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UN formally asks Canada to extend Mali mission to prevent medevac gap

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OTTAWA — The United Nations has formally asked Canada to extend its mission in Mali in what appears to be a last-ditch effort to prevent a gap in the provision of military medical evacuations for wounded peacekeepers and UN staff.

The UN request is contained in a letter sent to the federal government at the end of February after months of quiet lobbying was met with steadfast resistance in Ottawa.

The move is somewhat unusual because such formal requests are often only made when the UN believes it has a good chance of success, which is anything but certain in this particular circumstance.

Yet the presence of a formal request also increases the pressure on Canada to respond positively after the government, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, repeatedly played down the gap.

The timing is also noteworthy given that the UN hosts a major peacekeeping summit in New York next week, the first such meeting since Canada hosted a similar event in Vancouver in November 2017.

Canada has eight helicopters and 250 military personnel in Mali, where they have been providing emergency medical evacuations and transporting troops and equipment across a large swath of the remote African country.

The contingent is scheduled to end operations at the end of July, at which point it will pack up and leave before a Romanian force arrives to take over.

However, the Romanians aren’t scheduled to begin operations until Oct. 15, meaning there will be a roughly two-and-a-half-month gap needed to be filled.

In its Feb. 28 letter to the government, portions of which were read to The Canadian Press, the UN “kindly asks the government of Canada to consider a short extension of its contribution.”

Specifically, it asks that Canada continue full operations until Sept. 15, and then more limited operations until Oct. 15 as the Canadians draw down and withdraw to make way for the Romanians.

The unsigned letter goes on to say that “such an approach will bridge the gap” until the Romanian contingent can begin operations.

The UN wanted a response by Friday. A UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities, said the federal government has since asked for a two-week extension.

Officials for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is expected to attend next week’s peacekeeping summit in New York, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The federal government previously argued that the UN can fill the gap between the departure of the Canadians contingent and arrival of the Romanians with civilian contractors, as it has done in the past.

The Liberals also suggested that Canada is actually supporting the UN by sticking to its schedule to end operations at the end of July, while downplaying the UN’s concerns about the gap.

“We are confident, and we are hearing from the UN that there is no concern about that gap being a problem,” Trudeau told reporters during a visit to the Mali mission in December.

The UN, which has faced shrinking budgets after the U.S. cut its funding to peacekeeping last year, argues that a short extension is more cost efficient given that Canada already has the people and equipment in Mali for the mission.

Contracting civilian helicopters in Mali costs about $1 million per month, the UN official said.

Civilian helicopters also aren’t able to provide the same level of comprehensive medical treatment that the Canadians are set up to offer, the UN has said, and are more restricted in when and where they can operate.

NDP defence critic Randall Garrison, who called for the government to extend the mission after visiting Mali last month, said the letter “puts the lie” to the Liberals’ arguments for not extending the mission.

He said not extending the mission “puts people’s lives at risk in Mali and it puts our international reputation at risk now that we know the UN has formally asked for an extension.”

— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press


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Trudeau to push trade pact in EU leaders’ summit as France moves ahead on CETA

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MONTREAL — Lawmakers in France begin their ratification of the comprehensive trade agreement between the European Union and Canada as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomes the leaders of the 28-country bloc to Montreal today.

Trudeau has been pushing hard for a win on trade and foreign policy after two difficult years marked by a rough renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with the Trump administration and the deterioration of political and trade relations with China.

Trudeau will talk up the merits of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, with European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in a series of events in Montreal over the next two days.

But Wednesday’s legal development when the French National Assembly begins its consideration of France’s ratification bill is also a prime focus for Canada’s Liberal prime minister, who will be fighting a federal election this fall.

Sources in France and Canada, who were not authorized to speak publicly about the talks, say Trudeau lobbied French President Emmanuel Macron for more than a year to introduce the bill, and that those efforts finally paid off last month in Paris during their most recent face-to-face meeting.

Almost all of CETA — in excess of 90 per cent — went into force in September 2017 under what is known as provisional application, but individual ratifications by EU member countries will bring it fully into effect.

That would mean a win for the international trading order that has been under assault by U.S. President Donald Trump.

“It’s an essential step. We’re very pleased with our co-operation with the French government,” International Trade Minister Jim Carr said in an interview.

Carr will be meeting his EU counterpart Cecilia Malmstrom in Montreal. He said the French move towards ratification is a significant step in Canada’s broader goal of diversifying Canada’s export markets.

Trudeau was in Paris in early June after attending the 75th anniversary commemorations of D-Day in France and Britain, and he and Macron emerged with news that France would move forward with CETA’s ratification. The introduction of the bill in the National Assembly is a first step in a process that the French government hopes will lead to full ratification by the end of 2019.

Macron and Trudeau have talked about the agreement repeatedly — in Paris in April 2018, in a telephone conversation a year later, and other face-to-face meetings. Macron is a staunch Europhile and open supporter of CETA, but he has had to tread cautiously because of populist opposition to trade deals in France and across Europe.

Canada has lobbied French lawmakers, businesspeople and farmers, an effort that included more than two dozen visits to various regions of France by Isabelle Hudon, the Canadian ambassador.

Trudeau also made a direct appeal to French lawmakers in an April 2018 speech to the National Assembly, the first time a Canadian prime minister addressed that body.

“Let us ask ourselves this question: If France cannot ratify a free-trade agreement with Canada, what country can you imagine doing it with?” Trudeau asked.

CETA gives Canadian businesses preferred access to 500 million European consumers, and a $24 trillion market. In 2018, Canada’s exports to the EU increased by seven per cent to more than $44 billion.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press


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Uncompetitive nomination races weaken parties and Canadian democracy, study warns

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OTTAWA — Nominations for federal elections are strikingly uncompetitive and opaque, according to a new study, which says that has profound consequences for Canadian democracy.

New research by the Toronto-based Samara Centre for Democracy shows only 17 per cent of more than 6,600 federal candidates from 2003 to 2015 faced competitive nomination races, while 2,700 candidates were directly appointed by parties.

“If you see the nomination as a moment in a chain of democratic moments” leading to the election of a member of Parliament, said Michael Morden, the director of research at Samara, “I think it’s notable that, in an overwhelming majority of cases, there’s no real decision being made by local people.”

Morden said through exit interviews with MPs Samara has found there is “broad, quiet understanding” in political circles of the deficiencies of the nomination process. 

But he said most Canadians have little access to or ability to scrutinize the “black box” of party nominations, despite the stake they have in how parties run their internal elections.

Political parties are private organizations, the Samara study says, but they’re also “public utilities” that have a profound effect on Canadian democracy.

And a lack of competition might signal a worrying disconnect with the Canadian public, the study suggests.

There are several reasons the study proposes for why races are so often uncompetitive. Snap elections account for some of it, while rules that benefit incumbents are also a factor. Then’s there’s the reality that many local party associations are just too disorganized or small to attract multiple candidates.

But the trend extends even to larger parties that are competitive across the country, Morden said.

“In our mind, that is still a stunning lack of competition,” he said.

Beyond the lack of competition, the study also found nominations rules also have significant effects on the diversity of nomination candidates and, consequently, the diversity of members elected to the House of Commons.

Morden noted parties occasionally justify appointing candidates on the basis of diversity, but this was not borne out in the data.

In particular, the study suggests appointed candidates were less likely to be from visible-minority or Indigenous backgrounds.

The issue of female representation in the nomination processes was even more stark.

In line with findings that women win elections at around the same rate as men, the study suggests female nomination candidates are just as likely to win internal races as men are.

But just 28 per cent of nomination contestants covered by the study were women.

“That shifts the focus right back to recruiting, to the general openness of the process, to the intangible factors that cause some people to find their way in and others to self-select out or to never have the option,” Morden said.

The study found that longer nomination races and races that didn’t require monetary investment were correlated with higher female participation.

Morden said parties essentially close themselves off from a majority of Canadians through rules that make it more difficult to participate in nomination processes: short races, monetary costs, lack of information and protections for incumbents.

The study recommends corresponding changes in party policies: standard opening and closing dates for races, the obligation to report the number of votes candidates receive, and holding contests even where there are incumbent MPs.

These changes are in the best interests of parties that want to stay internally strong and remain connected with the Canadian public, Morden argued.

The study also considers a potentially expanded role for Elections Canada in administering or regulating the races, something Morden acknowledges is not popular among the parties.

Parties can also be reticent to even provide information about their nomination processes, Morden said. For example, only the Green party provided information about how many candidates it screened out of its nominations in 2015.

“There’s just not a culture of openness,” Morden said. “The nomination process is still seen as a very internal one, rather than a vehicle for mass political engagement.”

The first step in a reform process is convincing Canadians to care, Morden said, because otherwise “you’re not going to convince parties to do much.

“It’s hard to regulate parties, because parties make the law.”

Christian Paas-Lang, The Canadian Press

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