It wasn’t until the jet was in the air that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s trip to the U.K. for the G7 summit — his first foreign trip since the onset of the pandemic — felt truly weird.
For the journalists gathered at CFB Uplands outside Ottawa early this morning to board the PM’s transatlantic flight, it wasn’t all unfamiliar. The mandatory masks, temperature checks, health questions, physical distancing and ubiquitous hand sanitizing stations at the air force base hangar are all part of daily life now — routine, grudgingly accepted. Even the sight of flight crew members with face shields didn’t seem out of place.
But what strikes anyone travelling by air these days is how empty the sky seems. Normally, there would be the hustle and roar of commercial traffic, with jets coming and going. Instead, the skies over Uplands were quiet this morning, with a straight-up taxi and takeoff.
Looking down, the streets of Ottawa were equally vacant and still at the height of the morning rush hour.
On the one hand, Prime Minister Trudeau’s arrival in Britain today for the G7 summit (he’ll attend the NATO summit next week) offered a reassuring sign that things are headed back to normal.
On the other, it was a stark reminder of how far Canada and the rest of the world have to go to regain what has been lost to the pandemic.
Getting through COVID-19 and building a resilient economic recovery is the challenge facing the world’s leading democracies as their representatives convene Friday in Carbis Bay in Cornwall, along the picturesque southwestern coast of Britain.
Reviving a moribund world economy will be the most significant task facing western nations in the post-pandemic era, said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is hosting the event.
Discussion of an agreement to share COVID vaccines with the world is rapidly becoming one of the most anticipated informal items on the agenda, following the U.S. announcement that it will purchase half a billion Pfizer doses for distribution to countries in need.
Canada is expected to have something to say on the topic, said a senior government official who spoke on background.
The question of how to deal with a more assertive China is expected to dominate the foreign policy discussion among the leaders on Saturday.
The G7 is facing calls — both from within and without the group — to develop a more organized approach to dealing with Beijing and the host of challenges it presents, democratic, social and economic.
Some observers, such as Cherie Wong, the executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong, want to see a tougher stand in light of China’s recent crackdown on democratic freedoms in the former British colony.
“I want to see Canada take a coordinated approach with our G7 allies, whether in sanctions or in creating a cohesive strategy towards China,” said Wong.
“What China has historically done is isolate one country and bully it. So we need to unite together with our allies, not only in the G7, but G7 is a good starting point.”
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has made a priority of knitting together an alliance of like-minded democratic nations to confront China’s aggression. Wong said that must be followed up by sanctions on China for alleged human rights violations involving both Uyghurs and Hong Kong.
Perhaps sensing which way the wind is blowing, Chinese President Xi Jinping recently made a point of saying that his country must present a kinder, gentler foreign policy face to the world.
It’s no coincidence that Xi made his statement on the eve of the G7 summit, said Gordon Houlden, director emeritus of the China Institute at the University of Alberta.
“They’re well aware of a diplomatic calendar and leadership calendar,” said Houlden. “I don’t think the timing is accidental.
“I think the thinking is not driven by the G7 agenda. I think that it will have been there for some time. But the fact not just that they’re saying it, but they’re releasing a pretty broad text of what Xi and the leadership are thinking on the cusp of the G7, points to a desire to counter” the momentum toward an alliance, he added.