Blogs & Comment

Businesses should not bear the burden of Canada’s foreign policy alone

Companies are happy to do their part on economic sanctions, but governments and citizens need to step up

A container ship at sea

(Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty)

This past August, nearly 10,000 tonnes of Canadian pork were adrift on the world’s oceans. A food import embargo—enforced by Russia in retaliation for economic sanctions imposed by Canada over the Ukraine crisis—meant over 400 shipping containers full of frozen pork, headed for Russian sausage factories, were no longer welcome at port.

“We had to find a new home for all those shipments,” sighs Jacques Pomerleau, president of the industry group Canada Pork International in Ottawa. “It was a huge amount of work to issue new paperwork and certifications, and to find new buyers. Different ships, different ports: It all had to be redirected.”

Pomerleau’s $45 million Russian pork headache is merely the latest example of the many ways in which Canada’s business community is forced to bear much of the burden of our country’s foreign policy. It’s a necessary and useful job, to be sure. But a little recognition would be nice.

With wealthy western nations having lost their appetites for bloody ground wars in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq, the practice of politics by other means has recently evolved into two distinct tactics: economic sanctions and airstrikes. In Libya, Iran, Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and other hot spots, the western nations’ first choice for resolving diplomatic crises is the application of increasingly sophisticated economic sanctions followed, if necessary, by the application of bombers and drones.

This initial reliance on sanctions is unquestionably a good thing; economic pressure is much more preferable to putting the lives of soldiers at risk. If taking a hit on frozen pork shoulder shipments is the price to be paid for one less ramp ceremony, most Canadians would agree that sounds like a fair deal.

Yet we shouldn’t forget that this trade-off isn’t free. The use of economic sanctions as a tool of foreign policy creates private-sector costs that are rarely compensated. In 2012, to pick another example, Canada (along with the U.S. and European Union) announced sweeping financial and commercial sanctions against Iran to pressure that country into abandoning its nuclear weapons program. Again, such a move is favoured over direct confrontation. Yet it also had a major impact on Canadian banks. Beyond the lost business, TD Bank also took a major public relations blow when it closed accounts directly connected to Iran.

So while folks like Naomi Klein, with her newest screed, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, argue the corporate world is a self-centred bastion of evil, every time a sanction is imposed against a rogue nation, the corporate world becomes a do-good instrument of Canadian diplomacy. And at no cost to taxpayers.

By and large, the Canadian business community willingly accepts its new place in modern warfare. That said, “It shouldn’t just be business that has to hold the bag for foreign policy,” cautions Jayson Myers, president of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters. It would be nice, in fact, if government and individual taxpayers held up their half of the bargain when necessary.


While air power is now the modern expression of the western world’s military might, the Canadian federal government has proven incapable of upgrading its own fleet of fighter jets. Our contribution to the situation in Ukraine last spring, as well as the recent campaign against Islamic State in Iraq is, in both instances, a mere six aging CF-18s. It’s all we can afford to send.

And while Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called loudly for a tough response from NATO to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, keep in mind that NATO expects its member countries to allocate at least 2% of their GDP to their military budgets to ensure appropriate readiness and deterrence; Canada actually spends half that. We invest so little because the taxes necessary to make good on such a commitment would be deeply unpopular with voters. Better to let someone else do the heavy lifting.

Canadian business is already doing its part to keep the world free. What about the rest of the country?