Monday, Feb. 11, 2019 | 2 a.m.
After the Canadian foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, tweeted concern about Saudi Arabia’s imprisoning of a women’s rights activist, the crown prince there seemed to go nuts.
Saudi Arabia announced that it was expelling Canada’s ambassador, halting flights to Canada, ending purchases of Canadian wheat, recalling students from Canada and selling off Canadian assets. Did the United States or other Western countries stand up for an old friend and ally, Canada?
Not a bit.
“The United States doesn’t have to get involved,” Heather Nauert, then the State Department spokeswoman, told reporters.
Yet Canada stuck to its principles. When a young Saudi woman, Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, fled to Bangkok last month and warned that she would be killed by her family if she was forced home, it was Canada that again braved Saudi fury by accepting her.
Freeland was at the airport to welcome Alqunun as a “very brave new Canadian.” And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t mince words, saying, “We’ll stand up for human rights and women’s rights around the world.”
Canada may be one of the world’s more boring countries, as yawn-inspiring as sensible shoes — wake up, reader, I know you’re snoozing! — but it’s also emerging as a moral leader of the free world.
There’s no one else. The United States under President Donald Trump is on a nationalist tear. Britain’s leaders seem determined to drag their people over a Brexit precipice. France is distracted by protests. Germany is preparing for succession.
So Canada is stepping up.
During the worst of the Syrian refugee crisis, President Barack Obama admitted just 12,000 Syrians and provoked a furious backlash, including Trump’s Muslim ban. Canada accepted 40,000 Syrians, with Trudeau appearing at the airport to hand out winter coats to these new Canadians.
All around the world, doors to refugees were clanging shut. But Canadians were so eager to sponsor Syrians that organizations were clamoring for more of them. Canadian politicians are mostly rewarded for showing compassion.
Trump gets headlines with his periodic threats to invade Venezuela to topple President Nicolás Maduro, but Canada has been quietly working since 2017 to help organize the Lima Group of 14 nations pushing for democracy in Venezuela. When Canada recognized the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president, he won credibility because nobody sees Ottawa as an imperialist conspirator.
Canada has spoken up about the mass detention of about 1 million Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China even as Muslim countries have mostly kept mum, and it detained a Chinese executive at the request of the American government. China retaliated by arresting Canadians and sentencing one to death, but Canada is sticking to its guns — even as Trump undercut Canada by suggesting that the case against the executive might be dropped for political reasons.
For aid programs in the developing world, countries usually try to finance big, glamorous projects that will get lots of attention. Instead, Canada champions programs that are extremely cost-effective but so deathly boring that they will never be discussed on TV — initiatives like iodizing salt to prevent mental impairment.
Reader! Wake up!
Still, Canadians can be devious. A couple of years ago, I sought an interview with Trudeau for a piece about Canada’s successes — and he kept stalling. Aides explained that praise from an American might damage his relations with Trump. That may have been the first time I’ve had a leader resist laudatory coverage.
Whenever I say something nice about Canada, I get indignant emails from Canadian friends pointing out the country’s shortcomings (which are real). Fortunately, Canadians don’t seem capable of mean emails. Not even of mean tweets. One study found that Americans’ tweets are loaded with curses and words like “hate”: Canadians’ tweets are larded with “awesome,” “amazing” and “great.”
(Note: Ignore all the bits about Canadians being nice when playing hockey with them. In the rink, they’re brutes.)
Off the ice, Canadians pursue policies that are preternaturally sensible. Canadians regulate guns, oversee the banking sector so as to avoid financial crashes, and nurture entrepreneurship and economic growth without enormous inequality.
Typically, more Canadians use mass transit, and the country has better traffic safety laws, so that the vehicle fatality rate there is half that of the United States’. If the United States had Canada’s traffic death rate, we would save more than 20,000 American lives a year.
Today there’s a vacuum of constructive global leadership. Canada may be incapable of a mean tweet, but it’s tough when necessary — and it may be the leader the world needs.
Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.