Time to pol­ish our hu­man­i­tar­ian brand in Canada

Toronto Star - - THE POLITICS PAGE - Jaime Watt is the ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of Nav­i­ga­tor Ltd. and a Con­ser­va­tive strate­gist. He is a free­lance con­trib­u­tor for the Star. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @jaime­watt. Jaime Watt

In an age of so­cial me­dia and in­tense global com­pe­ti­tion, “brand” has be­come more im­por­tant than ever. While it was once the ex­clu­sive do­main of con­sumer-fo­cused com­pa­nies, now in­di­vid­u­als, or­ga­ni­za­tions and na­tions alike have be­come acutely aware of the im­age they pro­ject and the ben­e­fits that come with suc­cess­fully build­ing brand eq­uity.

What­ever you may be sell­ing, brand­ing is the alchemy that trans­forms a ker­nel of truth and a dash of ex­ag­ger­a­tion into gold.

In­tel­lec­tu­ally, we all un­der­stand that a cer­tain tooth­paste will not trans­form our so­cial lives, but on a crowded shelf the brand that’s pro­moted will still be the one we reach for. The same phe­nom­e­non ap­plies to coun­tries. Brand­ing has be­come an im­por­tant way to pro­mote that same shelf ap­peal, to at­tract for­eign cap­i­tal, top tal­ent, jobs and cor­po­rate of­fices and tourists. If you hap­pen to have a jaunty red maple leaf as a na­tional logo, all the bet­ter.

The Trudeau Lib­er­als have been, since their elec­tion, ex­cep­tion­ally savvy about na­tional and in­ter­na­tional brand­ing. They shrewdly played to the deep-rooted be­lief among Cana­dian vot­ers that we are a kinder, gen­tler and more moral so­ci­ety than many oth­ers. They cham­pi­oned en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards, they spoke fer­vently about hu­man rights, they pro­nounced on the im­per­a­tive for gen­der equal­ity.

Not only that, they gen­er­ously gave other coun­tries point­ers on how to hold them­selves to that Cana­dian stan­dard of con­duct.

One of the most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ples of that moral brand ex­ten­sion came in Au­gust when For­eign Min­is­ter Chrys­tia Free­land used Twit­ter — in Ara­bic — to sup­port Saudi ac­tivists at odds with the rul­ing monar­chy. As ten­sions grew, the Cana­dian am­bas­sador was with­drawn. Pub­lic de­mands by the Saudis for an apol­ogy were made and re­jected. And the Lib­er­als bur­nished Canada’s brand as a plucky and high-minded na­tion that punched above its weight.

All that has come to the fore again, as the mys­tery sur­round­ing the dis­ap­pear­ance of a Saudi jour­nal­ist — and critic of the monar­chy — has deep­ened. On Oct. 2, Ja­mal Khashoggi en­tered the Saudi em­bassy in Is­tan­bul to com­plete some rou­tine pa­per­work. He has not been seen since.

The in­ter­na­tional con­cern about his fate and the out­rage at the like­li­hood that he is a vic­tim of dire ret­ri­bu­tion, has cer­tainly vin­di­cated Canada’s early stand against an in­creas­ingly bold au­toc­racy.

But here’s where the var­nish starts to chip: The val­ues that un­der­pin our na­tional brand are not con­sis­tent with fin­ger-wag­ging diplo­macy and im­pas­sioned rhetoric about the im­por­tance of hu­man rights.

In­deed, our own sense of our brand is at odds with re­al­ity — and with the per­cep­tions of oth­ers. When the Cana- dian gov­ern­ment — first the Con­ser­va­tives and then the Lib­er­als — agreed to sell ar­moured ve­hi­cles to Saudi Ara­bia, they un­equiv­o­cally for­feited the moral high ground. Sure, they were de­scribed first as “trucks” by former prime min­is­ter Stephen Harper and later as “jeeps” by Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau, but that de­lib­er­ate triv­i­al­iza­tion only makes it worse. The Saudis know that per­fectly well and, frankly, so does every­one else.

This is not go­ing to be a one-time news story. Rather it is go­ing to be an is­sue as Canada’s cam­paign to join the 2021 UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil ramps up. The ef­fort is al­ready un­der­way, skil­fully led by Canada’s per­ma­nent rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the United Na­tions, Marc-An­dré Blan­chard. Given our sense of own brand, Canada should be a strong con­tender. But re­mem­ber what hap­pened last time we tried for this prize. Por­tu­gal left us in their dust.

And now, we’re com­pet­ing for a cov­eted spot with Nor­way and Ire­land, two smaller and qui­eter coun­tries with less brand eq­uity but per­haps more au­then­tic clout. For all our pos­tur­ing, the re­al­ity is that Nor­way is a far more gen­er­ous for­eign aid donor (spend­ing one per cent of GDP com­pared with Canada’s 0.26 per cent) and Ire­land has twice as many peace­keep­ers in the field as Canada.

Just an­other ex­am­ple of the com­plex­i­ties that mid­dle pow­ers face when try­ing to give life to their brand and their val­ues in a big, old, com­pli­cated and cross pres­sured world.

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