I arrived in Vancouver in mid-autumn last year after a 14-hour non-stop flight. It was my first visit to the city. It did not take much time to pass through the self-checkout immigration control system. At the taxi rank, I got a taxi to take me to my downtown (city centre) hotel. The city centre is about 15 km from the airport. As we were driving towards the city, I realised that the taxi metre was not on. I thought possibly there was a fixed taxi fare between the airport and the city. The taxi driver dropped me off at my hotel and asked for a fare seemed not so reasonable to me given the distance travelled and with no traffic delays at the very early hours of the day. But not only I paid up but also added extra CAD 5.0 as a tip. On my return trip to the airport on completion of my visit to Vancouver, the taxi driver did put on the metre and the fare was significantly cheaper than that was charged by the other driver. To be fair to this driver I voluntarily paid him the same fare plus the same tip. He was obviously overjoyed. Tipping is the done thing in North America but as I live in a country where that is not the case and also tipping is not encouraged, I have developed a psychological barrier to tipping. But whenever I am in North America, I have to remind myself continually to tip. I am told that workers in the USA and Canada are paid very poorly in the services sector, and tips constitute a major proportion of their income. In fact, they largely rely on receiving tips to survive.
Canada is the world's second largest country in terms of surface area only after the Russian Federation but has a relatively small population. The country is one of world's top trading nations and one of the richest countries in the world. Canada is also a very resource-rich country and a major exporter of energy, food and minerals. Canada has been lauded for its egalitarian social and economic system with liberal democratic institutions. The country has a universal healthcare system and actively promotes multiculturalism. Its social liberal attitudes are reflected in its laws relating to women, sexuality and marijuana (ganja).
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tries to portray his country as a liberal counterweight to its neighbour, the USA now under an illiberal President. In mid-January this year, it was celebrated as a very proud moment in its national history when a Saudi teenager, a victim of gender violence, was granted asylum in Canada. When she arrived at Toronto airport, she was greeted and embraced by the country's foreign minister and introduced her to the press as a ''brave new Canadian''.
I took a reasonably comprehensive tour of Vancouver. I was immensely charmed by the beauty of Stanley Park and its harbour side. I tried to explore the downtown area on foot. The affluence of the city is on display everywhere. Also, on display shops selling marijuana (ganja) and all the paraphernalia that are needed to smoke it. But as I walked along Granville Street and its surrounds, I was in total disbelief to see a very large number of homeless people and beggars all over the place. What was more distressing to see was the number of very old and frail people among them. I saw people scavenging in rubbish bins. How these people slipped through the Canadian social welfare net still remains a mystery to me and also raises questions about the extent and efficacy of this welfare net. Despite Canada's espousal of liberal political and social values with a social welfare state structure in place giving a sense of collective responsibility, the country appears at the same time to remain deeply wedded to the American idea of strong individualism. The existence of poverty and homelessness which are rather quite visible in such an affluent country is a manifestation of that commitment to strong individualism, an inescapable cultural baggage received from its very powerful neighbour to the south.
From Vancouver I flew to Montreal, the capital of mainly French-speaking province of Quebec. There has been a movement to create a sovereign French-speaking country. That movement has abated but not disappeared since a referendum in Quebec in 1995 which rejected independence by a margin of only 1.0 per cent. The question of Quebec identity and its place within a united Canada still remains unresolved. Quebec contributes 20 per cent to the country's gross domestic product (GDP) and accounts for a quarter of manufacturing output of Canada. The province is also the major producer of hydroelectricity and an exporter of the same.
Montreal looks more like a European city unlike Vancouver and Toronto which are very American cities. Also, homeless and beggars are not seen much in Montreal unlike in Vancouver.
I visited Quebec City which to me looked like a city with the old-world charms in the new world. While driving to see Mont-Tremblant, I saw, on both sides the highway, the most spectacular profusion of autumn colours of gold, red and orange. It was an unforgettable experience. I have not seen anything so spectacularly beautiful autumn colours like this before.
But behind all these profusions of autumnal colours and beautiful landscapes and its aura of political liberalism, lies another Canada playing geo-political games in support its big neighbour. In fact, Canada's geo-strategic alliance as well as close economic relations with the US allows it to punch much above its weight in economic and political terms. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commenting on granting asylum to the Saudi teenager escaping gender violence in her own country that his government was 'pleased' to provide safe haven for Alqunun because Canada always stands up for human rights and women's right around the world. Trudeau possesses enormous capacity for double speak. Early in January just about a week before Alqunun arrived in Toronto, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) forcibly broke up barricade set up by the Wet'suwet'en nation people to defend their ancestral land from encroachment by TransCanada to build gas pipeline. When asked about the violent raid, Trudeau's response was that Canada was a country of rule of law. It appears clearly that he does not consider the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as law where Article 10 clearly states "Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their land or territories''.
Prime Minister Trudeau accused China of "arbitrarily apply'' the death sentence to the Canadian drug smuggler Robert Schellenberg. His much-celebrated Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland thanked US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for supporting Canada's protestations against "arbitrary'' and "politically motivated'' death sentence imposed by the Chinese court. She then self-righteously reiterated Canada's opposition to capital punishment. But she seems to be not aware that her powerful neighbour's own record of meting out death sentences is rather quite noteworthy. Just in 2017 alone, 23 people were executed and 39 sentenced to death in the US. Like in China, drug offences are a capital crime under the US federal law. In fact, President Trump recently advocated more use of death penalty for drug offences. No wonder, China accused Trudeau of double standards.
Canada has been also a key military strategic partner of Washington. The country is a member of the US-led military alliance North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). It has always pursued military interventions in support of the US in the Middle-East and other parts of the world causing massive destructions including of ancient cultural sites and creating humanitarian crises. The current massive refugee crisis in the Middle-East is just one such example.
Canada also pursues an aggressive foreign policy where in most cases sidelining multilateral institutions like the UN to achieve its foreign policy objectives, as it does the same in the cases of dealing with its own First Nation people's rights. There are reports that the Canadian armed forces have attracted a sizeable number of right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis to join in. The founders of ultra-right anti-Islam and anti-immigrant organisations such as La Mute in Quebec are former members of Canadian armed forces. Many observers opine that there is a deeper problem with Canadian armed forces relating to the influence of extreme right ideology and racism. More importantly, many opine that how its institutional framework and culture foster right-wing extremism and racism need to be closely looked at.
Canada has closely allied itself with the US in pursuing an increasingly aggressive policy towards China. The Trudeau government identified China as a "global threat'' in its national defence policy as adopted in 2017. Canadian warships have participated in so-called freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea. It has arrested a Huawei executive at the behest of the US on trumped-up charges of violating the US-imposed sanctions against Iran. It has banned Huawei from its 5G network. Furthermore, section 32 of United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), formerly North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), has completely ruled out any possibility of a free trade deal with China. Such confrontational moves by the Trudeau government are causing serious concerns among sections of Canadian big business because that will leave Canada completely dependent the US for its exports. Canada-US trade accounts for 20 per cent of Canada's gross domestic product (GDP) and only 2.0 per cent of US GDP. Trump has now got Canada exactly where he wanted it to be.
Muhammad Mahmood is an independent economic and political analyst.
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