An Opportunity Lost—Will Canada’s G-8 And G-20 Have Too Narrow A Focus?

The somewhat informal, but institutionalized annual meetings of the G-8 have been held in Canada only four times over the last three decades. Starting in the late 1970s, the meeting of heads of government was intended to allow a less formal, personal opportunity for world leaders to think through pressing shared problems. It was the G-6, until Canada joined, making it the G-7, and with Russia, it became the G-8. With the increasing importance of the developing world, and especially those nations with growing and rapidly industrializing economies, another twelve nations bring us up to a G-20.

This June, Canada is hosting both the G-8 and the G- 20. 2010 is a critical year for these meetings. In the wake of the failure in Copenhagen, we desperately need to make progress on the climate crisis. As climate events exert themselves globally, we are already experiencing crop failures, exacerbating a growing food crisis.

At the 2005 summit at Gleneagles, Scotland, the G-8 committed to alleviate poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. Our due date on those promises is 2010. The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) are due for completion in 2015 and are not on target. The increasing numbers of extreme weather events threaten the fragile progress in development. Poverty, climate, and food security are inter- related and they are not receiving adequate attention or resources. Maternal and child health, the host country’s named lead issue, is one of the MDG and, like the others, languishing for lack of resources.

Many commentators have gone as far as questioning the value of these summit meetings. Security concerns increasingly drive them to ever more remote locations. Witness that in 1981, Trudeau welcomed world leaders to Montreal, in 1988 Mulroney hosted sessions in Toronto, in 1995 Chretien held successful meetings in Halifax, but by 2002, the G-8 retreated to less accessible Kananaskis Country in Alberta. Prime Minister Harper has chosen Huntsville, Ontario. The cost of security for the meeting really does demand that something useful be accomplished.

It is in a climate of scepticism that Canada is again host. And Canada’s government’s parochial approach to issues is already causing diplomatic waves. For the first time since the last 1980s, Canada has opted not to hold a pre- meeting of the G-8 Environment Ministers.

Climate is on the agenda in a minor way, and only because the other G-8 leaders insisted. Tragically for the task of developing a global consensus on climate, Canada has decreed that climate change will not be on the G-20 agenda at all. Member countries have begun to ask out loud, ‘Can the host country really control the agenda to such an unhelpful extent?’

President of the European Union Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, urged Canada to act on climate change, saying, ‘In Europe, we believe, according to science, that there is a real threat to our survival as a civilization. And for the future of our planet and the quality of life of our children … I think we have to move.’

And two weeks ago, United Nations Secretary General Ban-ki Moon came to Canada and urged that the Prime Minister stop blocking the inclusion of climate change for the G20 agenda. He also chastised Canada for failure to even try to meet Kyoto targets.

Meanwhile, the Canadian approach—shades of George W Bush—to reproductive health services as an aspect of maternal and child health has created unhealthy divisions among allies. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear, as did the UK, that any package of measures to improve women’s health must include access to a full range of contraception and family planning, including safe and legal abortions. It seems the Canadian government chose this theme with an eye to domestic political advantage, ‘softening’ the Prime Minister’s image and hoping to close the gender gap in his support base. This distortion of the agenda for maternal health by opposing the inclusion of funding for legal abortions has been attacked in the eminent medical journal, The Lancet.

These efforts have been rebuffed by Prime Minister Harper. In a carefully scripted session with university students, and hosted by Conservative Senator Mike Duffy, Mr Harper proclaimed that the only issue of importance for the summits is the economy. He termed all the other issues, including the climate crisis, ‘side-issues’.

International meetings of this importance should not be designed for a narrow domestic political agenda by the host government. Canada is in the big league here. Real issues are pressing and no world leader has time to come to Canada to watch people eat seal meat. This is not the time to play to a local audience. This is the time for leadership. If Canada refuses to play this role—shuts down discussions on climate and twists the urgent MDGs for a public relations message at home—the world will remember time in Canada as time wasted.

And, we all know, on climate, we have no time to waste.

Elizabeth May is leader of the Green Party of Canada and a candidate in Saanich Gulf Islands.