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Ross O’Connor: Canada’s China strategy is all bark and no bite—But at least we’re making some noise

Commentary

The Trudeau government has at long last released its strategy for Canada’s engagement with the Indo-Pacific region. For you younger people out there, please understand that Canada has been dithering on how to engage Asia since the 1970s and so I wholeheartedly welcome this contribution to the public debate. While the document rightly (and finally) recognizes that China’s disruptive behaviour conflicts with Canada’s interests and that stronger links to other countries must be cultivated, it also fails to come to terms with the full scope of China’s ambitions to influence Canada.

In short, this new strategy has the right attitude but lacks teeth.

Canada’s China policy of the past can be summed up as follows: show deference to Beijing with the hope that Chinese leaders will reward Canada by buying our products in bulk—a policy also known as the pursuit of fool’s gold. Even further disconnected from reality was the notion that increased trade with Beijing would gradually improve human rights and strengthen democratic reform, a strategy characterized by Canadian journalist Chantal Hébert as engagement with “eyes wide shut.” Although late in the game, Trudeau’s loss of innocence towards China and recognition that Japan, South Korea, and India are important partners is welcome. But is it too little too late?

The gathering storm 

At the start of his time in office, Trudeau’s sunny policies towards China reflected his wide-eyed exuberance which Beijing was only too happy to exploit. However, after the Canada-China free trade humiliation and the arbitrary detention of the two Michaels, Trudeau started to understand that Beijing was playing him for a fool and pushed back on China’s hostage diplomacy. Shockingly, Trudeau was under internal pressure from Canada’s foreign policy establishment to trade Huawei executive Meng Wenzhou for the two Canadians. To his credit, Trudeau held the line. 

However, one wonders if Trudeau’s newfound backbone is here to stay. Ottawa’s shift in tone was in large part the result of arm twisting by Washington to remind Canada that it needs to pick a side in what the Biden Administration has called “a decisive decade” with China.

Bureaucratic inertia is another potential hazard that could threaten the implementation of this new policy. Hard-wired not to rock the boat, Canada’s global affairs bureaucracy will be tempted to carry on as before, guided by the flawed assumption that it’s always in Canada’s interest to lock in more deals with Beijing. If that’s the case, it would be a grave mistake. 

Getting it right

Making the Indo-Pacific a top priority should go without saying—it’s the global epicenter of a significant share of future economic growth in the world. Alternately, it’s also where most of the political risk lies due to the growing Sino-American Cold War as the U.S. and China continue to challenge for dominance in East Asia. This combination of high risk/high reward makes choosing the right strategy crucial and will make or break our success in the region.

What this strategy gets right is its focus on security, increasing military relationships and operations, and enhanced intelligence and cyber security networks. On trade, the strategy rightly points out that Canada needs to modernize the Investment Canada Act to better protect our national interests. We need more of that.

However, notably absent from this strategy is the complete lack of acknowledgement of political interference after recent revelations by CSIS that China directly tried to manipulate Canada’s political process and its warning that China is the “foremost aggressor” (among others) when it comes to foreign interference. Also missing were specifics on how to assist Taiwan to survive the next decade, and the creation of a federal foreign agent registry (modeled on one in Australia) forcing former senior public officials and politicians to disclose their activities. 

Bet on Washington

However, what this strategy most fundamentally fails to understand in strategic terms is that our partnership with the U.S. ought to be the gateway to the Indo-Pacific region. China’s disruptive behaviour has reaffirmed Washington as the security partner of choice for many Pacific nations, presenting Canada with an opportunity to shore up support with Washington (by far our most important security partner in the Pacific) and gain favour with the emerging coalition of Indo-Pacific nations. 

As a start, Canada could invest in new submarines and autonomous systems which would allow us to dispense with our aging and rickety fleet, patrol the Canadian coastline and support U.S. naval operations to defend fortress North America as the Chinese navy grows stronger every year. Siding with the U.S. is also strategically wise as the long-term odds favour Washington over Beijing for three reasons. 

First, as a peaking power, China is in relative decline to other countries, such as India, which is rising at an accelerated pace. Second, China will get old before it gets rich. Without the people to work and generate income to pay for the rest of society, the demographics do not support Beijing’s long-term growth. Third, China’s private debt, particularly the real estate market, which makes up 30 percent of China’s GDP, is a ticking time bomb. It’s time we stopped pursuing fool’s gold. When it comes to choosing strategic partners, this is not a decision we should be struggling with. 

A policy, if you can keep it 

For the last 25 years, Canada’s relationship with China has been framed as a struggle between commercial interests versus the defence of human rights. During that time, Canada’s foreign policy establishment steadfastly defended trade with China as essential for human rights under the assumptions that it would make them live by the same global rules as everyone else, gain a billion customers for Canadian products, and strengthen the forces of domestic Chinese reform.

That misguided “willful blindness” has proven to be so utterly bankrupt that even Prime Minister Trudeau has turned against it. We must remain vigilant however to avoid backsliding into a “business as usual” mindset. Going forward the mantra ought to be: The sunny ways of the past are inadequate to the stormy present.

Paul W. Bennett: Are pandemic effects and progressive discipline policies turning classrooms violent?

Commentary

Two and a half years into the pandemic, schools remain unsettled places and are now disrupted spaces. Half of 850 American public school leaders, surveyed in May 2022, reported an increase in classroom disruptions from student misconduct since schools returned to mostly in-person learning. One in three of the group of mostly principals testified to rising tensions and an uptick in student fights or physical attacks. 

Higher levels of violence and disruption are complicating and impeding school initiatives aimed at rebuilding school communities and getting students back on academic track. While concerning student behaviour studies results are surfacing in the United States, Canadian K-12 education remains a “data desert” where evidence of turmoil still has to be pieced together from scattered school-level reports. 

Horrific stories of high schools in crisis capture the news headlines. Regular fights, flagrant drug use, weapons offences, and terrified staff in one troubled Toronto high school, York Memorial, are hard to ignore. Since September 2022, fights happen nearly every day, sometimes multiple fights, and have produced more than 75 health and safety complaints, prompting 15 of the 80 staff to stage a one-day walkout in protest. Merging two rival inner-city schools has created a cauldron of tension and violence, but that’s a worst-case scenario. 

More typical of the pandemic fallout is the Ontario city of London, where its elementary schools provide a barometer of what’s actually happening inside and outside of classrooms. Violent incidents in the Thames Valley District School Board’s 154 elementary schools more than doubled to 900 in October 2022, compared to some 400 in June of last year. 

What’s most troubling is that many episodes of student-on-student violence go unreported and it’s really a sign of the turmoil that runs deeper in school culture. Whole classes are evacuated to isolate and subdue angry or frustrated students acting out in school. Elementary parents complain about rampant violence in younger grades and overwhelmed staff unable to curb the violence or provide support or protection for children.  

The local teachers’ union and the odd brave teacher are speaking out of school. One Grade 8 teacher, identified only as “Tom,” blamed a board discipline policy that is not only “unclear and confusing,” but paves the way for students to re-offend. “There is zero accountability,” he told CBC News London Morning, hiding his identity out of fear of possible consequences. 

Nor is it confined to elementary schools. For the past two years, a few London city high schools have been in near-constant turmoil. Local police reported making 28 calls to one London high school, Saunders Secondary School, from October 2021 to April 22 to break up fights, respond to mental health issues, or investigate assaults, property damage, thefts, and other incidents. Two 16-year-old boys were stabbed in September near A.B. Lucas Secondary School and more recently, in late November, students described a frantic and bloody scene at H.B. Beal SS after a teen girl stabbed another over lunchtime in the cafeteria. 

School districts like Ontario’s TVDSB were unprepared for the rising incidence of violence and the near-constant problem of “low-level disruptions” besetting classrooms. The Ontario school board is typical of most of the 72 districts in the province. Faced with repeated incidents and intense media scrutiny, TVDSB Director of Education Mark Fisher has declined comment or instructed senior school officials to either defend existing ‘’progressive discipline” policy or assign blame to “what’s happening in communities” following the pandemic. 

After having implemented school-wide positive, preventive student behaviour policies over the past fifteen years or so, school principals and classroom teachers have been deprived of traditional deterrents—office reports, suspensions, and, in some extreme cases, expulsions. Integrating most students with complex needs into regular classrooms, in the midst of the turmoil and with totally inadequate resource supports, has merely compounded the problems. 

Current student behaviour policy dates back to April 2007 in Ontario when former premier, then education minister, Kathleen Wynne (2006-2010), abandoned the “zero tolerance” approach to curbing bullying. Heeding the advice and counsel of her deputy minister, Ben Levin, Wynne sought to curtail the high incidence of suspensions, which were found to be disproportionately affecting students from marginalized or disadvantaged communities. 

Positive Emotional Behaviour Supports approaches, introduced since 2007 in Ontario and elsewhere across North America, have dramatically reduced the use of suspensions and resulted in the virtual elimination of expulsions, the last resort in school discipline. Curbing the use of sanctions has meant keeping students in school is now the priority, often through the expanded use of “time-out” rooms, Individual Education Plans, restorative justice remedies, and “social promotion” to the next grade. 

The official Ontario school suspension data tell the story across the system with some 2 million students. In 2007-08, 94,386 Ontario students were listed as “suspensions” (4.32 percent of all students) and 996 were reported as “expulsions” (0.05 percent). By 2019-20, the last year reported, total suspensions were down to 46,990 (2.21 percent) and only 245 students were recorded as “expulsions” (0.01 percent). 

The reported data for TVDSB has suspensions dropping from 4,918 (5.86 percent) to 3,275 (3.91 percent) but looks totally unreliable for “expulsions.” The board reported less than 10 expulsions a year from 2007-08 to 2016-17, then slowly rising each year to 15 in 2019-20 before the pandemic. Those figures for expulsions need to be audited for accuracy. 

Speaking truth to power in K-12 education can be exceedingly frustrating because it’s usually met with a wall of silence. TVDSB Grade 8 teacher “Tom” is a brave soul who speaks for many frontline teachers with their heads down, toughing it out and left to deal with the problem on their own, day in and day out, in post-pandemic school closure times.

Progressive student behaviour approaches are now unequal to the challenge, according to classroom teachers and engaged parents. Violent, disruptive, and disrespectful students are free, in far too many schools, to erode learning and sustain the turmoil with impunity.

Student behaviour policy has swung too far along the pendulum and, in the words of local  Elementary Federation of Ontario president Craig Smith, moved from “zero tolerance” to “one of almost complete latitude.” The current approach is anything but “progressive” if it’s allowing violence and low-level disruptions to flourish in elementary and secondary schools.