05/31/2011 09:44 am ET | Updated Jul 31, 2011

No Spring in Canada

In a world dominated by the issues of global financial security, the recent G8 summit in Deauville, France targeted an entire day to the challenges of the Arab Spring.

It wasn't surprising, given the implications of what could happen if the movement suddenly goes awry.

President Barack Obama refused to permit the discussion to swirl around more Western military might in Libya. He attempted instead to focus on the challenges and opportunities of the entire region, which hasn't previously witnessed the chance for more personal freedoms like this.

He got some takers. Moved by Obama's assessment that the G8 countries should express strong support for the enhancement of jobs and economic growth in Arab countries, Britain, France and others promised modest financial investments, including debt relief. Other European nations and lending institutions like the World Bank upped the ante with their own financial aid plans.

All of this action should never be viewed as merely an aid plan. What most G8 leaders were also promoting was democratic solidarity with the people of the Arab states themselves. It was a symbolic expression of faith to a large group of people attempting to break out of generations of autocratic rule and limited choices. As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times recently commented in his article, "I Am A Man:"

"All these Arab regimes to one degree or another stripped their people of their basic dignity. They deprived them of freedom and never allowed them to develop anywhere near their full potential. And as the world has become hyper-connected, it became obvious to every Arab citizen just how far behind they were -- not only to the West, but to China, India and parts of sub-Saharan Africa. This ... fueled a deep humiliation."

We all get this; it's ingrained in the democratic DNA of every G8 power. While it's likely that the complexities of Arab life and politics lie outside of our fleeting efforts at understanding, each G8 citizen knows the importance of personal freedom of choice. Nowhere is this more true than in Canada, where the right to choose and live as we believe is enshrined in the nation's Charter.

Which makes this country's hesitancy to support Obama's plan so curious and deflating. Prime Minister Stephen Harper concluded that Canada would prefer to offer loan guarantees to development banks and institutions instead of new economic aid packages in concert with other G8 members. There is room for such an approach in assisting the troubled Arab nations, but it leaves Canada strangely on the outside of the solidarity component of the G8's efforts.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper believes that freedom of opportunity and not outcome is the better way forward for any nation. That's true, but what if the chances for personal opportunities are indeed limited? What if the personal choices of citizens in the Arab world can't be decided upon because of poverty or limited financial freedom?

Milton Friedman, longtime professor of economics at the University of Chicago and one of Stephen Harper's favourite authors, ruminated in his Capitalism and Freedom that although inequality is inevitable, the powerful appeal of equality itself among people is a powerful force.

This is the element that is missing in the Harper approach. As important as financial assistance to the struggling Arab regions might be, it is the solidarity of the G8 nations, acting in tandem and combined purpose, that can also provide hope in troubled times.

The Arab Spring isn't so much about an economic way forward as it is a powerful movement desiring to emerge into the modern era. Yes, such a force requires economic assistance if it is to prevail, but it also needs to know that an observing world senses and emotionally understands that most basic craving of individuals for freedom. President Obama and the others comprehend this and so opted to respond collectively to the challenge.

Except Canada, of course, which regarded it more as an economic plan than an emergence of freedom into a new world of choice. Again this country has moved itself somewhat offside from where its G8 partners are heading and it left most at the summit shaking their heads in confusion. Spring might be dawning on the millions of people in the Arab world seeking a chance at last, but not in Canada, as its official response missed it altogether and again we stand isolated.