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Canada and the World

Introduction by: Heather Smith

(This introduction is edited from a conversation with Heather Smith, facilitated by Ryan Catney)

Key Welcome to Canadian Politics articles on Canada and the World:

What do we mean by Canada and the World? Why is it important to the study of Canadian Political Science?

What we mean depends on how we phrase the topic, as “Canada and the World” and “Canada in the World” have different meanings.

For me, Canada in the world could be used to refer to Canadian foreign policy, defence policy, international development policy, or the interplay between internal and external policies. This framing is state-centric and central to our traditional understandings of Canada in the world and Canadian foreign policy.

Traditionally understood, Canadian foreign policy is about authoritative projections of the Canadian state or actions of Canada outside or beyond the sovereign boundaries of the state, primarily but not exclusively, by the federal government. That is, the role of the provinces are also important in this realm. The provinces have a very significant external role in a number of fields where they have constitutional jurisdiction, leading to various actors seeking authority to act internationally – although the federal government is typically framed as the authoritative voice for the Canadian state.

There have been some scholars such as Kim Richard Nossal, Stéphane Roussel and Stéphane Paquin that argue that Canadian foreign policy is structured both by the external environment and the internal environment. In this view, what is happening within federal government bureaucracies at the Department of National Defence or Global Affairs Canada matters. The role of the United States and other international actors matter. The role of the Prime Minister matters and here too, the provinces are seen as playing an important role.

For me, discussing Canada and the world offers a very different kind of orientation. This view allows us to have a more nuanced set of assumptions about problematizing the Canadian state and the sovereignty of the state. Traditionally foreign policy was very focused on ideas of a bounded sovereign state, which is highly problematic given globalization and global processes such as climate change, migration, and global health pandemics.

Discussions of Canada and the world also allow us to rethink assumptions about how sovereignty is constructed. There are a number of Indigenous scholars such as Hayden King whose work draws attention to the colonial nature of the Canadian state and challenge Western notions of the sovereign state. In this view, the discussion can move beyond a very narrow set of topics to include issues ranging from such as transnational activism to missing and murdered Indigenous women as an aspect of colonial genocide, thus allowing for a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the world in which we live.

It is important that Canadian Political Science study issues related to Canada and the World because many of these topics are usually siloed into different sub-disciplines of political science. This creates a problem where scholars in different fields are working and teaching in a disconnected way and leads to a reinforcing of assumptions about sovereignty. Most “Canadian politics” focuses on the bounded territory of the Canadian state, and when framed as this internal space that does not exist within broader global frameworks of ideas and people coming and going, we miss important connections.

How has it usually been taught?

As hinted at above, these topics have traditionally been tackled in different subfields of political science, not necessarily under the umbrella of “Canadian political science” or “Canadian politics”. The core assumption of Canadian political science is usually that the focus is the Canadian state, leading to a replication of problematic disciplinary boundaries. This means that the issues that would be discussed as part of “Canada and the World” are usually hived off of Canadian political science courses and taught in separate courses on Canadian foreign policy or International Relations.

While introductory courses on Canadian Politics are necessarily broad, by not including a week on Canada and the World, these courses are missing some interesting discussions. For example, the ongoing incidents and scandals related to misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces are usually labelled as a domestic political issue. However, misogyny, colonialism and racism do not stop at Canada’s borders. These are global forces that interact with domestic actors and infuse and shape domestic spaces, and so incorporating an international lens allows us a more comprehensive view of issues.

Meanwhile, in a traditional Canadian foreign policy class, a formulaic approach covering topics such as the role of the Prime Minister, the role of the bureaucracy, the role of Ministers, external actors such as the United States, and the role of provinces in the formulation and implementation of Canada’s foreign policy would usually be covered.

How is this area changing?

There are two changes currently underway on how topics related to Canada and the World are being taught.

The first change relates to content. Increasingly there are courses that are moving beyond the traditional Canadian foreign policy course outlined above to incorporate an intersectional lens and incorporating more questions of gender, race, colonialism, heteornomativity, and ableism. You also find more scholars problematizing the state and assumptions of sovereignty. In short, these innovative courses are offering diverse angles on looking at Canada in the World. This evolution has led to discussion of topics such as extractivism, questions about the role of non-governmental organizations, gender, disability, and queer perspectives. Courses are becoming broader, more robust, and more inviting of multiple perspectives.

The second change is related to style. While there are certainly still traditional lecture-based courses, there has also been a shift towards higher degrees of student engagement in class. For example, there are classes where there is the generation of student content through collaborative course design where students can pick topics for discussion or where they create the content for their classmates. There are innovative assignments beyond the research essay such as the creation of visuals or podcast. There are classes that include simulations or role playing. The style of teaching is open to as much change as the content students’ study.

Opportunities for further change

Canadian foreign policy scholarship, as well as the broader foreign policy community, are arguably still dominated by Western viewpoints and white males. There have been changes over time and that’s great. For me, I find some of the most intriguing questions for our understanding of Canada and the world arise in the scholarship of those not trained traditionally in Canadian foreign policy. The questions raised by these scholars relating to race or gender or ableism can help us to reflect on the gaps and opportunities in the study of Canada and the world.

For example, there are a number of Indigenous scholars working on more International Relations focused questions on topics such as the United National Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) that can be related to foreign policy, but very few Indigenous scholars work in the field itself because it is premised on colonial assumptions that privilege the sovereignty of the settler state and denies Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty.

For me, the teaching of Canada and the world, needs to go beyond the content of traditional textbooks to further incorporate these questions of race, gender, colonialism, ableism, and queer perspectives. Some of this work exists within the context of the Canadian foreign policy literature broadly defined (See for example the work of Erin Alyward and Stephen Brown, Deborah Stienstra, Tammy George, and Rebecca Tiessen). Still, I would argue that we need to look beyond Canadian foreign policy literature and draw on more diverse literature apply it to Canadian cases and then make these connections for students. These remain too many silences and absences in the research, and consequently the teaching on these topics.

And finally, I think that collectively we need to think about the barriers within the field of Canadian Political Science that have limited some of conversations across subfields. I think there is much to be gained by thinking broadly about who studies and how we study Canada.