Defeating Ugly Canadians

If you’re reading this you probably know that the Harper-led Conservative government has ramped up the corporate and military orientation of Canadian foreign policy. But, the extent to which they’ve done so will likely be a surprise.

In The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy, I detail the sordid story of this country’s sabotage of international environmental efforts, of a government in bed with tar sands producers and a mining industry widely criticized for abuses. My forthcoming book also discusses the Conservatives’ bombing of Libya, ongoing war in Afghanistan and support for aggression in Iran, Lebanon and Somalia. In effect, Harper`s Conservatives have designed Canadian foreign policy to please the most reactionary, short-sighted sectors of the Conservative Party’s base — evangelical Christian Zionists, extreme right-wing Jews, Islamophobes, the military-industrial-complex as well as mining and oil executives.

A frank assessment of the current situation is sobering. Over the past six and a half years the Conservatives have been on the wrong side of almost every significant international issue. Going forward they seem keen on supporting US/Israeli warmongering and deploying more Canadian troops abroad while on climate and mining justice issues they are barrelling ahead with their pro-corporate agenda.

Considering the situation, it is imperative that we build a political movement that can challenge the Conservatives most extreme plans and gradually move Ottawa towards a foreign policy that more closely represents the majority of Canadians’ attitudes and interests. But the only way to do so is to mobilize grassroots people power, which is not easy to do when foreign affairs decisions are far removed from most Canadians day to day lives.

What to do? First off, it’s vital to make foreign policy a major topic of discussion in the lead-up to the next election. But, we can’t wait for the opposition parties to do all the work. If we expect any sustained discussion in the House of Commons or on the campaign trail, grassroots groups need to force the issue.

All those working for peace, in solidarity with Palestine and Haiti as well as those challenging destructive Canadian mining practices and the government’s abominable environmental record, should make common cause. We need to build a multi-issue alliance that forthrightly challenges Harper’s destructive foreign policy. Individually, the groups working on these campaigns aren’t strong enough to have a significant impact. Together it might be a different story. The combined energy, creativity and resources could ignite a movement that is more powerful than the sum of its parts. It may even tip the scales in favour of ecological and social justice.

No multi-issue network is possible if we ghettoize our campaigns. It is important to highlight how issues are connected. No one doubts that those challenging the Conservatives’ support for mining interests abroad and tar sands producers are fighting against a similar corporate mentality, but it may be less obvious what groups fighting for Palestinian rights and the environment have in common. The answer is that in addition to having a common foe, both Palestine solidarity and climate justice groups would win a substantial victory if the Conservatives were forced to follow the established UN consensus. More generally, the Conservatives’ position on these two issues reflects deference to power no matter the social consequence.

One way to build the cross issue alliance is to highlight how a specific misdeed fits the pattern of the Conservatives pro- corporate/pro-empire foreign policy. Too often, groups try to isolate their critique by claiming Canada is a force for good except for the one particular immoral position being criticized.

I propose a multi-issue network be established with a countrywide popular education campaign to “Stop Harper’s Crimes Against Humanity.” As part of the campaign let’s produce half a million stickers with the above slogan and four bullet points touching on climate change, mining, Palestinian rights and militarism. The stickers will direct people to a website with information on the issues. Part of the goal of the first phase of the campaign is to build a coalition of the various organizations already working on these issues.

If the campaign gains traction, a popular tribunal with high profile judges to investigate Harper’s crimes against humanity should be organized. One medium-term goal of a cross-issue network could be to target five or six ridings where Conservative MPs are vulnerable and where the network can mobilize people to poster/leaflet/rally. After establishing the ridings, we should begin a concerted campaign in each of them to draw attention to Harper’s crimes against humanity. How about covering the chosen ridings with thousands of posters and stickers on issues ranging from climate justice to Palestinian rights and distributing leaflets in every mailbox? (This is an entirely doable project. During the 2006 election a small group of solidarity activists distributed 15,000 leaflets and put up 2000 posters in a similar campaign that contributed to the defeat of then foreign minister Pierre Pettigrew because of his role in overthrowing the elected government of Haiti.)

When criticizing Harper’s foreign policy let’s be forthright. If we want people to take the time to investigate issues that are distant from their daily lives it’s particularly important to convey the gravity of the situation. We should be clear that foreign military interventions kill and that the Conservatives’ climate policy is devastating many of the world’s most vulnerable. Let the opposition parties soften the language or package the information in a politically palatable way. Our goal should be to force open the narrow parameters of foreign-policy debate. To move beyond what Noam Chomsky calls “the bounds of the expressible.”

We absolutely need to shake Canadians from their complacency. Many people oppose the Conservatives bid to undermine international climate negotiations and are uncomfortable with their unflinching support for Israeli policy. It’s time to turn that discomfort into anger and the anger into action.

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.