The popular Smurfs are encouraging children and adults to make the world happier, more peaceful, equitable and healthy with a campaign launched Feb. 15 by the UN, UNICEF, and the UN Foundation. The 'Small Smurfs Big Goals' campaign is designed to encourage everyone to learn about and support the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that were agreed on by all 193 member countries of the UN in 2015. ZCHE / SUPPLIED BY WENN
February 27, 2017

by John W. McArthur, Vancouver Sun

Opinion: Canada — from exception to exceptional leader

The notion of Canada as an exception has fresh meaning in the current international environment. While many countries are turning inward and grappling with unprecedented political acrimony, large portions of the world see Canada as a beacon of civility and decency. However, Canada is also struggling to define its role in a global community whose frontiers are shifting fast. Fortunately, Canada has a major opportunity to help the world chart a new path.

Today, Canada brings a variety of dispositions to global issues. At one end of the spectrum, we are avid internationalists. Robust immigration forms a centrepiece of our society, and our prime minister has the mettle to make a decisive case for refugees while standing next to a U.S. president with starkly different views. At the other end of the spectrum, our investments in global security and development cooperation have atrophied to historic lows, following a generation of cutbacks under both Liberal and Conservative governments.

Interconnected economic, social and environmental transformations are prompting new tensions around the globe. But one silver lining to the world’s problems is that they are increasingly universal. People across all continents are realizing that the issues they care about — a fair shot at a good job, a safe living environment, a healthy place to raise kids — are the same issues people elsewhere are worrying about, too. And in our ever-more-interconnected global society, even the narrowest self-interest prompts a need to cooperate with others.

Enter the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. These are a shared vision for human progress agreed by all 193 UN member countries in 2015. The 17 underlying goals established a global floor for eliminating extreme poverty by 2030, while also committing each country to pursue its own version of inclusive and sustainable prosperity. The underlying ethos is “no one left behind.” The goals read like a shorthand of Canada’s own economic, social and environmental priorities. Around the world, the SDGs are an ever more regular reference point among civil society, business, scientific and policy communities

To make the leap from being a global exception in tough times to exceptional leader on global challenges, Canada needs a coherent strategy for achieving the SDGs both at home and abroad. To do so, we need to tackle five key questions.


First, where will our own domestic actions make disproportionate global contributions? For instance, Canada has the world’s longest ocean coastline and 10 per cent of overall forest cover. Good decisions at home in these realms will have outsized effects on world outcomes.

Second, what domestic actions are essential to fostering legitimacy abroad? Humbly confronting the gaps with our indigenous peoples, for example, will only garner respect among emerging powers facing their own problems of inclusion.

Third, what are the global issues in which Canadians have unique aptitudes? Our universities and companies have eminent expertise on challenges ranging from food systems to water management to responsible mining practice. The relevant assets and knowledge networks need to be elevated to high-level, global policy-making.

Fourth, what are Canada’s values or political interests on which its voice can provide unique leadership? Advancing women’s rights, for example, is a widespread Canadian value. It is natural for Canada to be a global trailblazer on priorities like investing in girls’ secondary education, reproductive health and women’s legal protections.

Fifth, where does Canada carry a global swing vote? International negotiations on climate change offered a vivid recent example. Canada was crucial in forging the coalition leading to the historic 2015 Paris climate agreement. Canadians need to double down when they can play a decisive role toward international consensus.

These are five big questions. Robust answers will only be found through active local and national debate. Today’s political, business and scientific leaders have a special responsibility to foster the conversations. Many Canadians, especially young Canadians, seem eager to engage. In the face of the world’s starkest challenges, Canada can be much more than an exception to the global norm. Our contributions can be fully exceptional, in the very best sense of the term.

John W. McArthur, a Vancouver native, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a senior adviser to the UN Foundation. Follow him on twitter @mcarthur.


This article was published originally on Vancouver Sun on February 27, 2017.