Canadian Foreign Policy Critics Don’t Do it for Dough

Canadian flag.

Image by sebastiaan stam.

Investigating the political economy of ideas is imperative to understanding foreign policy. But those seeking to discredit already marginalized critical perspectives shouldn’t ignore Canada’s large, well-financed, ideological apparatus promoting pro-corporate and US empire policies.

Recently a journalist from leftist Québec publication Pivot asked me “Do you receive some money when you’re interviewed by Chinese media like CCTV or CGTN?” The question followed a query about whether “you might sometimes share Chinese propaganda in the articles you write.” I responded, “just like when I’ve been interviewed by dozens of other publications, I’ve never received payments from CGTN, RT, Press TV, CBC, Radio Canada (once I was paid by CBC for a series of interviews from protests at the 2004 Republican National convention in New York).”

In a similar vein a participant in the May 29 session of my weekly Canadian Foreign Policy Hour asked if I “was ever paid by Russian propaganda in order to spread this misinformation about what’s going in Ukraine”. At a talk about peace in Ukraine a day earlier multiple protesters asked if I was paid by Russia as they sought to disrupt an event held outside a community centre that canceled the room booking at the last minute.

Since Russia launched its illegal invasion of Ukraine there has been a major uptick in accusations of foreign funding, but the claims aren’t new. When campaigning against Canada’s role in overthrowing Haiti’s elected government in 2004, proponents of the coup repeatedly suggested ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide funded the work. Similarly, opponents of Nicolas Maduro suggested I was compensated by Caracas to criticize Canada’s bid to overthrow Venezuela’s president.

I have never received money from Russian, Chinese or Haitian officials (in 2014 I received $500 or $600 to cover travel and other expenses as well as a small honorarium for speaking at a Latin America solidarity event in Toronto organized by Venezuelan diplomats).

Leftists shouldn’t object to probing the interplay between money and ideas. Actually, it’s essential to understanding Canadian foreign policy. But if you’re in the game for financial reasons the money is almost entirely in supporting, not challenging, pro-US and corporate policies.

Assuming the aim is not simply to discredit already marginalized perspectives (in most cases this is tough to assume), the first question regarding the link between money and foreign policy ideas should be: Is it possible to work for a major Canadian media outlet while criticizing Canadian imperialism? Or to employ critics’ preferred language are there any pro-Putin, Aristide, Maduro or Xi analysts in Canada’s dominant media?

Conversely, almost every journalist in a position to express their opinion to large audiences supports the basic tenets of Canadian foreign policy. Many also backed US violence such as CBC and Globe and Mail commentator Andrew Coyne who advocated Canadian participation in the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Has any Canadian journalist supported Russia’s invasion, let alone echoed Coyne’s 2003 call for Canada to join Moscow’s invasion?

Unlike promoting the US empire, the slightest hint of supporting Putin, Xi, Aristide, Maduro or whoever is in the crosshairs of Washington is a barrier to media employment. It’s also an obstacle to working in relevant Canadian government and ideological institutions from the intelligence agencies to military, Global Affairs, academia, think tanks and NGOs.

In A Propaganda System: How Canada’s Government, Corporations, Media and Academia Sell War and Exploitation I detail the hundreds of millions of dollars spent annually by Global Affairs, Veterans Affairs, National Defence and other ministries to articulate a one-sided version of Canada’s foreign policy. The corporate set spends tens of millions of dollars more. 

With the largest PR machine in the country, the Canadian Forces employ hundreds of public relations officers. The military also promotes its worldview through a history department, university and multiple journals. Additionally, the Department of National Defence finances many war commemorations, think tanks and “security” studies programs at universities.

Wealthy Canadians have set up a number of internationally oriented think tanks and university departments. The foreign affairs school at Canada’s leading university was financed by a mining magnate with an important personal stake in a particular foreign policy. The University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs was financed by the founder and long-time head of Barrick Gold, Peter Munk who praised Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, compared Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to Hitler and claimed Indigenous people have too much power.

Another billionaire launched the Balsillie School of International Affairs. The Canadian International Council, Canada’s leading foreign policy ‘think tank’ for most of a century, was collapsed into the university/think tank initiative funded by Research In Motion co-founder Jim Balsillie. 

The oldest global affairs school in Canada, the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, was set up six decades ago with $400,000 ($5 million today) from internationalgrain-shipping magnate and long-time Senator Norman Paterson. Twice under-secretary of External Affairs and leading architect of postwar Canadian foreign policy, Norman Robertson was the Patterson’s school’s first director and it continues to have close personnel and financial ties to Global Affairs. 

With 12,000 employeesGlobal Affairs has been well positioned to disseminate its worldview. It operates a history department, cultural initiatives, Radio Canada International and vast public relations operations. 

Now part of Global Affairs, the Canadian International Development Agency spawned and financed multiple “ideas” institutes and international development studies programs. For their part, international development NGOs receive hundreds of millions of dollars annually from Global Affairs, which leads to narrow criticism largely focused on advocating for greater Canadian aid.

Exploring the political economy of the left reveals the marginalization of peace and international solidarity voices. Peace and international solidarity groups have but a fraction of the resources available to unions and environmental groups. The salary of a couple union staffers exceeds the combined annual budgets of the Canadian Peace Congress, World Beyond War Canada, Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade and Canadian Voice of Women for Peace (Canadian unions have thousands of paid staff.) The vast majority of antiwar, Haiti, Palestine, Venezuela and mining injustice activism is volunteer work.

Any serious investigation into the funding of foreign policy ideas shows that the money flows almost entirely to the pro-US and corporate perspective. Paradoxically, the lopsided funding dynamic somehow gives credence to the notion that marginalized, usually volunteer, critics are the ones that are in fact ‘paid’ for their positions. By thoroughly marginalizing these ideas the dominant “propaganda system” has made these ideas appear to be outlandish and more easily dismissed as foreign funded.

The interplay between money and ideas is important to understanding Canadian foreign policy. Yes, follow the money. But rather than discredit marginalized perspectives challenging pro-corporate and US empire policies, honest people should acknowledge which way the dollars flow.

Yves Engler’s latest book is Stand on Guard for Whom?: A People’s History of the Canadian Military.