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On Not Leaving the Table Before the Bill Arrives: Canadian Foreign Policy with Hugh Segal

The spring edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival was off to an auspicious start with a standing-room only reception at Social in the Byward Market for Hugh Segal’s book launch. Segal has been a respected public figure for many decades, and left the then burning house of the Senate to become the Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, a position he still holds.

His new book is part of a series by Dundurn Press, called Point of View, and is titled Two Freedoms: Canada’s Global Future .The eponymous dual liberties detailed by Segal are: the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.

In a brief but insightful conversation with Jennifer Ditchburn , the Editor-in-Chief of Policy Options/Options Politiques, Segal touched on a number of issues that believes are necessary for Canada to address if it is truly to be “back” on the world stage. All these issues hinge on the basic foundation of having material well-being and security.

There were intimations of his preference for devolution—outlined in his previous book The Right Balance —that NGOs on the ground, and Canada’s diplomatic corps in the field should be the first actors to engage. He favourably mentioned Canada’s working with an organization in Malaysia, Sisters in Islam , which seeks to balance shari’ah law with common law within a democracy. He also pointed out the benefits of organizations like the Commonwealth of Learning , housed in Burnaby, BC as an excellent tool in using technology to promote education, and how it was useful more recently in Pakistan. Not dealing with these smaller agents and channelling funds instead to state actors was derisively referred to as “Auditor Generalitis”; a risk-averse posture to simplify domestic book-keeping.

Segal also has numbers. 0.7% of foreign aid, the Pearsonian ideal, and 2% on defence. The latter includes a 100,000 regular force army, with 50,000 reservists. When Ditchburn probed as to what Canada was to do with such a force, Segal’s explanation was primarily to do with the capacity to deploy for humanitarian missions. It would have been good to have him talk more about combat roles, and if they were effective and relevant roles for Canada to play, as it did in Afghanistan. Further, his thoughts on how this could all be paid for were vague at best. It’s hard to imagine this policy, if taken, not having an significant impact on taxes , no matter how gradually it’s rolled out.

A line of questioning that could’ve been elucidated further is what appears to be his realpolitik: his freedom from fear is held in tension with the balance of power in regions. So while there are allies who fully share our values, there are others who only partially do­­—Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, for example. It was fairly tough to accede to Segal’s calling Turkey “a loyal member of NATO,” while keeping in mind its thin-skinned leader whose tyrannical tendencies extend beyond borders , and its double-minded approach to security.

Finally, the question always remains as to how Canada can preach to the world, while there are mounting problems at home. Segal states that for all its problems, Canada still has a healthy self-criticism and an independent judiciary that, for instance, ruled in favour of Métis and non-status Indians. We can walk and chew gum at the same time; domestic responsibilities need not make us shrink from our international obligations.

Oh, in case you were wondering, like Ditchburn did at the end, Segal is in favour of the current government’s approach to reforming the Senate and hopes that they succeed. Of course, if everyone were a Hugh Segal, reform wouldn’t be needed.

The questions from the audience began with a strike to the heart: “should there be a limit to forgiveness and empathy?” Posed to three authors on the first night of the Spring 2016 Ottawa International Writers Festival, the woman’s question evoked a passionate response: “empathy is not absolution”; to seek understanding does not have to lead to forgiveness. The theme of this third event of the evening was “radical empathy”, a common thread running through the works of Sara Baume (Spill Simmer Falter Wither), Sunil Yapa (Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist), and Joan Crate (Black Apple). Baume, Yapa, and Crate’s novels and characters were vastly different, as the audience would soon realize, ranging from a lonely man and his dog in Ireland to seven perspectives of one day during the 1999 WTO Seattle protests to a Blackfoot woman who grew up in the Canadian residential school system. All, however, explored the idea of deep loneliness, empathy, and humanity deprived.

        To situate the packed room at Christ Church Cathedral, each author read a short excerpt from their novels. There is something special about storytellers being the ones to breath life into their own words, and this night was no exception. In a soft Irish lilt, Baume spoke in the voice of Ray, a man in his fifties, as he talked to his sole companion: his dog. Yunil followed, and we heard the thoughts of seventeen-year-old Victor as he gets caught up in the brutality of the chaotic anti-globalisation protests. Last was Crate, who introduced us to Mother Grace, the troubled Mother Superior in charge of St Mark’s Residential School, and one of her charges, a seven-year-old Blackfoot girl renamed Rose-Marie by the system.

        After the three readings, the authors joined Artistic Director Sean Wilson on stage to go deeper into the concept of radical empathy and the creation of their characters. The consequences of compassion, the fragility of the human life, and simple weariness were key topics pondered, and the authors, particularly Yunil and Crate, emphasized the importance of having no intentional villain to the process of writing empathy. To write from the perspectives of police during a violent protest and a Roman Catholic nun who was complicit in the vile residential school system was a challenge for Yunil and Crate, but they recognized the complexities of each and were determined to better understand the different perspectives.

            The difference between loneliness and solitude was also considered. A young child cruelly ripped from her family, a motherless boy estranged from his father, a crippled old man and his equally crippled dog seeking refuge from damaging loneliness – and storytellers writing in solitude, not quite lonely, comforted by the characters they put on paper, and yet still alone.

            In the comfortable cathedral room, the community gathered was far from lonely, a group full of different textures of people with their own silent stories. Contemplating the limits of forgiveness and the power empathy brought a sombreness to the crowd. With the smell of stale coffee lingering and the soft rustle of neighbours fidgeting, the authors assured the concerned woman that yes, there is a limit to forgiveness, and that their stories were not intending to say we ought to forgive those who inflicted grave harm upon others. But one cannot help but wonder – perhaps radical empathy means there is no limit to forgiveness.