Owen Lippert (Ph.D.) Director, Opposition International

Since a United Nations Assembly Declaration in 2007, the world has celebrated September 15th as International Day of Democracy. Canada, one of the oldest full franchise democracies, has just cause to celebrate and take a bow. It is also time to ask what Canada is doing to promote democracy worldwide. Grant Kippen, a distinguished Canadian advocate, once asked of Canada’s possible formal role, If not now, when?”

The essay that follows is a re-working of a 2021 article I wrote giving the back story to Grant’s question. In the year since, Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, delivered a statement on behalf of Canada to President Joe Biden’s Summit of Democracies in December 2021. It is an impressive document of Canada’s contributions. Still, more effort is necessary if as many suggest the world is in a democratic recession. The Prime Minister reiterated the ongoing discussion of a Canadian democracy agency. While that goes on, the Parliamentary Centre of Canada headed by Tom Cormier has truly emerged as leader. Life is what happens to you while you are making other plans. Canadians truly want to be involved in strengthening democracy.

A special remembrance is due this day to the departed Queen Elizabeth who, for holding a very non-democratic position, had a keener and deeper understanding of democracy than any of us.


Canada has nurtured one of the world’s founding democracies. Among major nations, only the United States established a democratic government earlier. Modern democracy is a North American creation. The grant of a universal (or close to it) voting franchise existed in Canada before the United Kingdom. Given Canada’s history, why have we not taken a more active role in promoting the practice of democratic government globally?  Through aid and diplomacy, the US government has taken the dominant lead in part because of its revolutionary heritage. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness invoke action and reform. Peace, order and good government promise stability through cooperation.

Yet, as individuals, many Canadians have participated directly in America’s instruments of technical democratic promotion. This list is hardily complete: Bob Raw, Joe Clark. Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Eric Duhaime, Ross Reid, Craig Chandler, David Welsh, Bob King, Peter Dimitroff, Dominic Carty, Robin Sears, Sheila Fruman, Stephanie Lynn, Emma Walford, Francesca Binda, Jeffrey Kroker, Rishi Datta, Paul Rowland, and others.  I am willing to stake that if Canada were a state, it has sent the single most participants into the US’s offshore democratic organizations. Former colleagues (Canadians) from the National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, Democracy International, and others ask me what Canada is doing about its democracy promotion role?  What follows may sound like “inside baseball,” but here is an informal update.

The contemporary history of international democracy promotion begins with President Ronald Reagan’s June 1982 Westminster speech to the UK’s Houses of Parliament. https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/archives/speech/address-members-british-parliament   At the time, the West seemed weak and vulnerable, caught in a loss of economic and political faith. Abroad the Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan.  President Reagan turned the tables on that day. He declared that the great crisis would be in the East, not in the West. He predicted that as the Berlin Wall would soon fall, so too would communism.  The moment demanded was that the Western states should openly promote democracy — free elections, free unions, and free markets. Reagan’s Westminster speech laid the intellectual and policy planks for the emergence of one of the most important international institutions, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), in the following year.

It is worth noting an October 1982 interview, which Prime Minister Pierre Eliot Trudeau gave to James Reston of the New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1982/10/03/magazine/new-york-times-magazine-october-3-1982.html   Their discussion primarily dealt with affairs of the day. Trudeau was quick to correct Reston’s impression that Canada in the Quebec debate faced a “states’ rights” resurgence, like that of the former Confederate South. It sounds quaint today. After warm praise, Trudeau complained about the US’s unilateral cancelling of the Alaska pipeline and its efforts to restrict American subsidiaries in Canada from doing business with China. Trudeau knew of Reagan’s Westminster speech — and appears to steer well clear of discussing titanic struggles of ‘isms. He sounded more concerned about the political malaise in Western Europe. Trudeau did strongly affirm the need to advance free and open markets and societies. If he foresaw the collapse of Soviet communism, he gave no indication. Trudeau did lament the loss of great voices for democracy De Gaulle, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Nehru and added, sincerely, that Reagan stood to reach their level. 

The NED is less of an operational Institution and more a granting body. https://www.ned.org/about/   Formally, it is a private nonprofit foundation. Working with the leadership of the two major parties, the NED incubated and funded the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. The NED also created three smaller organizations: the Solidarity Center (with the AFL-CIO), CIPE, the Center for International Private Enterprise (with the US Chamber of Commerce) and the International Federation of Electoral Systems (IFES). Canada’s former Chief Electoral Officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, served once as head of IFES. It published The Journal of Democracy and supported the Reagan-Fascell Fellowships. Its budget has grown from $18 million to $200 million annually and currently makes about 1600 grants a year. It has had a presence in over 90 countries.

Several other countries have started their democracy promotion initiatives. The UK’s Westminster Foundation has reinvigorated of late. The Netherlands Institute for Multiparty democracy has stood out for its innovation. The German Stiftungs, Konrad Adenauer, Rosa Luxembourg, Frederich Naumann, and Robert Bosch are active. Swedish IDEA organizes some of the Nordic efforts. The Swiss, the Italian, and the Czech governments have interesting regional programs, as do the Australians through their universities. The UNDP has an electoral program, which, while it does not strictly promote democracy it is a technical enabler.

The reduction of democracy promotion to be valueless technical assistance is a concern.  Berkeley professor Susan D. Hyde has written insightfully how pseudo-democratic technical practices have vitiated electoral observation.  https://susan.hyde.co/  Yet, for every president who gets up to say democracy is not an Asian value, a Bolivarian value, or a nationalist value, and the restriction of foreign influence is the priority, there exist plenty of local volunteers and NGOs who disagree. They take risks to advance their freedoms: supporting them does not violate the sovereignty of a law-seeking society.

In Canada, the idea of a northern NED or NDI only began to form as the domestic political situation started to shift, and new ideas percolated.   (The Rights and Democracy Institute had commenced in 1988 in Montreal primarily concerned with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with an elliptical reference to democracy, just enough to confuse later.  An able summary of Canada’s efforts in international democracy assistance is by Gerald Schmitz in his “Canada and International Democracy Assistance: What Directions for the Harper Government’s Foreign Policy”, August 2013, Occasional Paper Series, Centre for International and Defence Policy, Queen’s University.

In the democracy promotion debate, a key figure has consistently been Tom Axworthy, a former Principal Secretary for the first Trudeau PM. He, Les Campbell, and David Donovan in 2005 wrote a piece for IRPP’s  Policy Options entitled “The Democracy Canada Institute: A Blueprint.”  http://irpp.org/fr/research-studies/the-democracy-canada-institute-ablueprint/   Les Campbell, a former Executive Director of the New Democratic Party, was head of NDI’s Middle East and Northern Africa branch.

 That is where I met him. In 2003, I had joined NDI as the Country Director for Bangladesh. At the time, I was a foreign policy researcher and speechwriter for Stephen Harper, the Leader of the Opposition. Harper was aware of the Westminster speech and the movement which had started in its wake, as was former PM Joe Clark, who had assisted NDI.

While in Dhaka, I often met with Grant Kippen, former Executive Director for the Liberal Party and the local head of IFES. Grant is now the UNDP election commissioner in Afghanistan, one of many Canadians with UNDP, particularly in Africa, such as Marc Lemieux in Uganda.  

In 2006, I took leave to work on the federal Conservative campaign; I discussed with Tom Flanagan, the campaign keeper of the pen, a Canadian democracy institute as a line in the platform., He allowed it into the policy hamper, and it made the cut. The funny thing about platform promises is that nobody expects all of them to pass in a single term, yet the parties mean them seriously.

Subsequently, in 2006, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development took up hearings and all-party deliberations. The committee chair, Kevin Sorenson,  received much good counsel from Senator Hugh Seagal of the Senate counterpart committee and recently deceased MP Deepak Obhrai. The House’s Committee’s 2007 report, Advancing Canada’s Role in International Democratic Support, made the case that “Democratization is a long, difficult and indigenous process and that should be supported not imported from abroad.” https://www.ourcommons.ca/Content/committee/391/faae/reports/rp3066139/391_FAAE_Rpt08_PDF/391_FAAE_Rpt08-e.pdf    The Minister for Democratic Reform, Stephen Fletcher, received the report, and the dissensions by the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP, and consulted with his cabinet colleagues.

The house committee then called for and formed an external advisory panel “on the Creation of a Canadian Democracy Promotion Agency.” Tom Axworthy was appointed the chair with Les Campbell, Senator Pamela Wallin, and Eric Duhaime. Art Milnes, an able biographer and historian, was the lead writer, and I provided research.   With assistance from Queen’s University, the members conducted a thorough review of the issues involved and the possible models upon to draw.

The Axworthy Commission delivered the final report to the Standing Committee in Fall 2009. It recommended a stand-alone agency that would work quietly behind the scenes through a limited number of offices in high priority countries. The overall budget would be in the range of $50 million with individual offices between $3 to $5 million. ( All figures unadjusted). Privy Council Office, Advisory Panel Report on the Creation of a Canadian Democracy Promotion Agency, November 2009. The panel members were Thomas S. Axworthy (chair), Leslie Campbell, Senator Pamela Wallin and Eric Duhaime. http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2015/bcp-pco/CP22-103-2009-eng.pdf  

The Harper government reaffirmed the long-held view that if a new agency started, then the Rights and Democracy Institute was redundant. It had had fiscal issues and relied on CIDA money for new initiatives. It had an unclear mandate and limited capacity.

( I had advised the CIDA minister, Bev Oda, 2007-2008: CIDA was no small player in Canada democracy promotion, having spent $1.5 billion over 15 years on everything from election missions to local training. NDI, IRI, IFES, and CIPE receive little funding directly from NED. USAID, the American development agency, and the Democratic Rights and Labor branch of the Department of State (DOS) fund just about all overseas and thematic programs.)

The board of Rights and Democracy reacted and sought allies, a new director brought in to straighten matters, died of a stroke, and the Asian financial crisis reached Canada. Time and energy for the democracy file just ran out.

The Rights and Democracy issue raised the question of what form of organization had the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (and presumably the government) sought to establish. A question relevant still today. The Committee, in my interpretation, had deviated from an arms-length stand-alone agency model. The intended agency would reflect and refine Canadian values and specific policies towards international democracy. Agency officials could speak with and receive statements from parties to report back to the foreign affairs department and the Parliament. Their role would extend beyond the academic or think-tank field trip but remain short of an official mission.  It was not just to act as a technical service provider of the blunt instruments of democracy.  It would also stay out of trouble.

The idea of a Canadian democracy promotion agency remained intact if yet to be achieved. Importantly, by the arcana of parliamentary practice, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs still holds a mandate to deliver a proposal for an agency. Committees are political and partisan bodies. They follow the chain of command, if indirectly, as bodies of the Parliament.

The government of PM Justin Trudeau has taken up the idea. Appropriately, the politicians went back to seek a public mandate. The 2011 and 2019 Liberal platform gave an endorsement of the concept of a Canadian democracy agency. In 2019, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs took up hearings again. Tom Axworthy presented a submission that gave a detailed overview of the events mentioned here. https://www.ourcommons.ca/Content/Committee/421/FAAE/Brief/BR10323147/br-external/AxworthyThomas-e.pdf  

An informal committee has formed to provide as-requested comment to the Commons Committee and the government. Tom Axworthy, Margaret Biggs (Chair of IDRC), Robert Greenhill (Former DM CIDA) and Ben Rowswell of the Canadian International Council are consulting academics, practitioners, and experts. (I participate on occasion.)  A tentative name has emerged, the Canadian Centre for Peace, Order, and Good Government.

Interest in Canada’s direction in democracy promotion has perked up with the election of President Joe Biden.  Commentators and colleagues look to Biden’s to re-energize America’s democracy promotion role. Samantha Powers, the former US Ambassador to the United Nations and now appointed head of USAID and its $50 billion a year budget knows the file and has taken activist positions previously.  The just-launched revamp of the NED has brought to the fore a change in focus from specific countries to broader topics. They include authoritarianism, freedom of the media, disinformation, the role of women, and democratic voice.  Regional and subject challenges will receive more attention in the future to leverage technology possibilities and avoid the risks of the ongoing pandemic.

Those interested in the view from the Hill should watch the new Zoom talks sponsored by The Parliamentary Centre, an organization funded by the Parliament’s Board of Internal Economy. The program, funded in part by the US Embassy’s speaker series, deal with Canada-US democracy promotion. American participants include Thomas Carothers, Interim President of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace — the doyen of democracy scholars — Chris Sands, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center, and Sara Repucci, Vice President for Research, Freedom House. The Parliamentary Centre has a new CEO in Tom Cormier, a long-time practitioner with NDI, DI, and the Westminster Foundation.  

From Newfoundland to British Columbia, Canadians have committed to making democratic values and practices a global reality. Though 2022 may look like democracy is slipping, it felt like that too in 1982. Reagan saw the struggle as measured in decades, not just the nightly news. The discussion has engaged individuals, academics, and volunteers, various officials, and parliamentarians in Canada.

Let us encourage all Canadians to celebrate the International Day of Democracy.