OTTAWA — Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland insists the government's projected $1.3-billion drop in foreign aid spending does not amount to a cut.
The Liberal budget released this week projects that Ottawa will spend nearly $6.9 billion for international development in the coming fiscal year, which is a 16 per cent drop from last year's allocation.
That's despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tasking International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan to increase aid spending every year.
The Liberals had delivered a historic boost in aid in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
Asked about criticism from the aid sector about the cut, Freeland said she "wouldn't characterize it that way."
She stressed that Canada is allocating $2.4 billion in direct financial aid to Ukraine, and called that country's fight the world's most important struggle.
The Liberals have also allocated funding for infrastructure projects in developing countries in the Indo-Pacific region, arguing that these countries want investment more than aid.
Representatives of Canada's aid sector have said they will need to end projects abroad due to the lower-than-hoped funding projected in the Liberals' budget last week, and they're particularly concerned about whether aid dollars are being diverted from Africa to Ukraine.
Freeland told reporters Thursday at a press conference in Surrey, B.C., that Ukraine's fight is crucial to Canada's interests.
"The fight that is happening in Ukraine today is the single most important battle in the world between democracy and dictatorship," she said, while defending her government’s record.
"I believe that Canada has a responsibility to be strong and active around the world," she added.
"We're making a very big difference. Canada is the eighth-largest foreign-aid donor (in the world). That is a big deal."
Last October, Freeland was criticized for her response to an African aid expert who said that the West diverting dollars to Ukraine leaves the continent relying more on Russia's support, an idea she rejected.
"A democracy can only be defended by people themselves if they’re actually prepared to die for their democracy," she said.
In a later apology for those remarks, she said she was sorry if people found the comments insensitive, adding: "If a white western person has offended someone, the first answer is to say, 'I really didn’t mean to offend you.'"
At the time, Freeland said the western world needs to recognize that Africa's current problems stem from colonization.
"These are challenges that have been imposed from the outside. And I think that means we have a high level of responsibility."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2023.
Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press