Time for a Canadian Agency to Support Democracy Abroad

Why is Canada lagging behind in global democracy promotion?

by Jun 18, 2021

Canadian flag waving in front of the Parliament Building in Ottawa. Photo by Jason Hafso (Unsplash)

Canada has nurtured one of the world’s founding democracies. Among major nations, only the United States established a democratic government earlier. The grant of a universal (or close to it) voting franchise existed in Canada before the United Kingdom. Given Canada’s history, why have we not done more to assist democratic government globally? Canada offers unique contributions to democracy; flexible parliamentary traditions, well-organized political parties of compatible scale and frugality, peacemaking, an active diaspora and a capacity to work with French-speaking democracies. The U.S. government, through aid and diplomacy, has led – perhaps in part because of its revolutionary heritage. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness invoke action and reform. Peace, order and good government promise stability and cooperation. We can do more than duplicate American efforts.

As individuals, many Canadians have taken part in America’s technical democratic promotion. An incomplete list includes Joe Clark, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Éric Duhaime, Ross Reid, Dominic Carty, Sheila Fruman, Paul Rowland and many others.  If Canada were a state, it may have sent the single most participants to U.S. democratic organizations. Canadian colleagues from the National Democratic Institute (NDI), International Republican Institute (IRI), Democracy International and others ask what Canada is doing these days. What follows is an informal “inside baseball” update.

The contemporary history of international democracy promotion began with President Ronald Reagan’s June 1982 Westminster speech to the UK’s Houses of Parliament. At the time, the West seemed weak and vulnerable, caught in a loss of economic and political faith. A recession clung stubbornly at home, and abroad the Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan. That day, President Reagan turned the tables. He said the great crisis would be in the East, not in the West. He predicted the Berlin Wall would fall and so too would communism, to “the ash-heap of history.” The moment demanded that the West openly promote democracy – free elections, free unions and free markets. Reagan’s Westminster speech laid the intellectual plank for the creation of a new kind of international institution – the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

In October 1982, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau gave a relevant interview to James Reston of The New York Times. Their discussion primarily dealt with affairs of the day. Trudeau was quick to correct Reston’s impression that Canada’s Québec debate resembled the “states’ rights” resurgence of the former southern Confederacy. After obligatory warm praise for America, Trudeau complained about the unilateral cancelling of the Alaska pipeline and the efforts to restrict American subsidiaries in Canada from doing business with China. Trudeau would have known of Reagan’s Westminster speech — and appears to steer well clear of discussing titanic struggles of ‘isms. Trudeau sounded more concerned about the malaise in Western Europe, and if he foresaw the collapse of Soviet communism, he gave no indication. Trudeau strongly affirmed the need to advance free and open markets and societies, everywhere. He lamented the loss of great voices for democracy – De Gaulle, Churchill, Roosevelt and Nehru – and added, sincerely, that Reagan stood to reach their level.

The NED is less of an operational institution and more a granting body. Formally, it is a private nonprofit foundation. Working with the leadership of the two major parties, the NED incubated and funded the NDI and the IRI. It also created three smaller organizations: The Solidarity Center (with the AFL-CIO), the Center for International Private Enterprise (with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) and the International Federation of Electoral Systems (IFES). Canada’s former Chief Electoral Officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, served once as head of the IFES. NED publishes the Journal of Democracy and supports the Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowships. Its annual budget has grown from $18 million to over $200 million and gives about 1600 grants a year. It has had a presence in over 90 countries.

Several other countries have started democracy promotion initiatives. The UK’s Westminster Foundation has reinvigorated itself lately. The Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD) stands out for its innovation of drawing upon the personnel of parties. The German Stiftungs (Konrad Adenauer, Rosa Luxemburg, Friederich Naumann, and Robert Bosch) host active offices abroad. The Swedish International IDEA organizes some of the Nordic efforts, based on NIMD. The Swiss, the Italian and the Czech governments have interesting regional programs, as do the Australians through their universities. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has a technical electoral program.

An over-emphasis on the mechanics of democracy and less on its spirit has given rise to concerns. Berkeley professor Susan D. Hyde has written insightfully on how pseudo-democratic technical practices have vitiated electoral observation. Yet, for every president who proclaims that democracy is not an Asian value, a Bolivarian value or a nationalist value, and that restriction of foreign influence is the priority, there exist plenty of local volunteers and NGOs who disagree. They take big risks to advance their democratic rights and freedoms. Canada’s support does not violate the sovereignty of a law-seeking society.

In Canada, the idea of a northern NED or NDI took form as domestic politics shifted early in the century, and new ideas percolated. The Rights and Democracy Institute had commenced in 1988 in Montreal, primarily concerned with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It had an elliptical reference to democracy, which caused confusion later. An able summary of Canada’s efforts in international democracy assistance was done by Gerald Schmitz in his paper on the Harper government’s foreign policy approach, published in 2013 by the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University.

In the democracy agency debate, Tom Axworthy, a former Principal Secretary for the first Trudeau prime minister, has played a consistent role. He, Les Campbell and David Donovan in 2005 wrote a piece for IRPP’s Policy Options entitled “The Democracy Canada Institute: A Blueprint.” Les Campbell, a former Executive Director of the New Democratic Party, was head of NDI’s Middle East and Northern Africa branch.

That is where I met Les. In 2003, I had joined NDI as the Country Director for Bangladesh. At the time, I was a foreign policy researcher and speechwriter for Stephen Harper, the Leader of the Opposition. Harper was aware of the Westminster speech, and was intellectually close to the movement which started in its wake. Special mention should be made of former Prime Minister Joe Clark, who was the first senior Canadian politician to assist NDI.

While in Dhaka, I discussed the idea of a democracy agency with Grant Kippen, former Executive Director for the Liberal Party, and the local head of IFES. Grant is now the UNDP election commissioner in Afghanistan and one of many Canadians with the organization, particularly in Africa.

In 2006, I took leave to work on the federal Conservative campaign. I discussed a Canadian democracy institute with Tom Flanagan, the campaign keeper of the pen, as a possible line in the platform. He allowed it into the policy hamper, and it made the cut. Nobody expects that all platform promises will pass in a single term, but voters do deserve for parties to take seriously their commitments.

Subsequently, in 2006, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development took up hearings and all-party deliberations. The committee chair, Kevin Sorenson, received much good counsel from Senator Hugh Segal of the Senate counterpart committee and recently deceased M.P. Deepak Obhrai. The committee’s 2007 report made the case that “Democratization is a long, difficult and indigenous process and that should be supported not imported from abroad.” The Minister for Democratic Reform, Steven Fletcher, received the report and the dissensions by the Bloc Québécois and the NDP, and consulted with his cabinet colleagues.

The House Committee then called for and formed an external advisory panel “on the Creation of a Canadian Democracy Promotion Agency.” Tom Axworthy was appointed the chair with Les Campbell, Senator Pamela Wallin, and Éric Duhaime. Arthur Milnes, an able biographer and historian, was the lead writer, and I provided research. With assistance from Queen’s University, the members conducted a thorough review of the issues involved and the possible models upon which to draw.

The Axworthy Commission delivered the final report to the Standing Committee in fall 2009. It recommended a stand-alone agency that would work quietly behind the scenes through a limited number of offices in high priority countries. The overall budget would be in the range of $50 million with individual offices between $3 to $5 million (all figures unadjusted).

The Harper government reaffirmed its long-held view that a new agency could assume the duties of the Rights and Democracy Institute, which had experienced fiscal issues and relied almost solely on money from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) for money for new initiatives. I had advised Bev Oda that CIDA was no small player in Canada’s democracy promotion, having spent $1.5 billion over 15 years on everything from election missions to local training. NDI, IRI, IFES, and CIPE receive little funding directly from NED. USAID, the American development agency, and the Democratic Rights and Labor branch of the Department of State (DOS) fund just about all overseas and thematic programs.

The Board of Rights and Democracy reacted and sought allies. A new director, brought in to straighten out matters, died of a stroke, and the financial crisis struck Canada. Time and energy for the democracy file just ran out.

The question remains still to be answered: what form of organization had the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (and presumably the government) sought to establish? The Committee, in my interpretation, had deviated from an arms-length stand-alone agency model. The intended agency would reflect Canadian values and direct specific policies towards practical, yet spirited, democracy assistance. Agency officials could speak with different parties and individuals and report back to the foreign affairs department and ultimately the Parliament. Their role would extend beyond the academic field trips but remain short of an official mission. It would also stay out of trouble.

The idea of a Canadian democracy promotion agency remained intact if yet to be achieved. Importantly, by the arcana of parliamentary practice, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs still holds a mandate to deliver a proposal for an agency. Committees are political and partisan bodies. They follow the chain of command, if indirectly.

The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has warmed to the idea. Appropriately, the Liberals went back to seek a public mandate. The 2011 and 2019 Liberal platform endorsed the concept of a Canadian democracy agency. In 2019, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs took up hearings, again. Tom Axworthy presented a submission that gave a detailed overview of the events mentioned here.

An informal committee has formed to provide as-requested comment to the Commons Committee and the government. Tom Axworthy, Margaret Biggs (Chair of the International Development Research Centre), Robert Greenhill (Former Deputy Minister of CIDA) and Ben Rowswell of the Canadian International Council are consulting academics, practitioners and experts. I participate on occasion. A tentative name has emerged: the Canadian Centre for Peace, Order, and Good Government.

Interest in Canada’s direction in democracy promotion has perked up with the election of President Joe Biden. Commentators and colleagues look to Biden to re-energize America’s democracy promotion role. Samantha Power, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and appointed head of USAID and its $50 billion-a-year budget, knows the file and has taken activist positions previously.

The just-launched revamp of the NED has broadened its focus from specific countries to broader topics. They include authoritarianism, freedom of the media, disinformation, the role of women and democratic voice. Regional and thematic challenges will receive more attention in the future to leverage technology possibilities and avoid the risks of the ongoing pandemic. Canadian observers could easily emphasize their own issues such as internet disinformation and diaspora politics. With active and organized parties in Québec, a special effort to assist democracy in Francophone Africa makes sense.

Those interested in the view from the Hill should watch the new Zoom talks sponsored by the Parliamentary Centre, funded by the Parliament itself. The Zoom program, with help from the U.S. Embassy’s speaker series, deals with Canada-U.S. democracy promotion. American participants include Thomas Carothers, Interim President of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace (the doyen of democracy scholars), Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center, and Sarah Repucci, Vice President for Research, Freedom House. The Parliamentary Centre has a new CEO in Tom Cormier, a long-time practitioner with NDI, DI, and the Westminster Foundation.

From Newfoundland to British Columbia, Canadians have committed to making democratic values and practices a global reality. Though 2022 may look as if democracy is slipping, it seemed the same in 1982. Reagan saw the struggle as measured in decades, not just the nightly news. The discussion has started to engage individuals, academics, volunteers, various officials, and parliamentarians in Canada.

Canadian democracy watchers should stay tuned for new developments. Next up? Check the platforms of the major political parties.

I get asked why, as a conservative, I support another public agency. I do continue to warn of the over-supply of public goods. However, I add that global democracy shows persistent shortages, and growing demand.


Owen Lippert is a senior policy expert with 30+ years of experience assisting governments, think tanks, educational institutions and businesses with specialized expertise in democratic, economic and political issues in Asian and South American countries. He is recognized for delivering policy advice and research using qualitative and quantitative methods and for working closely with government officials, legislators, business leaders, civil society and academics. He has worked in Canada, Bangladesh, Philippines, the USA, Spain, Georgia, Chile and Afghanistan. Owen holds a PhD and an MA from University of Notre Dame – Indiana, USA.