our policy. There's no right or wrong answer to this. Different countries organize these things differently. We think this is the best model. We're 35 million people and we have a big economy, but we better use all of our resources coherently to get better results for Canadians on both Canadian interests and Canadian values.
Obviously, what do we want for Ethiopia? We want economic growth and people getting jobs. If we can assist that through trade, through development assistance, and by pushing human rights as a foreign policy priority, it's a win-win-win.
I certainly met with her, Dr. Dipu Moni, who is the foreign affairs minister of Bangladesh, and I relayed our strong sympathies to the government and to the people of Bangladesh.
I also relayed that in Canada we have done a lot of good work. We have learned from a lot of mistakes over the course of our development. I offered her the support of the Government of Canada on issues like the building code and on ways in which Canada could provide support bilaterally to her government in this regard. I also was able to relay to her the offers of support from the business community in Canada. I've been incredibly impressed with the public comments that Loblaws has made and their offer and desire to engage with the government there.
If you get the government and the private sector, who are willing to offer tangible support to help improve the safety and security of people in the developing world, particularly where they have this challenge.... We've made that offer. Obviously, I think, most people are still in shock. They only just yesterday stopped the emergency effort. I think that when the dust settles, both figuratively and literally, we look forward to engaging with Bangladesh in this regard.
I don't think it's a matter of saying, “Look, in Canada we know how to do everything.” But we can impart our experience and our knowledge, whether it's provincial, municipal, or federal experience in the building code, and best practices by the Canadian construction industry, which has been very good. We have had some notable problems in our history, and I think we've learned and are stronger because of that.
I think we're all deeply concerned by the fact that many of the victims of this tragedy were vulnerable women desperately trying to provide for themselves and their families. That's just another reason for us to want to provide support. I think this would be something that all members would share.
I'll report back to you if they concur to take us up on our offer, but I did appreciate, and the government appreciated, the statements of a number of retailers, and particularly Loblaws' engagement in this regard.
We are obviously tremendously concerned by this part of the draft of President Obama's 2014 budget, where he wants to do a study. The request is actually for a funding request to do the study.
Obviously we're tremendously engaged with the administration, but particularly with the U.S. Congress. I think one of the things that has happened is that Frank McKenna started to try to move—then Michael Wilson and now Gary Doer—to have a greater engagement, both politically and through the diplomatic service in Washington, with the U.S. Congress.
There are many members of the U.S. Congress who have already spoken up loudly. We're very engaged with them through our mission in Washington. Senator Chuck Schumer, for example, has spoken out very strongly. There are many powerful allies that Canada has in Congress.
Rob Merrifield, the former president of the Canada-U.S. Inter-Parliamentary Group, has been really effective at helping support me, Diane, the embassy, and the government on the ground. He has a lot of great contacts on Capitol Hill, and that has been a real benefit. There is the great work that the diplomatic service does, and having an elected official can make a big difference. Gord Brown and the Canada-U.S. Inter-Parliamentary Group do a lot of good work. Gord has accompanied me on a visit to Washington in the past. We hope to get this issue defeated.
This is, though, the reality. It is what happens when a country's finances get out of control. Cyprus starts to look at confiscating people's bank accounts. You are desperately trying to find more fees that will actually hurt economic growth, hurt job creation. We're doing everything we can to lessen the restrictions on the border and to make it easier for legitimate trade and travel because that yields more growth and more opportunity.
This is a very important issue, and as you mentioned, these cases are very complex. There is never an easy resolution, sadly. We do expect these kinds of child abduction cases to increase as people travel more or have more than one citizenship.
The first thing I guess you can tell your constituents—because this is a misconception—is that the Government of Canada cannot re-abduct a child. We can't go into another country and simply seize the child and bring the child back to Canada. You'd be surprised how many people aren't quite clear about that.
We also have some measures that parents can take to prevent child abductions. For example, they can put their child on a passport security list. They can have a notarized consent to travel, as Lois mentioned. They can contact our embassy, if they think a child will be abducted to another country, to just give them a heads-up about their fears and concerns. Of course we also have consular officials here in Ottawa who can be helpful too.
We launched a manual for left-behind parents in July of this year. It can be found online at travel.gc.ca—another good reason to go to the website. It's really a step-by-step guide. Organizations on the ground, such as Enfant-Retour, have endorsed this manual and find it very helpful.
A lot of work, of course, is done through channels, with partners of the federal government—the RCMP, provincial central authorities, and of course organizations like Enfant-Retour and Missing Children Canada. We're always reaching out to our provincial partners to have better coordination, and good coordination.
We've also reached out to MPs through parliamentary briefings. They're not as well attended as I'd like to see. We really encourage MPs to come and hear this information first-hand instead of sending a staff member, although I know our staff help us a lot.
We are also working to beef up the Hague Convention, because at this point it's not enforceable, so it sometimes has loopholes in it that we wouldn't like to see.
We're also leading the charge on what we call the Malta process. It involves countries where due to cultural traditions there's a strong paternalistic say-so in the disposition of a child. We're trying to find a way to put a protocol in place that would bring more fairness and more resolution to cases involving those countries.