Just Because It’s Canadian, Does That Make It Good?

A few weeks ago, four Montreal-based GardaWorld (“fifth largest integrated physical security and cash logistics firm worldwide” — according to the company website) employees were kidnapped while providing security for BearingPoint Consultants in Iraq. In a front page Ottawa Citizen article headlined, “How a nice Quebec firm found itself in a war zone”, the head of the company deflected criticism of its 5,000 private soldiers in the Middle East by claiming, “we’re perceived differently because we’re Canadian.”

Of course he didn’t mention if the Iraqi mothers whose children have been shot by mercenaries (unaccountable to any law) feel that way on discovering the bullets originate from a Canadian company.

The company’s eagerness to point out their heritage is a strategy that milks Canadians’ deep-seated perception of this country’s altruism. Numerous studies demonstrate that Canadians’ self-appraisal of their country’s foreign policy is the highest in the world.

But do the facts fit our self-image?

It is well known that Canada participated militarily in the Boer War, First World War, Second World War, Korean War, first Gulf War, bombing of Serbia and the war in Afghanistan. What is less well known is that Canada did so without facing a serious threat of invasion and that none of these wars were morally justifiable. (WWII may have been justifiable after the fact, but
Canadian motives for participating were not a high-minded struggle against anti-semitism or fascism. In a summer 1937 meeting with Hitler, Prime Minister McKenzie King lauded the Nazi’s support for the Fascists in Spain and during the war the Canadian government had a “none is too many” policy on immigration for fleeing European Jews.) Canada’s entry into the first three wars was more or less automatic because this country was part of the British Empire. We joined the last four conflicts because, quite frankly, Canada had become part of the U.S. Empire.

Many of us cite peacekeeping as a great Canadian endeavor. Canada and the Early Cold War, a book financed by the Department of Foreign Affairs, lays the myth of benevolent peacekeeping to rest. “The more extreme version of this myth, which makes Lester Pearson [the founder of peacekeeping] into Herbert Evatt raging against Great Power dominance and transforms Canada’s peacekeeping into neutralism or even pacifism, receives no support in the
DCER [documents on Canadian external relations].” Through peacekeeping, Canada was fighting the Western world’s Cold War “by other means.”

Aid is probably the most benevolent aspect of Canadian foreign policy. Yet, an important principle of Canadian aid is that where the US kills, Canada provides aid. Canadian aid expanded drastically in South Vietnam during the American War. More recently, the three major recipients of Canadian aid are Iraq, Afghanistan and Haiti. In Haiti, that aid was used to help overthrow
an elected government and then legitimate the brutal 26-month coup regime.

Geopolitics has always been the primary reason for disbursing Canadian aid. In the wake of the Chinese revolution, Canada began its first significant [non–European] allocation of foreign aid through the Colombo plan. The man in charge of Canada’s participation in the plan, Nik Cavell, explained the rationale behind the plan. Communism “has made a great inroad in Asia … and is busy day and night softening up, and preparing, other populations ready for the day when they too can be made satellites of an ever-growing world of terrible totalitarian slavery of the human mind and body.”

If some of India and Pakistan’s post-colonial population had not set their sights on a communist solution to their troubles –- with the possibility of Soviet or Chinese assistance — Canada probably would not have been willing to provide aid. The Colombo plan was then extended to Commonwealth Africa and the Caribbean amidst fears the British Empire’s old territories would fall under the influence of the communist bloc.

A 1969 background paper for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) summarizes the rationale of Canadian aid. “To establish within recipient countries those political attitudes or commitments, military alliances or military bases that would assist Canada or Canada’s western allies to maintain a reasonably stable and secure international political
system. Through this objective, Canada’s aid programs would serve not only to help increase Canada’s influence within the developing world, but also within the western alliance.”

The second motivation driving Canadian aid is to advance capitalist interests. Initially all Canadian aid was tied, meaning that the money had to be spent on Canadian-produced goods or services. Even after four decades of criticism half of all Canadian aid is still tied. Additionally, many of the projects funded are chosen because they benefit Canadian corporate interests. A boon to Canadian-owned hotels and airlines, Canadian aid has been used to build airports throughout the Caribbean. And, by the late 1980s, aid became a way to coerce developing countries to adopt structural adjustment programs.

The third motivation behind Canadian aid is domestic: It aims to weaken the Quebec sovereignty movement and social movements generally across the country. In the late 1960s, Canada began to expand its aid to francophone nations as a way to placate Quebec nationalists. Prior to this, Canadian aid was focused on the recently decolonized former British colonies. The aid to the Francophonie was designed to convince Quebec nationalists that the Canadian government was sympathetic to francophone culture. Quebec’s large number of CIDA-funded international non-governmental organizations (and the jobs they provide, especially to young people) is a testament to the federal government’s policy of tying Quebecers to its overall aid objectives.

Of course, state funding for social/political organizations always has an element of co-optation. In the case of international assistance, the federal government would prefer activists join the Canadian University Services Overseas and go teach somewhere in Africa then organize to oppose the capitalist system at home. It’s a way of directing activists towards issues the government finds less politically sensitive as well as making them dependent on the federal government.

The other motivations behind Canadian aid are to feed the hungry, to build schools and other infrastructure, and to help people climb out of poverty. Unfortunately, these motivations are less acted upon than the ones cited above. That is because there are powerful actors in business and government who make sure their interests are satisfied before all others.

Unfortunately, most of us have, so far, paid more attention to the words than to the deeds of our governments and corporations. Only when the vast majority of Canadians pay attention to the reality of foreign affairs and demand altruistic aid, real international co-operation, benevolent peacekeeping instead of militarism, and the rule of law instead of an empire’s might, will these things happen.

Yves Engler is the author of 12 books. His latest book is Stand on Guard for Whom?: A People's History of the Canadian Military . Read other articles by Yves.

2 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Wes S said on August 5th, 2007 at 8:07am #

    Totally agree with the author. I am Canadian, but I do not support any of those foreign ineterventions. I even sent the email to then Prime Minister, Cretien, protesting the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. Surprisingly I received the reply, unsigned email, with all the lies that were oficially used to justify killing Serbian civilians.
    Unfortunately most of us Canadians are arrogant and do not accept the criticism that we might be just like US citizens. I felt this arrogance every time I talked international issues with my fellow Canadians. One of my managers made probably most idiotic statement, comparing Milosevic to Hitler. I did not know whether to cry or lough, insted I just left. This is just to show the example of many Canadians kind of thinking.

  2. sk said on August 5th, 2007 at 11:01am #

    Here’s one project where the “soft touch” of Canadians could come in handy. Maybe humanitarian coordinators in Ottawa can look into this and cobble together a Code Of Conduct that might alleviate the “appalling conditions” under which these workers are toiling (more importantly, that might counter the negative publicity being thus generated which is “sending exactly the wrong message to Iraq and the rest of the world about US respect for human rights.”)