Confronting Canada's colonialist past

Orienting Canada traces the relationship between racism and Canadian foreign policy

| April 19, 2012
Confronting Canada's colonialist past

Orienting Canada: Race, Empire, and the Transpacific

by John Price
(UBC Press,
2011;
$34.95)

In Orienting Canada, John Price, professor of history at the University of Victoria focuses on 20th century racism and on Canada's role as junior partner in British and U.S. imperialism. This is a work of scholarship and an engrossing narrative that should be widely read.

Anti-Asian racism in Canada in the first half of the 20th century has been well documented. Immigrants from China, Japan, and India faced head taxes and outright prohibitions. Laws excluded Canadians of Asian origins from neighbourhoods, post-secondary education and professions. Japanese Canadians were forcibly removed from coastal areas during World War II.

Price rejects the view that racism was driven from the bottom-up. Racist mobs in British Columbia did include wage workers and shopkeepers, but racism came from the top down. Grounded in imperialist domination, anti-Asian racism was openly advocated by leading Canadians like Wilfred Laurier, Clifford Sifton, Mackenzie King and Robert Borden.

The Axis powers who intended to replace British and U.S. domination with their own imperialism were aggressively racist: the Nazis proclaimed Germans to be the superior race; Japanese rulers claimed their island people were superior to the masses of mainland Asia. The defeat of Axis powers and the rise of anti-colonial movements discredited explicit racism, but racism did not immediately disappear.

After Japan's surrender, U.S., British, Canadian and other non-Asian prisoners of war were immediately released and repatriated. The Occupation Authority -- dominated by the U.S. and including Canada -- attempted to compel Chinese and Korean war prisoners to continue the forced labour imposed on them by Japanese imperialism. They were repatriated only after mass protests, work stoppages and sit-ins.

Echoes of anti-Asian racism persist in the still widely held view that the United States nearly single-handedly defeated Japan in World War II. The truth is that the bulk of the Japanese army was tied down in China. China suffered tens of millions of military and civilian casualties. Japan lost more soldiers in China than in the war against the U.S. and its allies, but Chinese resistance to occupation was not contained. Once Hitler's armed forces had surrendered in Europe, and the Soviet Union began moving troops east -- before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- the Japanese high command knew that defeat was imminent.

After World War II, anti-communism replaced racism as the justification for continued imperialist domination. In Asia, the war against Communism was horrendously destructive. Price quotes U.S. general Curtis Lemay saying, "We burned down just about every city in North and South Korea-we killed off over a million civilians and drove several million more from their homes." Canada sent 6,000 troops, suffered 1,500 casualties, more than 500 dead. Price provides evidence that Canadian as well as American troops deliberately targeted civilians.

In Indo-China, the U.S., Britain and Canada agreed to aid France in reasserting its imperial control. In 1954, after French armies surrendered, the U.S. began to directly intervene. Although Canada did not send troops to Vietnam, Canada went along with U.S. violations of the international treaty that had ended French control, and covertly provided material support for the U.S. intervention.

Orienting Canada sheds light on the tragic death of Herbert Norman. Norman, a leading Canadian diplomat and expert on Japan was a colleague of Lester B. Pearson in Foreign Affairs. He first came to U.S. attention after being seconded to General MacArther's intelligence staff shortly after the war. He later served as Canada's representative on the Far Eastern Commission, the Allied Occupation Authority. Norman questioned U.S.
unilateralism and the use of anti-Asian "yellow peril" rhetoric. U.S. officials responded by accusing him of being a Communist and a spy. Although investigations showed no substance to these accusations, the Department did transfer him to less sensitive postings. In 1957 U.S. authorities opened a new round of investigations. Norman, then Canada's ambassador to Egypt, fell to his death.Al Engler

Al Engler is a long-time Vancouver trade unionist, social activist, and author. His Economic Democracy, the working-class alternative to capitalism was published by Fernwood in 2010.

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