The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Warmongering

I have spent a few days reading Yves Engler’s book, The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy (2012) about the inhumane, cold-hearted and ruthless actions of Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper. This has left me feeling nauseated and ill. Today, sitting in a coffee shop in Vancouver, I looked across the sunny street at Indigo Books and they had a huge banner inscribed with “The world needs more Canada” in their front window. If it’s Harper’s Canada we are talking about, the world certainly does not need more Canada.

Early on before Harper was PM, people warned that if Canadians elected this guy there would be big trouble ahead. He was to be feared. But not enough people really believed that he would unleash the most right-wing agenda ever seen in good old progressive Canada, the big geographical country with lots of resources and billed as a fine place to live. We hike in the mountains and toast our peacekeepers in faraway stormy lands. “It’s all good” as my son might say.

Engler is in his mid-thirties and has established himself as a Chomsky-styled iconoclast. He has punctured holes in Canada’s beloved myths. Canada’s esteemed diplomat and former PM, Lester B. Pearson, doesn’t look too good after Engler takes the myth apart, brick by brick. In Engler’s portrait, Pearson was an ardent cold warrior, supported colonialism and apartheid in South Africa, Zionism and coups in Guatemala, Iran and Brazil. He also supported the US war in Viet Nam and pushed to send Canadian troops to Korea. Engler certainly poked a stick in a hornet’s nest. Really? Couldn’t be so. Not sweet Lester.

Canadians who keep a critical eye on Ottawa at least sense that Harper has unleashed a frontal attack on our democracy. The books pile up if one deems to search them out and learn about Harper’s egregious deeds (Here are a few titles: M. Harris, Party of One [2014]; D. Gutstein, Harperism: How Stephen Harper and His Think Tank Colleagues Transformed Canada [2014]; and M. Hurtig, The Arrogant Autocrat: Stephen Harper’s Takeover of Canada [2015]).

But Engler’s (The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy [2012]) opens up the lesser known world of Canada’s foreign policy. Canadians rest too complacently inside the mythic Pearson bubble of Canada as perpetual do-gooder.

Like Chomsky, Engler marches out case after case, fact after fact to document Canada’s aggressive militaristic and corporate-oriented foreign policy. Canada lost a seat on the UN Security Council in 201o for good reason. OK: here’s a list to get us started: sabotaging of climate change legislation and action, bedding down with tar sands producers and the mining industry, opposing the democratic movement in the Arab Spring, military intervention in the attack and destruction of Libya, support for the right-wing Israeli government and backing US aggression against Iran, Lebanon and Somalia.

Engler documents relentlessly the way Harper has fused corporate interests with Canadian state policy. While Canadian families are sleepily getting their kids dressed, fed and nudged out the door to school, Harper and his gang has been up all night planning dirty tactics to undermine opposition to the tar sands oil production or mining interests in Latin America.

Sleazy and secretive, Harper works tirelessly in every possible forum to undermine climate legislation and opposition to the tar sands. He lobbied intensely for the tar sands in Europe and fought fiercely for US support of the Keystone XL pipeline. In 2007, when California uglycanadiangovernor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the worlds’ first Low Carbon Resources Board to monitor our carbon footprint, Canadian officials rushed in to have the tar sands exempted. What an image: Canadian officials buzzing about the world to obstruct social justice however they can.

For me, it is supremely interesting to learn from Engler that Harper has forced diplomats in the appropriate countries to be frontline advocates for dirty-oil. Dirty diplomacy: Canada’s contribution to the global commonwealth.

Our heads are buried in the sticky and dirty oil sands of Alberta.

Pull them out quickly to have a glance at Harper and the Canadian mining industry. Engler asks: “But how do Canadians feel about diplomacy that facilitates razing mountaintops, poisoning rivers and ignoring indigenous rights in dozens of countries around the world?” Engler informs us that “there have been an astounding number of conflicts at Canadian-run mines.” The stories Engler tells are sordid and ugly.

Governor-General Michelle Jean and deputy foreign minister Peter Kent were greeted with chants of “Canada get out” when they visited the Chiapas in Mexico. Three current and former employees of the Calgary-based Blackfire Exploration had allegedly murdered Mariano Rolbero, an activist who led opposition to the company’s mine in Chicomuselo, a small municipality of Chiapas. This is one small tidbit from a sorry list of misdemeanours.

I wasn’t fully aware of how aggressively the Canadian governmental intervened to support Canadian mining interests. When a private member’s bill (Bill C-300) was introduced in the Canadian parliament to foster social responsibility in the mining sector, Harper launched a “ferocious lobbying campaign” to ensure that the bill was voted down. One can see why.

Harper’s regime will do what is necessary to ensure the triumph of Canadian mining interests. This may mean working to overthrow an anti-mining government (or install a government that will de-regulate mining legislation and make expropriation illegal), funding mining lobbying organizations, using diplomats to advocate for the industry in question, and funding a pseudo-NGO to work to promote the mining industry under the guise of promoting conflict resolution. Harper supported the ouster of Lugo in Paraguay and the removal of elected president Manuel Zelaya in the Honduras.

Engler concludes: “Under Harper this country’s foreign policy enforces the interests of all mining companies, no matter the context. Is this a foreign policy to make Canadians proud?”

Harper’s total capitulation to Canadian mining interests won’t make us proud. But neither will anything else that touches foreign policy concerns and issues. Basically, Harper was opposed to the democratic uprisings of Arab Spring. Harper was silent on repression and murder in Tunisia. He was silent, but as things turned against him, he tried to claim that he really did support democracy in Tunisia. No he doesn’t; he can’t stomach it anywhere.

In Egypt, Engler says that Harper ignored protests and state repression. He stuck with Mubarak until the “last possible minute.” As Engler puts it, “Canada was the only western country to not call for an ‘immediate transition’ in Egypt.” Along with Israel, Ottawa refused to condemn the old dictator. The world doesn’t want (or need) more of this Canada.

One can tread through more mud as the pages race by. This is not much fun. The Conservatives applauded the Gulf monarchies’ so-called “cosmetic reforms” (Bahrain, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia). The Conservatives hide behind phoney and deceptive language. John Baird, now ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs, screeched about the Conservatives love of democracy. But they stood mute before the repression of Morocco’s democratic movement. They were speechless before Saudi Arabia’s misogyny and vile repression. Engler comments: “Not a single one of the 200+ statements released by Foreign Affairs in 2011 concerned the repression in Saudi Arabia.”

Harper won’t touch the Saudis because of the monarchy’s pro-US policies and Canada’s own growing business, diplomatic and military relations with Saudi Arabia (as well as other Middle Eastern countries).

Exasperated, Engler cries out against the “Conservatives’ utter contempt for the democratic will of ordinary people across the Arab world. But of course this attitude towards the concerns of anyone who is not a part of the elite is a consistent theme when describing Harper’s foreign policy around the world.”

But this contempt, Engler observes, can veer into outright bullying. The West ramped up the war drums against Libya, and Harper was right in there banging away. Harper hurried to get in on the bombing of Libya (along with France, the US, the UK, and Qatar). War-mongering was in and diplomacy out in the cold. Engler points out that Canada contravened UNSCR 1973 (which states explicitly that nations may not attack others except in self-defence and only if UN-authorized) by providing military assistance to Libyan rebels. Libya, now a seething snake pit of lawless violence and despair, was hardly a threat to Canada (or the US).

Engler observes: “In addition to intensifying the conflict and making foreigners the arbiters of Libyan politics, the western war reinforced the idea that the traditional imperial powers have the right to intervene militarily in southern countries’ affairs.” This is such a sorry mess. Harper tested his “fighting spirit” on a weak enemy. Is this some sort of horrific revival of the evangelical “muscular Christianity” of the late nineteenth century?

In subsequent chapters, Engler sweeps through Harper’s policy toward Israel (we are your best friend forever and ever) and takes note of how his “foreign policy that flows from being Israel’s best friend and one of the main cheerleaders of the neoconservative world order is more militaristic than what most Canadians are comfortable with. This has included extreme belligerence and support for other countries’ wars, which is clearly seen on their positions on the invasion of Lebanon and the threatened attack against Iran.”

If Canada can’t sneak in a bomb or two (or some troops or ships), they stand on the sidelines cheering Israel on as the bombs rain down on the Gaza, Lebanon or enthusiastically backing the US/Israel campaign against Iran.

Does Harper think that Iran is suicidal? Strange, is it not: we all know that Israel possesses nukes and has threatened to attack Iran. Well, good old Harper has fought hard against having Israel’s nuclear weapons placed under IAEA controls. Says Engler: “The decision-makers in Washington and Tel Aviv are not threatened by Iranian nuclear weapons. Rather they worry about Iran’s challenges to their regional domination. And, like a good follower, Harper has enthusiastically gone along with his friends.” How will Harper maneuver in the aftermath of a possible deal between Iran and the G5 +1?

In the final few chapters of The Ugly Canadian, Engler introduces us to Stephen the Tough Guy. Beating his chest like a silver back gorilla, Harper has tried to militarize Canada by getting in on combat action wherever he can and permeating our sporting culture by doing things like having the navy hold flags at the Canadian Open. Hockey Night in Canada has also been subject to Don Cherry’s pro-military diatribes and degrading celebration of brawling in the NHL.

Harper has spent more money on the military than previous governments, and even sought to establish permanent bases (in Jamaica and six other countries). Harper’s mental state appears somewhat crazed: he wants to define Canada as a “warrior nation” and establish “courageous warrior” as a founding Canadian principle. War is now celebrated; not decried as a ghastly and beastly affront to our humanity. Harper is a herald of Cold War Two, with trumpets blazing.

Our heroes are now warriors, and you had better not speak against “Project Hero”.

Does it unnerve you that Harper and his gang are opposed to signing agreements on the abolition of cluster munitions? And obstruct wherever they can the monitoring and curtailing of the arms trade? Hey, Canada doesn’t even report its arms sales (estimated to be around $15 billion/year). Engler points out—surprise, surprise—that “military spending props up important components of Canadian industry (shipyards, airplane manufacture, and high-tech companies)”. Enough said.

Stephen Harper is very secretive about what he is up to both at home and abroad. He doesn’t tell us the truth. Engler states: “The Conservatives repeatedly lied about Canada’s role in Afghanistan.” He also hoodwinked Canadians about “extending Canada’s military engagement into its second decade” and tried to deceive us into thinking that a non-combat presence in Afghanistan was really the case. Not so. No wonder he is sleazy Stephen. Keep your wary eye on this guy. Turn your head, and he is shooting up some town somewhere.

Canadians might raise an eyebrow or two to learn from Engler that Harper, like the US, meddled in Venezuela to demonize and overthrow the regime of Hugo Chavez. In Harper’s lexicon of allies, Venezuela is a “rogue state” and the far-right government of Colombia is a fine ally. But it makes sense: Harper is extreme proponent of neo-liberal capitalism and US dominance of the world. He loathes any form of left-wing government in Latin America (or anywhere).

Let’s end here. Whoops: just noticed my scribble that Harper’s support for capitalism no-restraints-required is so over the top that his foreign policy is so gross that his government even blocked placing chrysotile asbestos on the dangerous products list.

Engler concludes: “Harper government shifted Canadian foreign policy from the mainstream to the extreme right among the leading capitalist countries.”

O Canaduh/You had better wake up.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.