Policy brief: Canada–Indonesia relations, past and present

Canada is negotiating freer trade (a comprehensive economic economic partnership agreement) with Indonesia. It’s worth looking back at the history to see that trade alone is not enough. Here’s a policy brief making that point, originally published in 2019.

By David Webster

Original Publication: International Journal 2019, Vol. 74(3) 472–479


Canada–Indonesia relations recently passed their 65th anniversary, but they still have a tentative air about them. Despite regular talk about developing a strong Canadian relationship with a country that potentially has much in common with Canada, Canada–Indonesia relations have mostly been friendly but shallow. An overview of the history of bilateral relations, from the opening of a Canadian mission in 1953 to recent bilateral deals committing Ottawa and Jakarta to various forms of collaboration, reveals that rhetoric about common interests has some substance, but a new announce- ment amidst good intentions every few years is not likely to lead to any deep partner- ship. There are, however, foundations for closer ties in civil society, including in the fields of economic development, truth and reconciliation, religious deradicalization, and Indigenous peoples linkages.


As Canada casts about for trade diversification and looks for partners across the Pacific, the stable, open democracy of Indonesia may be one place that beckons. Liberal and Conservative governments alike have looked to Indonesia in the past as a possible partner, yet after more than 65 years of bilateral relations, Canada– Indonesia ties still have a tentative air about them. Over and over again, the Canadian government pledges to develop a strong relationship with a country that potentially has a lot in common with Canada, from ocean waters, to forested land, to being a middle-sized power in global politics. Yet, over and over again, this talk leads to very little actual result. Diplomats carry out their work capably and conscientiously enough, but ministers are seized with occasional bouts of enthusiasm for Indonesia that are swiftly forgotten. Looking back at the history of Canada’s oldest bilateral relationship in Southeast Asia illustrates a lack of depth: Canada–Indonesia relations have generally been friendly, but shallow. The search to deepen relations with countries like Indonesia matters more than ever as Canada embarks on a new trans-Pacific trade deal and navigates an increasingly unstable global trade environment.

To understand Canada–Indonesia relations, and to map a possible future for them, we need to look beyond the traditional concentration on trade and political diplomacy. Instead, it is vital to notice ‘‘other diplomacies’’ in other realms, from religion to economic development. Writing about Canada–Asia relations, political scientists Mary Young and Susan Henders highlight the way ‘‘other diplomacies’’ have shaped Canada’s connections with Asia, suggesting that the ways Asians and Canadians interact with one other might have more to do with people-to-people than government-to-government connections and relations.1 Historians such as Steven Hugh Lee and Laura Madokoro have written about the importance of missionaries, migrants, and merchants, among other non-state actors, in Canada–Asia interactions.2

Canada–Indonesia relations have run the gamut from diplomacy, to trade, to religion, to development.3 ‘‘Other diplomacies’’ have dominated the more than six decades of interactions, with diplomacy and trade taking a back seat to aid, education, human rights, and other aspects that tend to be overlooked. As one Indonesian diplomat has noted, a ‘‘Canada–Indonesia community’’ of business- men, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), exchange students, and others has been ‘‘the real driving force in the relations between our two countries.’’4 These connections offer a possible window for deepening relations.

Take Canadian aid to Indonesia, a mainstay of bilateral links for decades. It started even before independence in 1945, with a $15 million Canadian loan to what was then the Dutch East Indies. Canada chose Jakarta as the site for its first Southeast Asian embassy in 1952. Rather than selecting a diplomat as the first ambassador, the government opted for the head of the expanding Trade Commissioner Service, asking him to use Canadian economic development assistance to open doors in Indonesia.

Indonesian President Sukarno’s visit to Canada in 1956 aimed to move relations to a more intimate level. A highlight was Sukarno’s visit to McGill University, where he delivered a speech on religious tolerance and dialogue, pointing to McGill’s Institute of Islamic Studies as an example of dialogue and respectful study of Islam, and to Indonesia as an example of a tolerant Muslim-majority country. McGill had pioneered bilateral ties in a religious and academic context, and Sukarno’s government started to take advantage of the opening. So too would the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in subsequent years. Many Indonesians came to McGill to study at a school seen as a tolerant, ‘‘liberal’’ alternative to more conservative Islamic universities in the Middle  East. Indonesia’s Islamic universities and Ministry of Religion were  subsequently remade by a ‘‘McGill mafia’’ of returning graduates. However, that connection dried up when CIDA funding did. With interreligious dialogue very much back on the global agenda, this can be seen as a missed opportunity. Indonesia’s self-pro- claimed Islamic leaders of today are very far away from what their predecessors called the tolerant ‘‘Montreal viewpoint.’’

Development aid soared after the Indonesian army under General Suharto over- threw Sukarno in 1965–1966, with massive loss of life. Ottawa hastened to aid Suharto’s ‘‘New Order’’ regime, bolstering its ideological justification as a force able to deliver ‘‘development.’’5 In 1970, CIDA made Indonesia its first ‘‘country of concentration’’ outside the Commonwealth and the former French colonies. Pierre Trudeau’s government performed a Pacific pivot as part of its reorientation of Canadian foreign policy.6 It singled out Indonesia as ‘‘a nascent power among the non-communist nations because of its position and population, and the development potential of its natural resources.’’ Before Trudeau, Indonesia had received less than 1 per cent of Canadian aid. By the time Trudeau retired, it ranked number two among Canadian aid recipients, trailing only Bangladesh.

Canadian diplomats had speculated about close ties with Indonesia since the Canadian embassy first opened. Canada and Indonesia represented the ‘‘Western side’’ on the truce supervision commissions for Vietnam formed after the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, but Canada ‘‘let us down’’ by pulling out of the commission after less than six months, as one Indonesian diplomat remarked. Ottawa toyed with the idea of allying with Indonesia to advance the archipelagic principle—the idea that countries with large island areas separated by expanses of sea had the right to claim those sea areas as internal rather than international waters.7 It did not follow through. Canadian diplomats began to push harder  under  Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Both Ottawa and Jakarta hoped to close the deal and strike up a tighter relationship, moving from ‘‘cordial’’ to substantive cooperation. According to one briefing note, Canada and Indonesia had  ‘‘congruent interests’’ in a range of issues.8

The courtship did not succeed. As relations reached their closest point in 1991, Indonesian soldiers opened fire on a crowd of pro-independence protesters in occupied Timor-Leste, killing some 250 people. Foreign minister Barbara McDougall froze three planned new aid projects. Although diplomats scrambled to avoid damaging bilateral relations, they would never be so close again. Canadian human rights protests derailed what was becoming a close relationship. When, later in the 1990s, Liberal foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy offered to use Canada’s ‘‘good offices’’ to find a solution to the East Timor problem, Indonesian counterpart Ali Alatas rejected the offer on the grounds that Canadian NGOs were ‘‘the most ferociously anti-Indonesian in the world’’ and that the Canadian government could therefore not be trusted.

An important component of Canadian aid to Indonesia in the 1980s and 1990s went to ‘‘civil society strengthening,’’ meaning aid to Indonesian NGOs, legal aid institutes, and environmental and human rights groups. These projects helped foster an emerging movement for democracy that was able, in 1998, to help topple Suharto’s government after more than three decades of untrammeled power. CIDA was respected for the emphasis on civil society, but this emphasis started to dry up in the late 1990s, just as it seemed to be making an impact. For instance, Ottawa yanked funding for the Indonesia-Canada Forum, which linked civil society groups in both countries under the umbrella of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation. ‘‘We think that Canada can play a significant role in supporting change and democracy in Indonesia,’’ human rights activist Asmara Nababan stated in 1997. ‘‘But they are very cautious towards our government. They don’t like to make public statements on human rights.’’9 In other words, a Canadian stance that seemed to be forging broad and genuine links with Indonesia was abandoned, this time in favour of trade promotion. It was part of a general cooling of Canadian government enthusiasm for Canadian civil society work over- seas, and it had negative effects on the substance of Canada–Indonesia relations. The NGO community also disrupted Suharto’s planned visit to Vancouver for the 1997 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. When activists announced they would try to perform a citizens’ arrest of Suharto for war crimes, Suharto threatened to boycott the event. Axworthy travelled to Jakarta, worried that the absence of ‘‘the elder statesman of ASEAN’’ would wreck Canada’s APEC hosting. Suharto insisted on a guarantee that he would not be confronted with protesters. It took the RCMP pepper-spraying protesters at the University of British Columbia for Canada to keep that promise.

Axworthy tried again to forge a partnership with Indonesia through a bilateral human rights dialogue.10 Held behind closed doors with pre-screened participants, the dialogue lasted longer than controversial dialogues with China and Cuba, but seems to have faded away. Conservative foreign minister John Baird announced plans for a Bilateral Consultative Forum in 2012 that would feature annual meetings of the two countries’ foreign ministers. As with earlier announcements of Canada–Indonesia cooperation, the Bilateral Consultative Forum also failed to produce a strong partnership. Again in May 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Indonesian president Joko Widodo ‘‘discussed areas of common interest in the Canada-Indonesia bilateral relationship, including the important economic ties between the two countries.’’11

Years of rhetoric about common interests between Canada and Indonesia have some substance, but a well-intentioned new announcement every few years is not likely to lead to any deep links. Being aware of the history of bilateral relations, on the other hand, makes it possible to think in a more sustained way about what areas Canada and Indonesia might explore in search of deeper partnership. With a renewed emphasis on Pacific partners, Canada–Indonesia trade may now grow. But trade alone does not lead to deeper relations. Other areas, and other diplomacies, may prove more effective.

First, there is the aspect of religious freedom and dialogue, raised by Sukarno in his McGill speech more than 60 years ago. Despite recent setbacks, including attacks on LGBT+ people, Indonesia is home to quite a few pluralistic, liberal thinkers on Islam. It was there that transnational activists developed the 2006 Yogyakarta principles on sexual orientation and gender identity. If Canadian foreign policy and Canadian development assistance is going to promote feminist principles, as the government pledges in its Feminist International Assistance Policy, then there is scope in Indonesia, and some impressive Indonesian partner organizations, that might help put those words into practice. McGill once provided a more cosmopolitan alternative to conservative Islamic teachings. Similar steps would be valuable today—a time when even the former governor of Jakarta can be attacked and jailed on trumped-up charges of blasphemy, and his former running mate, now the president of Indonesia, is either indifferent or powerless to resist. As Justin Trudeau’s apology to LGBT+ and Two-spirited people delivered in 2017 shows, Canada has as much to learn as to teach in this area.

Religious dialogue is an area where universities in both countries could play a leadership role as Indonesian Islam polarizes between moderates in the mold of former president Abdurrahman Wahid and apostles of intolerance like the Islamic Defenders’ Front. Once, McGill’s Institute of Islamic Studies helped build resources for the more liberal perspective within Indonesian  Islam.  When Canada’s government abandoned this emphasis, it left the field clear to preachers of violence and intolerance funded by money from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Indonesian president Joko Widodo stands in the more liberal tradition  in Indonesian Islam, yet seems poised between pandering to the intolerant strain (through choosing a conservative cleric as his running mate and offering early release to jailed terrorist Abu Bakar Ba’asyir) and calls for a more open stance. At the same time, the decision to cancel Ba’asyir’s early release indicates a sensitivity to foreign pressure. Ottawa could usefully support religious tolerance and academic exchange by continuing to advocate for tolerant Islam—which has the added benefit of helping to counter radicalism overseas.

Truth and reconciliation is another area of possible cooperation. Indonesia has conducted a joint truth commission with Timor-Leste that concluded, like the Timorese truth commission, that Indonesian soldiers and officials were responsible for crimes against humanity during the Indonesian occupation (1975–1999). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada concluded that residential schools for Indigenous peoples were a form of ‘‘cultural genocide.’’ The province of Aceh is launching a new truth commission, and there are calls for more truth- seeking in Canada, so this story is not over. In both countries, the problem lies in what Indonesian activists call ‘‘socialization’’—prompting society and govern- ment to implement recommendations and to come to terms with historical injustice, rather than denying a difficult past.12

Canada could usefully support the recommendations to the international com- munity made by Indonesian and Timorese truth commissions, and support exchanges and cooperation between practitioners of  truth  and  reconciliation across borders. In this, again, civil society would be at the centre. Indonesian academics and students are often receptive to discussion of truth and reconciliation, and this creates a foundation upon which to build.13 There are partners in Indonesia and Timor-Leste likely to welcome an invitation to collaborate with Canadian counterparts. They include the Centro Nacional Chega!, the Timorese centre for truth and reconciliation; Aceh’s new permanent truth commission; and NGOs with a focus on transitional justice, such as Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR). This would simply require further development of links already being forged by Canada’s embassy in Jakarta, and a long-term commitment to maintain those links rather than abandon them when the next policy fad arrives.  It also implies  taking up AJAR’s regional focus. Transitional justice in Indonesia intersects with transitional justice in Myanmar and other parts of the region.

Indigenous people’s linkages are another potential area of cooperation. If Canada can own up to its colonial legacy, and as Indigenous peoples organize in both Canada and Indonesia, each country can learn from the other about ways to improve its own performance. There is a rich experience in this realm, too. The Assembly of First Nations has ties to Indonesia’s Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara  (AMAN,  Alliance  of  Indigenous  Peoples   of   the   Archipelago). The Pacific Peoples’ Partnership worked for many years on Indigenous peoples’ linkages, and has produced  educational  resources  such  as  the  booklet ‘‘Raven and Paradise’’ that speak to trans-Pacific Indigenous links. It has worked to connect Indigenous peoples working on truth and reconciliation, too.14 Leadership in this area would obviously need to lie with Indigenous peoples themselves, but Canada’s government can assist in various ways, including through a resumption of support to Canadian civil society voices who were making progress in building these links in the past, but fell victim to episodic, unpredictable, and sometimes vindictive aid programming decisions under the Harper government. Indigenous peoples also carry out ‘‘other diplomacies’’ across borders created by colonialism (such as those of both Canada and Indonesia). These, too, are inter- national relations, and Canadian diplomacy should value Indigenous peoples and concepts.15

More intimate ties will require more honesty in fields such as human rights. (Both governments are especially vulnerable to criticism over their colonially- minded treatments of Indigenous peoples.) When relations were at their closest around 1990, Canadian and Indonesian diplomats treated human rights and the question of Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor as side issues, rather than integrating human rights as an element of overall bilateral relations. When Ottawa abruptly shifted to link aid to human rights in 1991, it bruised feelings and harmed bilateral relations. Canada will be better understood if it honestly and consistently advocates for human rights, including LGBT+ rights, religious freedoms, and improved treatment of Indigenous peoples in Papua and elsewhere. Embassy support for the impressive Timor-Leste Pride parade is a good example. Here, as in other areas, consistency over time is crucial.

Canadian engagement with Indonesia has been episodic, sporadic, and bedeviled by policy shifts and abrupt announcements lacking sufficient follow-up. But it doesn’t have to be that way. To deepen relations, civil society voices and leadership are crucial. When recalling Canada’s previous efforts to encourage close partner- ships between Canadian and Indonesian civil society, it is hard not to conclude that something was lost when those programs faded away. With a new Canadian policy on civil society partnerships in place, this is an area worth reviving.16 The civil society strengthening programs of the 1990s did not fail—they were simply abandoned. A report by the Canadian Centre for Foreign Policy Development in 2000 made this point; it remains relevant today.17 A similar effort could easily, and beneficially, be revived today. The new Canada–ASEAN scholarships are a step in the right direction (though they are marred by their omission of Timor-Leste, Southeast Asia’s poorest country). But ties need to move beyond the academic world into people-to-people connections, a onetime Canadian priority.

In this view, the government’s role is to handle political relations, but also to consciously foster ‘‘other diplomacies’’ led by civil society in Canada and Indonesia—and beyond. There are vibrant civil society  networks  in  Southeast Asia that sprawl across national borders. They are ideal partners. Through their vision of sustained people-to-people connections, they may offer a more effective option for deepening Canada–Indonesia—and Canada–Asia—ties than does a government-driven, top-down policy that sometimes changes direction as quickly as the trade winds.

Author Biography

David Webster is an associate professor of History at Bishop’s University, and author of Fire and the Full Moon: Canada and Indonesia in a Decolonizing World.


  1. Mary M. Young & Susan J. Henders, ‘‘‘Other diplomacies’ and the making of Canada–Asia relations,’’ Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 18, 3 (2012): 375–388.
  2. Steven Hugh Lee, ‘‘The Canadian–Asian experience: An introductory synthesis,’’ The Journal of American-East Asian Relations 4, 3 (1995): 193–222; Laura Madokoro, Elusive Refuge: Chinese Migrants in the Cold War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).
  3. Historical background and quotations, unless otherwise noted, come from David Webster, Fire and the Full Moon: Canada and Indonesia in a Decolonizing World (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009).
  4. Arizal Effendi, director-general for the Americas and Europe, Indonesian ministry of foreign affairs, in Elizabeth McIninch, , Friendship beyond Borders: Celebrating Fifty Years of Indonesian–Canadian Bilateral Ties (Ottawa: Indonesian Embassy, 2003), 13.
  5. On development as ideology, see Ariel Heryanto, ‘‘The development of ‘development,’’’ Indonesia 46 (October 1988): 1–24.
  6. Greg Donaghy, ‘‘Pierre Trudeau and Canada’s Pacific tilt, 1945–1984,’’ International Journal 74, 1 (2019): 135–150.
  7. Whitney Lackenbauer and Peter Kikkert, ‘‘Archipelagic analogues? Indonesian baselines, Canadian Arctic sovereignty, and the framing of mental maps, 1957–62,’’ International Journal of Canadian Studies 50 (January 2014): 227–252.
  8. ‘‘Canada–Indonesia relations,’’ briefing note for visit of Indonesian foreign minister, 1987, Library and Archives Canada, RG25, 21955, file 20-INDON-9.
  9. Cited in Edward Alden, ‘‘The poor are finally fighting back in Indonesia,’’ Vancouver Sun, 28 May
  10. David Webster, ‘‘Canada and bilateral human rights dialogues,’’ Canadian Foreign Policy 16, 3 (2010): 43–63.
  11. ‘‘Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with President Joko Widodo of Indonesia,’’ Prime Minister’s Office news release, 23 May 2019, https://pm.gc.ca/en/news/readouts/2019/05/23/ prime-minister-justin-trudeau-speaks-president-joko-widodo-indonesia (accessed 13 September 2019).
  12. David Webster, ed., Flowers in the Wall: Truth and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste, Indonesia and Melanesia (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2018).
  13. Budi Hernawan and Pat Walsh, ‘‘Inconvenient truths: The fate of the Chega! and Per Memoriam Ad Spem reports on Timor-Leste,’’ August 2015, http://home.patwalsh.net/wp-content/uploads/ Inconvenient-Truths.pdf (accessed 13 May 2019).
  14. Pacific Peoples’ Partnership, Raven & Paradise: Connecting Two Worlds (Victoria BC, 2012); April Ingham, ‘‘Pathways to Peace,’’ blog post, http://reconciliationtim.ca/women/pathways-to- peace/ (accessed 13 May 2019).Hayden King, ‘‘The erasure of Indigenous thought in foreign policy,’’ Open Canada, 31 July 2017, https://www.opencanada.org/features/erasure-indigenous-thought-foreign-policy/ (accessed 13 May 2019).
  1. ‘‘Canada’s policy for civil society partnerships for international assistance – A feminist approach,’’ https://international.gc.ca/world-monde/issues_development-enjeux_developpement/priorities- priorites/civil_policy-politique_civile.aspx?lang eng (accessed 13 May 2019).
  2. Canadian Centre for Foreign Policy Development, Report from the Roundtable on Indonesia, 13 March 2000 (Victoria, BC), http://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/E2-225-2000E.pdf (accessed 13 September 2019).