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Imperialism and the Bully’s Coat


Linda McQuaig’s new book, Holding the Bully’s Coat: Canada and the US Empire, is far better than most on the subject of Canadian foreign policy. Unfortunately, that is damning with faint praise indeed.

For much of the past year I have been doing research for a new book about the history of Canadian foreign policy from an internationalist, working class perspective. What I have learned, quite frankly, has shocked me. That a writer as good as McQuaig can avoid so much that has been wrong with Canadian foreign policy was almost as surprising.

The problem is nationalism.

Like much of the nationalist left, McQuaig fails to discuss the destructive nature of Canadian capital around the world. Instead the harmful actions of Canadian companies are somehow made out to be the fault of the USA. But, it is clear, with the aid of Canadian diplomacy, Canadian corporate interests, past and present, have preyed on communities around the world, acting in exactly the same fashion as better known U.S. companies.

In the environmentally devastating mining sector alone, there are currently more than a thousand Canadian companies working abroad. In Guatemala, Canadian-owned nickel company Skye Resources has spurred the forcible eviction of Mayan Q’eqchi’ communities. All the while the Canadian ambassador to Guatemala tries to discredit opposition to the mine.

In Ecuador, Canadian-owned Ascendant Copper Corporation hired paramilitary forces to attack community opposition to its mine (see the June 2007 issue of Z Magazine for an in depth article on the topic). Similarly, Barrick Gold continues the development of the Pasuca Lama mine project in Chile despite thousands of protestors.

Historically, Caribbean nationalists have long opposed the considerable presence of Canadian banks in the region. With financial operations across the Americas, Canadian banks are demanding the inclusion of NAFTA’s Chapter 11-style accords in the trade agreements Canada continues to push in Central America and the Caribbean.

McQuaig, an anti-American Canadian nationalist, lauds former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson in Holding the Bully’s Coat. Ironically, Pearson did as much as any politician to move Canada in the direction of the US empire (and away from the British empire). Pearson’s strong support for Israel’s founding can be partially explained by his pro-US sentiment. It is important to remember that Pearson won the 1963 election at least in part by denouncing Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker’s refusal to station US nuclear missiles on Canadian soil. After he won the election, the missiles came to Canada.

McQuaig’s reverance for Pearson emanates from his role as “founder” of UN peacekeeping during his time as Canada’s foreign minister. After Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt in 1956, Canada helped establish a UN peacekeeping force to smooth over hostilities. Supporters of Canadian “peacekeeping” usually overlook the fact that Canada supported the UN mission to Egypt at the behest of the US government, which opposed the British, French and Israeli invasion (even threatening to cut off Britain’s much needed IMF funding in opposition to the offensive). Although he had sided with the Americans, Pearson sought to help Britain and France “save face.” Canadian peacekeepers were initially rejected and ultimately expelled from Egypt under accusations of imperialism from President Gamal Nasser.

McQuaig (and much of the Canadian left) fail to discuss why Canada initiated peacekeeping missions. Most often, peacekeeping was Canada’s contribution to the Cold War. As right-wing historian, Sean Maloney, in “Canada and UN Peacekeeping: Cold War by Other Means -1945-1970″ asserts, “during the Cold War, the United States, the United Kingdom and France, all permanent members of the Security Council, remained aloof in several difficult circumstances as a sort of plausible deniability. Canada was the West’s champion in the Cold War UN arena.” Contrary to popular understanding, Canadian internationalism has rarely been at odds with American belligerence. As far as I can tell, Canadian peacekeeping missions have always received support from the US. During the Cold War, the US did not dispatch soldiers for UN peacekeeping, which made Canada’s contribution especially important.

Ignoring the power politics that have historically driven UN peacekeeping has resulted in unwitting support by much of the Canadian left for the imperial agenda. Western mining companies, for instance, benefited from the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the Congo during the early 1960s as Belgium’s colonial rule came to an end. Threatened by Patrice Lumumba’s desire for increased national control over Congo’s resources, Belgium and the US worked to eliminate the Congolese prime minister. Canada provided important military logistics and political support to the UN force largely responsible for Lumumba’s assassination.

After combing through hundreds of books on Canadian foreign policy, I have come to the surprising realization that pro-US Canadian commentators are often clearer about the motives behind our foreign interventions than those on the Canadian nationalist left. Having constructed a Canadian identity in opposition to US imperialism, many Canadian nationalists are forced to mythologize the history of Canadian foreign policy. Responding to the myth that Canada has primarily been the defender of peaceful independent internationalism, pro-US commentators argue that Canada’s foreign interventions were not merely benevolent. According to the pro-US writers, they have been designed to further this country’s interests, in particular maintaining close relations to Canada’s largest trading partner.

Contrary to the mythology of Canada as a force for good in the world, this country has a legion of skeletons in its foreign policy closet. From the troops that joined the British in Sudan in 1885 to the thousands of soldiers who pillaged and murdered the Boers during the war of 1898-1902 in South Africa, Canada has long sided with empire.

Precipitating the Cold War, Canada sent troops to halt the Russian revolution and then sided with the fascists in 1936, blocking weapons and volunteers from Spain’s elected government, all the while arming the Japanese as they occupied Korea and massacred the Chinese. In the first major UN military operation, Canada sent 27,000 troops between 1950-53 to fight in Korea – largely as part of the US campaign against nationalism and communism in East Asia.

A former historian of the Canadian army in NATO and employee of the department of national defense, Maloney writes: “On twelve occasions between 1915 and 1993 Canadian naval forces were used for ‘Gunboat Diplomacy’ in the region [Caribbean and Latin America], to ‘exert a delicate and discreet threat [short of declared war] to secure national objectives.’ Notable operations included Mexico (1915), Costa Rica (1921), El Salvador (1932), St. Lucia (1958), and Haiti on multiple occasions since 1963.” In the case of El Salvador, a Canadian naval ship provided important support to the dictatorship putting down an indigenous rebellion that ultimately led to the execution of famous El Salvadoran revolutionary, Farabundo Marti.

Like all of McQuaig’s books, Holding the Bully’s Coat is well crafted and clear. It can even be seen in some measure as politically useful.

There is no doubt that the Canadian identification with both the UN and peacekeeping was a factor in Canada’s unwillingness to participate in the invasion of Iraq (Although we should not forget that Canada trained Iraqi police, sent a naval vessel to the region and deployed troops to Afghanistan to relieve US troops for Iraq etc.)

But while McQuaig’s promotion of UN peacekeeping is preferable to US unilateralism, there is a danger in her failure to discuss the predatory nature of Canadian capital, the skeletons in the Canadian foreign policy closet and the politics that often drive UN missions.

In the case of Canada’s UN sanctioned intervention into Haiti, the nationalist left was all but silent in the face of this brutal crime. After constructing a framework that idolized the UN, and Canada’s history within the organization, it became difficult to criticize the UN occupation of Haiti and Canada’s role in overthrowing Haiti’s elected government. Ignoring the truth is always dangerous.

Yves Engler is the author of two books: Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority (with Anthony Fenton) and Playing Left Wing: From Rink Rat to Student Radical. Both books are published by RED/Fernwood and available at www.turning.ca or http://infoshopdirect.com/redpublishing/ in the US.

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