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A Wake-Up Call to the Canadian Left

Yves Engler is Canada’s foremost feisty contrarian. Contrarians oppose what most people think about people and events. They don’t like to bask in the sunlight. They would rather look in the shadows or dimly lit back alleys. If they walk on a summer beach, they pay little attention to the sun glinting off the shells. They want to see what lies under the rocks.

Alas! There aren’t many contrarians left. We live in the age of the vanquished reporter and group think. The mass media (BBC, CNN, CBC) toe the prevalent hegemonic political line. They ask no questions. They speak confidently on the latest demonic act of Russia or Syria or Iran. Israel always gets off the hook, no matter how many Gazans are gunned down. The US-Saudi Arabia can massacre hundreds of thousands of Yemenis. Not on the news tonight! And won’t be on next week, either. All “unapproved evidence is brushed aside or disparaged regardless of its quality” (Robert Parry).

Engler’s new book, Left, Right: Marching to the Beat of Imperial Canada’s Foreign Policy (Black Rose Publishers, 2018) follows in the train of previous muckraking and debunking books. Basically, Engler thinks the Canadian intelligentsia sees foreign policy through a glass darkly. They think that Canada is basically a benevolent nation. We (I am a Canadian) think we are not like our neighbour to the south. They are the land of conquest.

They are the democratic sheep in wolves clothing. They are the ones who bring “democracy and freedom” to nations on their gunboats. No, Canadians are a nation of peacekeepers and nice folks. Our myth-making agencies (Engler includes the Department of National Defense and Veteran Affairs as well the mass media) celebrate our heroic engagement in various wars and benevolent corporate and banking actions in the Caribbean and South America.

Engler believes adamantly that the left has “played a part in justifying Canada’s role within an unfair and unsustainable world economic system.” He focuses our attention on the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation Party (CCF) and the New Democratic Party (NDP) because this social democratic party has a voice in parliament. They can speak out on foreign policy. He also examines labour union spokespersons and well-known left commentators’ views on foreign policy issues. But Engler points out that the early CCF, fired with a vision of justice for Canada, was silent on the Canadian banks substantial influence over Caribbean finance. Even the lauded Regina Manifesto (1933) ignored Canadian complicity in European colonialism and was weak on Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1936. Although in the years between 1933 and 1943, the CCF opposed imperialism and nationalism associated with Zionism. However, since then, the party has “often backed the dispossession of Palestinians.” Engler provides many more dispiriting examples.

He discovers that the left promotes imperial policies and recycles nationalist myths. In the post-WW II era, the CCF backed NATO and supported the Korean War. More recently, the NDP “endorsed bombing Syria and Libya.” Labour unions supported the Marshall Plan, NATO, Korean War, the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the Bay of Pigs invasion. They were swept up in the anti-communist mania of the lamentable Cold War. On the economic front, Engler observes that Quebec sovereignists are progressive at home and, in the case of Haiti (Engler’s favourite example of Canadian political malfeasance), supported the overthrow of Jean-Baptiste Aristide in 2004.

Engler argues that liberal and left intellectuals are pressured to be patriotic. They mostly ignore international affairs. Social democracy has great difficulty criticizing their own government’s imperialism. We don’t realize, it seems, that Canada is not a mere caboose hinged to the imperialist train. We actively participate in imperial projects. We choose to send troops to the Ukraine, even though the US engineered the coup overthrowing Viktor Yanukovych and Ukrainian armies display fascist insignia at will. We heartily support the movement of NATO troops close to the Russian border. We seem averse to realizing how our present Canadian foreign policy does not foster world peace and unity at this moment of civilizational crisis.

PM Harper sent troops to fight for western hegemony in Afghanistan. We chirp along with the choir accusing Russia and Iran of just about everything nasty. It’s all their fault. We are stupefied on the drug of propaganda. Engler states: “But instead of criticizing the geo-strategic and corporate interests driving foreign policy, the NDP/CCF has often supported them and contributed to Canadians’ confusion about their country’s international relations.” Dissident CCF or NDP voices are usually repressed or preventing from running for office.

Engler’s text is packed with facts and details. That’s his style. A short review must entice the reader to dig into the text. But let me guide readers’ attention to several courageous investigations and commentaries that raised my eyebrows. It takes guts to demythologize Canada’s popular critics and causes. Many of Canada’s intellectuals are associated with think tanks. Engler argues that the influential Rideau Institute of International Affairs “spurns demilitarization and anti-imperialist voices.” He thinks that Peggy Mason, president of the Institute since 2014, has significant experience in Canadian foreign policy circles. But it is unlikely she will “forthrightly challenge the foreign policy status quo or the corporate interests that back it.”

Engler cuts to the quick regarding cheerleading Canada’s role as peacekeepers. He thinks this is mainly a way to “align with Canadian mythology and evade confronting military power.” For Engler, Canada’s peacekeeping in Egypt in 1956 and Cyprus in 1964 were aimed at reducing tensions within NATO. In the Congo and Korea, Engler states that “Ottawa contributed to US imperialist crimes.” These are harsh accusations that bump into our sense of being benevolent actors. Engler offers this nugget insight: the left nationalist mythologies separate us from US imperialism while obscuring our compliant service to western hegemony. Engler thinks that Linda McQuaig’s idealization of Lester Pearson is shameful.

Engler takes on Canada’s folk hero and distinguished public figure, Stephen Lewis. From 2001-2006, Lewis was the UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. In his celebrated Massey lectures, Race Against Time (2005), Lewis “failed to critique any Canadian policy measure in Africa except for Ottawa’s insufficient aid.” In fact, Engler points out that Canada’s early assistance to Africa trained militaries to prevent the pursuit of “wholly independent paths.” Ottawa backed the overthrow of Nkrumah in 1966. Engler moves inside the murky and confused world of the Rwanda massacres in the mid-1990s. There are different narratives framing the meaning of these massacres.

Romeo Dallaire’s narrative is but one, now tattered, story. The gutsy Engler informs us that Dallaire justified the NATO invasion of Libya, and called for interventions in Darfur, Iran and Syria. Some scholars now shift the spotlight on the malevolent role of Paul Kagame, the leader of the Rwanda Patriotic Front, both in the Rwanda killings and invasion into the east Congo. Basically, Engler thinks that Lewis praises Kagame, an authoritarian dictator who brooks no opposition, far too much.

In his book, Lewis criticizes China for backing Khartoum but remains silent on Kagame’s invasion of the Congo. And Lewis has also been silent on “official Ottawa’s multi-faceted support for European colonial rule or Canada’s role in overthrowing progressive leaders Patrice Lumumba, Milton Obote and Kwame Nkrumah.” It seems, Engler suggests, that media coverage of Africa in the Canadian media (2003-2012) is still infected with a “moralizing gaze” and “white man’s burden” imagery.

It is not surprising that Engler wonders why the left “accept or promote policies that do harm to ordinary people across the planet.” In fact, one of Engler’s maxims for foreign policy is that we do no harm to others and act to sustain our common homeland, the earth. If many liberal or left critics raise tough questions on domestic issues, why do they see foreign policy through the glass darkly? Engler even shocks us by demonstrating that many indigenous people, victims of Canadian colonialism, joined in the wars of Empire.

For one thing, Engler argues insistently that the left has accommodated itself to a Canadian form of nationalism. Enveloped in the myth of benevolent peacekeepers and crusaders for world peace, we create dubious icons like Lester Pearson and Romeo Dallaire. Left-leaning Canadian nationalists—such as those who supported the Waffle movement within the NDP in the late 1960s and 1970s—embraced the idea that Canada was a colony of the US. In fact, say the Waffle intellectuals, we began as a British colony, became a nation and returned to colony status through subservience to the US Empire. Did we really?

But the deterministic “staples theory”, made famous by legendary Canadian economic historian Harold Innes, renders us passive as a sovereign nation. This theory obscures our foreign policy choices about the kind of world we as Canadians desire and our corporate commitments to exploit other nation’s financial and natural and human resources. We black-out the nasty stuff in the Caribbean, Africa, Guatemala and elsewhere. We can’t (or won’t see it) because we, too, are “exceptional.”

And, as Engler reminds us, think again about Canada as the poor hewers of wood and drawers of water. Toronto ranks seventh in the world as a financial centre. Boldly, he states: “Canadian companies are global players in various fields:” Garda World is the world’s largest privately held security companies (with 50,000 employees). SNC Lavalier is one of the world’s largest engineering companies. Bombadier and CAE are the world’s largest aerospace and flight stimulators.

And the “starkest example” of Canadian corporate power is the mining sector where ½ of the world’s mining companies are based in Canada. If one is weeping over Canadian subservience—poor us! –to US corporate power, “left nationalists generally ignore Canadian power and abuse abroad.” Engler has written about our not too exceptionally just mining companies in other books. Banging the drum, he says, “Wake up Canadian left intellectuals!”

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Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

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