The divemaster on a boat moored at the site of Ras Mohammed in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt asked the people on the deck where they hailed from. My dive buddy volunteered that she was from Hungary and I from Canada. Another man at the back said that he was from Canada as well.
Afterwards, he shuffled over behind me and asked, “Are you really from Canada?”
I said, “Yes.”1
He responded, “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m really from the US.”
This was in 1998. At that time some Americans were still wearing Canadian flags on their backpacks to hide their country of origin. Another incident in 2002 made clear to me why they would do so. I was walking from my apartment in Aqaba, Jordan when a throng of young children began throwing rocks at me and shouting, “Yankee go home.” The children, roughly aged 9 to 12, were well aware of America’s role in the oppression of the Palestinian people.
Does that maple leaf on a knapsack curry much favor today? Yves Engler delves into that in his latest book, The Ugly Canadian (Fernwood Publishing and Red Publishing), with a focus on the corporatist, neoliberal, and militaristic foreign policy of the Stephen Harper government and his Conservative Party.
Engler writes with a purpose in mind: “Only when enough of us care is there a possibility of developing a counterweight to the narrow self-interests of corporations and wealth holders. Only if Canadians of good will and social conscience act together to demand a foreign policy based on solidarity and mutual support will there be any possibility of achieving that goal.”
“The Conservatives simply don’t care what the rest of the world thinks. In fact, their political godfathers celebrate international hostility. To a large extent the Conservatives take their foreign policy cues from the right wing of the US Republican Party.”
The Ugly Canadian examines the rightward tilt on environmentalism, corporatism (particularly its lobbying for the mining sector), militarism, meddling in Islamic countries, and its unstinting support for the apartheid, occupier state of Israel.
Engler opens the first chapter, “Tar Sands Diplomacy” with a warning: “No issue threatens humankind more than anthropogenic global warming.” The vast scientific consensus on this is undeniable; yet, Canada backed out of its commitment to the Kyoto Protocol under Harper, who once wrote “Kyoto [Protocol] is essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations.”
Canada has been criticized for “bullying” and “arm-twisting” developing countries to achieve its preferred agenda which favors development of the heavy, dirty bitumen in Alberta. The Conservatives have sidestepped democratic idealism to push this agenda as when the Climate Change Accountability Act was defeated without debate and holding a snap vote in the Senate when opposition senators were not present.
Despite the deleterious environmental consequences, the Harper policy is full bore for the Tar Sands. Any opposition is to be discouraged. Canada has gone so far as to muzzle government scientists and cut funding for independent climate scientists.
In April 2012, Harper claimed, “Canadians are justly proud of our mining industry for its elevated sense of corporate social responsibility.”
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? Do most of us want our tax dollars promoting the narrow self-interest of wealthy shareholders at the expense of common people living in some poor part of the world?”
To be fair, Canada’s mining sector was negatively stigmatized before Harper formed a government.2 That reputation precedes Canada these days. In Chiapas, Mexico, governor-general Michaëlle Jean and deputy foreign minister Peter Kent were told “Canada get out.”
Engler writes, “Pick almost any country in the Global South — from Papua New Guinea to Ghana, Ecuador and the Philippines — and you will find a Canadian-run mine that has caused environmental devastation or been the scene of violent confrontations.”
The Ugly Canadian criticizes NGO complicity with the Canadian government over mining interests:
[Canadian International Development Agency] CIDA-funded NGO-mining contracts are problematic for a number of reasons. First, taxpayers should not subsidize the social responsibilities of highly profitable mining companies. In addition to this obvious point, such CIDA contracts further weaken NGOs critical of Canadian operations while strengthening those groups willing to defend and work with mining companies.
The Ugly Canadian notes an October 2011 Globe and Mail Business magazine report of 19 Tanzanian villagers being killed by police and security guards at the North Mara mine while usually searching for gold. An aberration?
In 1994 Canada’s Kahama Mining Corporation had the Tanzanian police forcibly evacuate artisanal miners from the gold-rich Bulyanhulu area while the company bulldozers filled in the shafts. However, 57 miners were buried alive, an allegation affirmed by the Lawyer’s Environmental Action Team of Tanzania.2 Sadly, it seems that the lesson learned from similar violence against village gold miners is that mining corporations in collusion with the Canadian government and Tanzanian police can gloss over massacres.
Harper’s government follows the western imperialist line in the Middle East. Thus, as The Ugly Canadian makes known, Canada supported Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt; it supports the Al-Khalifa regime in Bahrain and the Saud regime, but it opposed the Libya government aligned with Gaddafi and seeks to undermine the Assad government in Syria.
Gaddafi was tortured and murdered. Engler writes that Harper “celebrated the dictator’s summary execution.” I would challenge Engler’s statement that Gaddafi was a dictator; it smacks of accepting western state propaganda at face value. Gaddafi has been known as a leader of the revolution, but he declared “separation of the state from the revolution” and vested power in the masses. The Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya was the most economically advanced state in Africa.
It is well known within social justice circles that Stephen Harper is the best friend of the Israeli Right (although leaders of Canada’s other political parties vie for that dubious distinction).
Extremists are drawn to Harper’s Conservatives. Engler argues, “… that at the base of Harper’s brand of neoconservatism is a coalition of extreme pro-US capitalists and right-wing Christians. Uncritical support for Israel is a key ‘principle’ uniting this base.”3
The Ugly Canadian relates how Harper immediately distanced Canada from the Hamas government, and when a Palestine Authority-Hamas unity government was in the works, he sought to destroy it. Harper has engaged in financial blackmail to aid Israel internationally. Harper’s party even supports tax write-offs for illegal Israeli settlements.
Lebanon and Iran and are usually depicted by Israeli and Zionist media as enemies of Israel and the West. Consequently, Harper has been a steadfast denouncer of Iran.
Engler provides examples of the demonization: “Conservative officials compared Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler and the prime minister claimed Iran’s leaders ‘frighten me.’ In January 2012 Harper told a Calgary radio station ‘Iran… is the world’s most serious threat to international peace and security.’”
Under Harper, Canada’s image on the defense front has undergone a wholesale makeover. Gone is the burnished image of Canada as blue-helmeted peacekeepers and in is the image of Canada, the warrior nation.
The image is proudly proclaimed. Defense minister Peter MacKay boasted: “… We are big players in NATO. We’re a country that has become a go-to nation in response to situations like what we’re seeing in Libya, what we saw in Haiti.”
Engler sees a creeping militaristic jingoism in Canadian society. That militarism is captured by unions, the media, and by shirts reading “Support the Troops.” More worryingly, Engler finds, was the “vicious” browbeating of 16 University of Regina professors for opposing the “unquestioning glorification of military action.”
As with other western countries in the aftermath of 9-11, Canada has become a securitized state where “Canadian private security companies face no controls on professional background, criminal history, humanitarian training etc.”
What does it mean for Canada to be a Warrior State? As The Ugly Canadian makes clear, it means lying and deception.
“The Conservatives repeatedly lied about Canada’s role in Afghanistan. They deceived Canadians about prisoner abuse, development aid and the reason for fighting.”
It means war crimes: “A JTF2 [roughly, a Canadian SAS or Delta Force) member said he felt his commanders ‘encouraged’ them to commit war crimes” … including shooting surrendering Afghans.
It means braggadocio: Engler quotes Captain Ray Wiss who praised Canadian troops as “the best at killing people … We are killing a lot more of them than they are of us, and we have been extraordinarily successful …”
Harper has pursued a hardline right-wing approach in the western hemisphere. Harper supported the overthrow of Honduran president Zelaya. The Ugly Canadian says “particular corporate interests motivated Ottawa’s hostility towards Zelaya.” In particular, Montréal-based Gildan, one of the world’s biggest blank T-shirt makers with half of its production located in Honduras.
Harper’s support for the coup in Honduras had the additional goal of stymieing progressivism occurring throughout “Latin America.” To this end, writes Engler, the Conservatives sought to bolster right-wing governments with “aid” redirected from Africa.
Neoliberalism is a major plank in the Harper platform. Therefore, Canada blocked a Tobin tax for banking transactions, contrary to its OECD partners.
Engler proposes that a multi-issue network be established with a countrywide popular education campaign to “Stop Harper’s Crimes Against Humanity,” to build a coalition of the various organizations already working on these issues… ultimately leading to “a popular tribunal with high profile judges to investigate Harper’s crimes against humanity…”
Engler knows where of he speaks. He was involved in organizing with others to bring about the defeat of former Liberal Foreign Affairs minister Pierre Pettigrew.
Some Canadians used to feel smug when Americans were saddled with the awkward and violent presidency of George W. Bush. Only Americans would vote for a warmongering leader. Today that smugness has been wiped away. Harper may be more glib than Bush, but in many ways he stands even farther to the Right. The Ugly Canadian is a damning indictment of cruel, selfish capitalism that dominates federal politics in Canada today. It evinces that ugliness can befall any people anywhere. Zealous patriotism is the vehicle that drives home the ugliness. The Ugly Canadian proffers a way out of ugliness: caring enough to do something about it is absolutely essential for social justice.
- I do not, however, label myself as a Canadian. I am born in the traditional territories of First Nations, and I do not recognize the rights of invaders to dispossess peoples anywhere. [↩]
- See Kim Petersen, “Canadian Predation in Africa,” Dissident Voice, 5 June 2003. [↩] [↩]
- Yves Engler covered Canada’s support for Israel in Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid. See my review: “The New Canadian Paradigm: Embracing Apartheid,” Dissident Voice, 2 March 2010. [↩]