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Amid ISIS and Ukraine Crises, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Just Quit

Some are speculating it's because of a rift between Baird and the prime minister himself.

by Justin Ling
Feb 3 2015, 7:16pm

Prime Minister Stephen Harper hugs Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird as he resigns. Photo via Prime Minister's Office

Amid a war in Iraq and Cold War-esque tensions in Ukraine, Canada's foreign affairs minister has packed up his desk.

Word dropped Monday night that John Baird would be resigning his post as Canada's chief diplomat and quitting his job as a federal Member of Parliament, effective immediately.

Baird is, without doubt, the highest-profile Minister to quit the Harper cabinet since the Conservatives took office in 2006.

Speculation in Ottawa was rife that the Ottawan had left because of a rift between himself and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

It wasn't much of a secret around Parliament Hill that Baird and Harper butted heads on some files, especially the crisis in Ukraine. Some reports suggested Baird was looking for stricter sanctions on the Russian regime, but was overruled by Harper, who preferred military and diplomatic sanctions over economic penalties that would potentially hobble Canadian businesses.

But if there was a divide Tuesday between the boss and his exiting lieutenant, it didn't show. Baird's Tuesday morning resignation speech in the House of Commons didn't hint at any issues, and even went to great lengths to compliment and talk up the prime minister.

In a statement on Baird's resignation, Harper called him "one of the finest ministers that I have had the privilege of working with," saying that "Parliament was better for his presence, the country better for his service."

Baird's tenure in the foreign affairs gig garnered as many accolades from his political opponents as it did full-throated opposition.

The minister was bombastic and aggressive, and he became known as much for his loud heckling in the House of Commons as his extensive work on the world stage.

Baird often applied that loud-mouth in the job, aggressively putting down anti-gay politicians from Uganda and breaking with his American counterparts to chastise newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Critics said Baird's was counter-productive, turning off allies and burning bridges with developing states.

Baird's office, however, always bragged about its good relations with the Arab world and Canada's newfound standing internationally as a country punching above its weight.

Opposition MPs, while willing to note Baird's shortcomings, acknowledge the work behind-the-scenes to help out on constituency files. More than one of Baird's colleagues across the aisle can tell stories about receiving a phone call from Baird himself, offering to help get an LGBT refugee into the country, or to pitch in and help on a constituent's passport troubles.

Baird's NDP critic, Paul Dewar, calls that mixture of arrogance and sensitivity "the dichotomy of John Baird."

His Liberal counterpart, Marc Garneau, says it came down to the politician's love of the game.

"My sense is that John Baird really, really enjoyed politics," Garneau said. "He really enjoyed the cut and thrust of it."

One file that's been more difficult for Baird, however, has been the detention of Mohamed Fahmy, the Al Jazeera journalist held in a Cairo jail. Baird maintained a lobbying effort to get the dual Canadian-Egyptian citizen released, though he had little progress to show as Fahmy's detention stretches into day 400.

However, news broke on Monday that Peter Greste, one of Fahmy's colleagues held in Cairo, was released. Reports indicate that Fahmy's release will come in a matter of days. Given that Baird put a lot of political capital in securing Fahmy's freedom, even meeting one-on-one with President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to discuss the situation, timing his departure with jailbreaking Fahmy makes a lot of sense if that indeed occurs.

In terms of legacy, Baird's four-year tenure in the job makes him one of the longest-serving foreign affairs ministers in modern Canadian history. While previous occupiers of the post concerned themselves with advancing Canada as an "honest broker"—a belief that Canada can negotiate peace between enemies like Israel and Palestine—Baird carved out a role for Canada that became more interested in unilateral and bilateral action, as opposed to broad international cooperation governed by the United Nations.

For some, that meant Canada suddenly became a more outspoken advocate for human rights and democracy, advancing the cause of religious and sexual minorities in the global south who preferred to fund and work with grassroots activists movements instead of playing nice with despots and war criminals.

For others, Baird's reign in the job was rife with hypocrisy—bad-mouthing developing countries and picking on insignificant regimes, all the while continuing to cooperate with some of the world's most depraved states, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They also point to questionable things like his government's track record of opposing international climate change accords, torpedoing United Nations treaties, and pumping up cozy relationships with Israel even in the midst of the controversial war in Gaza last summer.

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