Junior Partner of Empire: Why Canada’s Foreign Policy Isn’t What You Think

Canada is not what it appears to outsiders. It is not what it seems even to Canadians. The idea that middle-power Canada is a strong, upright guy who steps into the fight hesitantly and defends the little man is a myth of grandiose proportions. The claim that we are peacekeepers is shattered once you realize whose peace we have been and are currently keeping.

For a very long time Canada’s leaders have been deceptive and slithery about what we are up to on the other side of the world. We present our public face as nice guys, but in reality have been playing faithfully our role as junior partners of Empire for centuries.

Our actions in the world have not been very nice at all. Let’s peel back the happy face sticker pasted over our foreign policy. And let’s see how we really act in the world by learning from Yves Engler’s disturbing text, The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy (2009).

This book is packed with so much detail that my approach will simply highlight several examples where Canadians generally believe that “Canada has been a force for good in the world”: the Caribbean, the Middle East and South Africa.

Keep firmly in mind that Canada is a fragment-offshoot of two colossal Empires: the French and the British, and contemporary vassal-state of the US Hegemon, currently trying to reduce the entire world to rubble and ruins. Much of Canada’s early history is about the French and English battling it out for control of the land stolen from the indigenous peoples.

Burning cane fields in the Caribbean

Engler has an intense interest in the Caribbean and particularly in Haiti. Engler states forthrightly: “Canada has long been influential in the English-speaking Caribbean and, from our colonial past, it should not be surprising that this country’s role was usually one of supporting Great Britain.”

The colonial government of Canada opposed the slave rebellions in Jamaica in the 1830s. The government was happy to see Sam Sharpe a-hanging from the gallows as the burnt out cane fields smouldered in symbolic anger. And they did not oppose the British murdering rebellious slaves (some 580) and expelling radical missionaries whose teachings sparked the revolutionary uprising against the plantocracy.

As Engler documents so carefully, the Canadian government’s primary purpose in Jamaica (and elsewhere in the Caribbean and the rest of the world) over the years has been to support Canadian banking and mining interests (like Alcan bauxite mining). blackbookenglerDrive through the mountains and see for yourself the gouged-out and devastated hills, stretching as far as eye can see.

Pierre Elliote Trudeau declared “Viva Castro” on an official visit to Cuba in 1976. Canadians think that our relationship with Cuba has been good, that of the US rather nasty. However, “business is business” was the maxim for the Canadian government’s involvement in Cuba from the days of the US invasion of Cuba in 1898. Canada’s general manager of the iconic nation-building CPR project, William Van Horne, a ruthless capitalist and man of immense energy, seized the opportunity to build an island railway shortly after the US invasion. Nobody okayed this venture; he just plunged ahead.

Engler informs us that Ottawa endorsed the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion on April 17, 1961. Two days later PM John Diefenbaker told the House of Commons that events in Cuba were “manifestations of a dictatorship which is abhorrent to free men everywhere.”

While Canada never broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba, the US encouraged Canada to secretly gather intelligence—preparing for the appropriate day to overthrow the Castro regime. We were happy to be of service to the imperial centre. We never deviate.

Canada supported the US 7,000 troop invasion in Grenada to unseat leftist Maurice Bishop in 1982. “Mild support for US aggression is the best way to describe Canada’s role in Grenada” is the way Yves puts it.

Lester Pearson supported the US invasion of the Dominican Republic in April, 1965. He feared for Canadian investments in the Dominican Republic (70% of the banking in the DR was Canadian, and Falconbridge’s mining interests are not insignificant). To this day, Canadian companies benefit from this repressive climate.

Canada’s role in the “most impoverished country of the Americas, Haiti, reveals the extent to which this country is prepared to act as an imperialist power.” Haiti has almost driven Yves crazy: the Canadian government (Jean Chretien was PM from 1993-2003 and Paul Martin from 2003-2006) supported the ousting of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the controversial liberation theologian turned politician, in 2004.

Engler argues that Aristide was “perceived as a barrier to a thorough implementation of the free market agenda, particularly because of his opposition to the privatization of the country’s five remaining state-owned companies.” Your country may be small and wretchedly poor, but if left-leaning, watch out.

Perhaps controversially, Yves thinks that Canada participated (we had troops on the streets) in this coup to “make good” with the Bush administration because we didn’t send troops to Iraq. Maybe, but Engler also asserts that “foreign affairs have been mostly about asserting and protecting the ‘rights’ of a country’s wealthy owners.”

Engler extrapolates this critical axiom from his hard digging. “The Canadian government, from its beginning, was part of the command and control apparatus of the world economic-system.” At first, Canada was an arm of the British Empire, but quickly got entangled in the web of the US Empire of Chaos. Once in the net, we were assigned our role: “Canada-the-vassal.” This insight enables us to understand the meaning of “peacekeeping.”

Basically, to peacekeep means to police the civilian population to ensure that property and markets remain free and relatively deregulated. These days this form of policing (its most extreme form can be seen in Israel’s horrific management of the Gaza) is conducted under the rubric of “responsibility to protect” (R2P). The old language of “empire and militarism” has been transformed by slight of tongue to justify in pseudo-kindly fashion the continuing form of imperialism. Didn’t the citizens of Libya need protecting? Or those in Syria and Iraq?

R2P gives generous licence to kill. Yves observes that “’failed states’ can be overthrown because they do not provide adequately for their own citizens and because they threaten world order.” So Haiti can be policed to provide a profitable lesson for the rich and powerful. All you really need to do is invent some stories about how badly a particular leader treats the people and then set the media a war-mongering and marshal the troops.

Canadians may not like to hear that Engler thinks that Canadian governments see all the regions of the world “through the eyes of a colonial master instead of as a fellow country sharing a common goal of independence.” Thus: “Canadian foreign policy can be [labelled] anti-democratic, colonial and environmentally destructive.”

Peacekeeping in the service of empire

Engler thinks that Canada’s image as “honest broker” and “peacekeeper” is “called into question by our military and diplomatic activities across the Middle East.” Lester Pearson’s establishment of a peacekeeping force in Egypt helped to resolve the Suez crisis. From then on, “peacekeeping became a major part of Canadian identity.” That’s the legend.

Well, by 1956 NATO was a mere seven-year old and Ottawa’s role was to smooth over hostilities inside NATO between the US and the UK. Pearson did not question the primary aim of the invasion: “to re-establish European control over the Suez Canal and weaken Arab nationalism.”

The then Canadian PM, grandfatherly Louis St. Laurent, opposed Nasser’s “nationalization” of the Suez Canal. Thus, Pearson—says Engler—saw the UN troops fundamentally as opposed to Nasser’s nationalist reforms. For Pearson, Nasser had no right to develop Egypt autonomously and decide how to play its role as equal partner in the world.

The Canadian government has always supported Israel, despite its endless war crimes, from 1948 to 2015. When Israel invaded Egypt in 1967, Canada, Britain and the US created a maritime force to protect Israeli shipping. And Ottawa opposed vociferously the withdrawal of UN troops from Egypt, leading Al Ahram Weekly to call Canada “a stooge of the western powers who seek to colonize the Arab world with Israel’s help.”

Now, 48 years later, Canada is still playing the role of stooge for the US hegemon in the Middle East (demonizing Iran, calling for the overthrow of Assad in Syria and supporting Israel no matter what they do (such as permitting snipers to shoot Palestinian rock-throwing kids or allowing extremist settlers to defile the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem). The Harperman will not utter a peep of protest to the King Kong of politicians, Netanyahu.

Engler informs us that: “During the 1967 UN crisis the DND drew up a top secret plan for a Canadian military invasion of Egypt.” It was code-named “Exercise Lazarus.” I never knew that.

Most Canadians, including the Lefties, are proud that PM Jean Chretien did not choose to enter the “coalition of the willing” to invade and destroy Iraq in 2003. This act was a war crime under international law. But Yves the myth debunker extraordinaire argues that, in fact, Canada did support the coalition. Canada is sneaky about these matters it seems. On the surface, we are the good guy.

But in the dark alleys later in the night we agree to allow US warplanes to fly through Canadian airspace and refuel in Newfoundland. Yves thinks that the fact that Canada Canadian frigates conducted operations in the Arabian Sea (a “command and control destroyer” took charge of Taskforce 151) “could make Canada legally at work with Iraq.”

So Canada provided covert support to the invasion of Iraq and adopted the moral high ground in its public opposition to the war. Yet Canada’s three ships and 100 exchange officers “exceeded that of all but three other countries that were actually part of the coalition.”

Hypocrisy in Canada’s South Africa policy

One might think that “Canada the good guy” would have been opposed to the South African apartheid regime. Although it might not be surprising to learn that during the Boer War in 1898, 2700 Canadian soldiers fought viciously against the Boers on the side of the British Empire. Canada’s soldiers burned down villages, destroyed farms, killed thousands of cattle and killed innocent citizens.

But one would think that Canada did not approve of the legally racist apartheid regime in South Africa. Engler debunks this complacent idea. “Contrary to popular understanding, Canada mostly supported apartheid in South Africa.” In fact, in the early phases of instituting this racist regime, South Africa studied Canada’s reserve system for native peoples and the possible usefulness of Canada’s endlessly maligned residential schools.

Essentially, Yves argues, Canada’s foreign policy relationship with South Africa was duplicitous. In the sunlight, Canada opposed the regime. In the dark of night, Canada did business as usual.

Pierre Trudeau, who has a reputation as a “progressive internationalist,” permitted Canadian companies to continue heavily investing in South Africa. Black labour was cheap; Trudeau’s government endorsed publicly an arms embargo, but as late 1978, Canadian-government financed arms made their way to South Africa.

Canada supported South Africa’s occupation of Namibia and denounced Security Council imposition of sanctions. The main reason: Canadian corporate interests (Falconbridge Mining, Etosha Petroleum) wanted to freely exploit labour and extract their commodities with impunity.

Even during the period between October 1986 and September 1993, when sanctions against South Africa were in effect, Canada’s two-way trade with South Africa totalled 1.6 billion dollars.

Canada actively worked to “moderate” the ANC (The Foreign Affairs Minister, Mild Joe Clark, detested communists and Palestinian desire for self-determination). Canada also seeded South Africa with NGOs to spread the good news of the free market.

Canada is America’s cat’s paw

Christopher Black (“US attacks on international law are driving the world to war,” In Russia Insider, September 27) asserts correctly that to understand Canada’s foreign policy, “one had only to look at Canada’s history of subservience to Washington to understand its current position and that Canada was being used, against the will of most of its people, as an American cat’s paw to try to damage Russia since many people in the world naively view Canada as a peace loving and neutral country whereas in fact it has always been a willing participant in British and American aggression around the world.”

Yves concurs: Canada does not have an autonomous foreign policy—to its utter shame. Whatever the US wants to do, Canada shouts “Me, too! Me, too!” Little Mousy then runs to Big Elephant and receives his orders.

We are a mouse sleeping with an elephant. And this elephant is ornery and can crush us if we disobey. These days we sleep more restlessly than we ever have as the world tips towards all-out war.

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.