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Evidence of meeting #13 for Foreign Affairs and International Development in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was obviously.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

8:30 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

Pursuant to Standing Order 81(5), we're going to look at supplementary estimates.

We want to welcome the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Mr. Baird, it's great to have you here today. I see you have with you Morris Rosenberg, who is the deputy minister.

Welcome, Morris.

Welcome also to Nadir Patel, who is the assistant deputy minister and chief financial officer.

I think you know how this works, so why don't we just turn the floor over to you? We'll start with your opening statement, and then we'll get some questions from the two sides. We have one hour.

December 1st, 2011 / 8:30 a.m.

Ottawa West—Nepean Ontario

Conservative

John Baird ConservativeMinister of Foreign Affairs

Thank you very much. I won't speak for very long, so there will be more opportunity for questions and answers, or responses sometimes.

I'm very pleased to be with you this morning at my first appearance before the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs since my appointment last May. I'm very honoured to represent Canada around the world. I'm truly honoured to work every day to protect Canada's interests abroad and to promote Canada's values of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. I'm proud of the principled approach that our government has taken to foreign affairs and pleased to say that I'm working with officials like the ones joining me today. We are contributing to a rising Canada that is confident and courageous and that is a compassionate actor on the world stage.

Our interests are more and more guided by the need to compete globally and to ensure Canadian prosperity. In many respects, foreign affairs is becoming an economic portfolio as well as a foreign affairs portfolio. That is why I have travelled to China, Indonesia, and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region. We've made building our relationships a key priority. We hope doing so will lead to prosperity here at home and in the region that is slated to produce half of all global GDP within a decade. Incredible opportunities exist there, and Canada must be there in a big way. Increasingly we are where the opportunities are and will be in the coming years: in Asia and Latin America.

That's not to say that we are turning our backs on our traditional allies and partners, far from it. In fact, I have been working with our traditional partners, deepening existing relationships and working with them to shape the global institutions that will lead us into the 21st century. Increasingly and proudly, Canada is working to hold institutions to account and isn't afraid to take important stands on major issues.

Regimes in Syria, Iran, and North Korea are all keenly aware that we will no longer sit idly by as previous governments did. We are also not afraid to stand up alone when necessary. Canada is pleased to have punched above its weight in the NATO-led mission to protect civilians in Libya, and in two visits to that country I have seen first-hand the result: sincere gratitude. We will continue to support the democratic transitions taking place in Libya and in many other countries in that region. Security threats provide a major challenge to prosperity in countries around the world, a condition we are working to address in Central and South America, in Africa, and in Central Asia.

Just as people cannot be prosperous if they're not safe and secure, people cannot have freedom when their basic human rights are at risk. Canada and Canadians know this well, and our government is taking strong actions to shine light on such situations and to be a voice for the voiceless. To that end, we are delivering on our commitment to establish an office of religious freedoms. I expect to have more to say about that in short order.

Mr. Chair, Canadians gave our government a strong mandate to create jobs and to secure Canada's economic recovery. They gave us a strong mandate to reign in government spending and to get value for the money people pay in taxes. They gave us a strong mandate to protect our interests and to promote our values. My department and I are committed to delivering strong fiscal management and nimble diplomacy while also creating opportunities, advancing prosperity, and delivering security for Canadians here and around the world.

I look forward to your comments and your questions.

8:35 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

Thank you, Minister.

We're going to start with Madame Laverdière.

8:35 a.m.

NDP

Hélène Laverdière NDP Laurier—Sainte-Marie, QC

Thank you, Minister. Thank you very much for being here today.

Thanks also to Mr. Patel and Mr. Rosenberg.

Thank you for your kind words for DFAIT officials. I'll take those a bit for myself retroactively.

Minister, you spoke quite rightly about the need to send a strong message to countries such as Syria with regard to the current situation. You also talked about economic opportunities. We all know that foreign affairs and economic trade development must be coherent.

I would like to ask you about Suncor, which still has operations in Syria and which works with the state-owned company. Do you know how much revenue the partnership brings to the Assad regime?

8:35 a.m.

Conservative

John Baird Conservative Ottawa West—Nepean, ON

I can't speak to dollar amounts. We gave a lot of careful consideration to this. From the experience in Libya, of course, our sanctions shut down all of Suncor's operations in Libya because they were exporting petroleum.

In the military campaign we were tremendously careful not to bomb any civilian assets, whether that be electricity transmission or electricity generation, or water and sewer. We felt very strongly about that for a number of reasons: one, obviously we didn't want to hurt the Libyan people, and two, we didn't want to do something that would be opposite to winning hearts and minds.

In the situation in Syria, to the best of my judgment, Suncor's operations for natural gas are not for export, but for civilian electricity generation. If they ceased activities there, you would have literally tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of homes without electricity, and that would be bad for the civilian population.

So we had no hesitation to shut Suncor down completely in Libya, but with Suncor in Syria we've taken the opposite--

8:35 a.m.

NDP

Hélène Laverdière NDP Laurier—Sainte-Marie, QC

Thank you, Minister. I didn't want to interrupt you, but I think my main point.... We understand that it does provide electricity, but it does also provide revenue to a regime that is using its revenue to hurt the civilian population, and you don't know what kind of revenue this operation provides to the Syrian regime.

8:35 a.m.

Conservative

John Baird Conservative Ottawa West—Nepean, ON

There's no doubt that it provides some revenue.

As I said, we gave very careful consideration to that. If at any time we had thought it would be in the best interests of the situation, the best interests of the Syrian people, we would of course have taken the action. We thought nothing of it in Libya, of shutting them down completely. I think they're still shut down; they haven't been able to get online. But that was the best decision we had.

8:35 a.m.

NDP

Hélène Laverdière NDP Laurier—Sainte-Marie, QC

Thank you.

Also, in the 2008 Speech from the Throne the government announced the creation of a democracy promotion institute. Of course in these current circumstances, what with the Arab Spring, Canada could play a vital role in helping build those democracies. Yet even though the institute was announced in 2008, we still see no line for that in the current supplementary estimates. Can you explain?

8:35 a.m.

Conservative

John Baird Conservative Ottawa West—Nepean, ON

Sure.

That's correct. The government made a decision a number of years ago not to proceed with that initiative. As the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, I'd like to review the mandate and operations of Rights and Democracy, which I think can play a greater role than it has played in the past. Also, the International Development Research Centre is something that could be reviewed to look at moving forward in that regard.

In terms of promoting democracy and democratic development, we do democracy support through diplomacy. That's obviously a significant issue. We do democracy support through programming in the Middle East and North Africa region. DFAIT, through the democracy envelope of the Glyn Berry program, has an annual $3-million fund to support short-term projects in instances of democratic transition, democratic crises transition, or repressive contexts worldwide. In addition, other funds from DFAIT, such as the global peace and security program, can be assessed towards democratic development.

8:35 a.m.

NDP

Hélène Laverdière NDP Laurier—Sainte-Marie, QC

So you've decided to leave more space rather than being more involved in that issue. You've decided to leave--

8:40 a.m.

Conservative

John Baird Conservative Ottawa West—Nepean, ON

I think for fiscal reasons it wasn't followed through in 2008. We do a number of initiatives like that within my department, not through a separate agency. I would like to review the work of Rights and Democracy to see how it could focus towards that regard.

8:40 a.m.

NDP

Hélène Laverdière NDP Laurier—Sainte-Marie, QC

Okay. And just a quick note: so there will be a kind of review of the work of Rights and Democracy?

8:40 a.m.

Conservative

John Baird Conservative Ottawa West—Nepean, ON

Yes.

8:40 a.m.

NDP

Hélène Laverdière NDP Laurier—Sainte-Marie, QC

Okay. Because we know that this institution has suffered somewhat in the last few years.

8:40 a.m.

Conservative

John Baird Conservative Ottawa West—Nepean, ON

It has gone through some challenges.

8:40 a.m.

NDP

Hélène Laverdière NDP Laurier—Sainte-Marie, QC

Thank you, Minister.

I have another question. Next Monday is the second Bonn conference on Afghanistan. First, will you be attending the conference, Minister?

8:40 a.m.

Conservative

John Baird Conservative Ottawa West—Nepean, ON

Yes.

8:40 a.m.

NDP

Hélène Laverdière NDP Laurier—Sainte-Marie, QC

Yes. Okay.

We know that one critical issue in Afghanistan is the question of women's rights, both because there are important challenges and because the international community agrees that the role women can play in developing a healthy society is crucial. Will Canada be pushing to promote women's rights and women's participation at the Bonn conference?

8:40 a.m.

Conservative

John Baird Conservative Ottawa West—Nepean, ON

I push it virtually everywhere I go. I think it's something that's tremendously important, frankly, not just for women but for civil society. It's tremendously important.

When I visited Libya, for example, I did a round table with some women activists, many of whom had a Canadian connection. I did the same when I travelled to Kuwait City: I met with two women's rights advocates and the first woman member of Parliament from Kuwait, who was elected two years ago.

It's something that I see is very important and I have regularly raised it, as I did at the UN.

8:40 a.m.

NDP

Hélène Laverdière NDP Laurier—Sainte-Marie, QC

Okay. I'll make one last point on Afghanistan very quickly.

Canada has reduced its aid to Afghanistan just when it's so important to build this country and to build its institutions. Is Canada ready to increase its commitment post-2014?

8:40 a.m.

Conservative

John Baird Conservative Ottawa West—Nepean, ON

Listen, we haven't made any decisions post-2014. My counterpart, Bev Oda, the Minister of International Development, would be better able to respond to specific questions on that.

8:40 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

Thank you.

We're now going to move over to the government's side.

Mr. Obhrai, you have seven minutes please.

8:40 a.m.

Conservative

Deepak Obhrai Conservative Calgary East, AB

Chairman, it's nice to be back on the committee for a short while.

Minister, congratulations on your appointment as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. This is your first meeting of the committee, and it's my pleasure to be here.

Minister, you pointed out the four pillars of our foreign policy, which are of course promotion of democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression, but you also mentioned the office of religious minorities that we have set up under DFAIT to fight for these things.

Now, we have had successes; let's not kid ourselves. Libya is a great success out here. We finished our mission in Afghanistan. You're going to the Bonn Conference; hopefully Pakistan will attend. Well, they say they won't attend, but this is post-2014. You put sanctions on Syria. These are our cornerstone policies coming successfully out of there.

Would you like to elaborate on our religious office that was set up—as well as other areas you would like to dwell on—as part of the success of our policy based on our four principles?

8:40 a.m.

Conservative

John Baird Conservative Ottawa West—Nepean, ON

We are deeply concerned by the lack of religious freedoms around the world and the real challenges that many religious minorities have. For example, in northern Africa, the situation among Coptic Christians in Egypt—before the revolution and after—causes us very deep concern. When Roman Catholic priests in China are forced to go underground, that causes us real concern. When the ecumenical patriarch has real challenges in Turkey, that causes us real concern. When the Baha'i community in Iran—which has an abysmal and regrettably deteriorating human rights record—is persecuted, that causes us concern.

So what we wanted to do was to establish an office of religious freedom—we have not done that yet, but we will be speaking to that in very short order—that will serve as a diplomatic tool to shine light on the importance of this challenge. We're very committed to it, and we look forward to speaking to that more in the not-too-distant future.

We have, over the course of the past year, put a significant focus on religious freedoms. We fought hard to get reference to it at the G-8 communiqué. Even on my recent trip to Kuwait, where we met the G-8 and North African and Middle Eastern foreign ministers, we got a statement of religious freedom there. It's a fundamental freedom, which we feel very strongly about.

8:45 a.m.

Conservative

Deepak Obhrai Conservative Calgary East, AB

Minister, we talk about promotion of democracy as being our cornerstone policy. You were at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting with the Prime Minister for the eminent persons report, and we talked about the concern we have with Sri Lanka not moving forward in reference to reconciliation. But there are established democracies around the world....

One of the concerns we heard in recent reports coming out is that Canadian assets have been used to promote separatism in friendly countries like India. What would you have to say on that?