The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper's Foreign Policy

By Yves Engler
Fernwood Publishing co-published with Red Publishing, November 30, 2011, $19.95

For a long time now, there has been a serious weakness on the part of progressive movements in the most over-developed countries of the world. The ability to recognize that so much of the privileges we enjoy, but that governments and corporations enjoy even more so, comes from years of exploitation, subjugation and extreme levels of violence towards countries of the Global South, but too often, our history and continued practice of imperialism is either forgotten or ignored.  In The Ugly Canadian, Yves Engler sets out to provide “a small spark in lighting a fire of interest in Canadian foreign policy.”

It doesn’t take Engler long to get to the sordid truth of the matter.  In “Tar Sands Diplomacy” and “Mining the World,” the first two chapters of his books, the dealings and effects of a toxic industry are exposed.  As Engler explains:

“On one side sits the Conservative government, a plethora of right-wing think tanks and some of the richest companies in the world.  On the other side are a mass of individuals, First Nations and environmental organizations appalled by the tar sands’ mammoth ecological toll.”

However, as with many issues of policy, it seems that the quotes of government officials themselves do the most justice to the ignorance and supremacist complex that continue to run through the highest levels with government. So, when the environmentalist movement in the U.S. pressured Barack Obama to block the construction of TransCanada’s planned Keystone XL pipeline, Canadian immigration minister Jason Kenney responded with a tweet, in September 2011:

“Why does the left prefer Hugo Chavez oil to CDN’s ethical oil?”

The arrogance continues to Mongolia, of which Robert Friedland, of Vancouver-based Ivanhoe, described his mining ventures in the following manner:

“So we’re coming in from outer space and landing at Oyu Tolgoi… And the nice thing about this: there’s no people around… It does not snow here.  You’ve got lots of room for waste dumps.”

These snippets into the mind-sets of Canadian elites are part of a wider case that Engler portrays in this book.  Whether it is through entering agreements for military bases with Kuwait and Germany, threatening the government of Iran, being “the most pro-Israel country in the world”, or turning a blind eye to human rights violations on the part of monarchies in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Canada’s foreign policy has consistently followed a pattern of profit-seeking and war-mongering. Perhaps these are more widely-recognised as features of U.S., Israeli and British foreign policies, but, as Engler concludes, “like a good follower, [Canadian Prime Minister Stephen] Harper has enthusiastically gone along with his friends.”

It is interesting to note the distinctions in statements made by the Canadian government, depending on whether a country is considered friend or enemy.  When, in the midst of an intensive bombing campaign of Gaza, in January 2009, the Venezuelan government cut off all diplomatic relations with Israel, “The Canadian embassy in Caracas took over Israel’s diplomatic relations there.  Canada officially became Israel, at least in Venezuela.”  As Engler thoroughly analyses and decisively proves, the Canadian government continued to support Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, and continue to hope that the status quo, from which they can benefit, does not change too much for their liking.  Contrast this with Libya, where just a few days after “up to 500 demonstrated in Benghazi,” Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon felt able to pronounce that “It is clear that the only acceptable course of action for Gaddafi is to… immediately vacate his position and authority.”  In fact, as is shown in Engler’s work, it was not clear at all, but as the author notes, “popular attitudes are irrelevant to the Conservatives.”  It seems that the purchase of F-35s and protecting the interests of the Suncor oil company were far more prominent in pushing Canada to join the war on Libya than concerns for human beings.

However, as Engler readily admits, these features of foreign policy can seem, at times, like they are a long way from the lives of ordinary Canadians.  Perhaps, then, people could have been surprised, if they didn’t know about the murder of activists opposing Canadian mining projects in El Salvador and Mexico, that:

“On a pre-planned visit to Chiapas, Governor-General Michaelle Jean and deputy foreign minister Peter Kent were greeted with chants of ‘Canada get out’.”

Perhaps, if they had been reading mainstream newspapers and listening to the governments constant demonization of Iran, they would have been surprised when:

“[Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin] Mehmanparast denounced the Canadian government’s conduct towards Canada’s aboriginal population in the Attawapiskat region of northern Ontario province and called on the United Nations to probe human rights violations in the area.”

In conclusion, Engler’s book is a passionate call for Canadians to pay attention to what is being done in their name.  Not only is his research detailed, accurate and at times surprising, and his analysis incisive, but he offers concrete actions to be taken as a path to the future.  It remains to be seen if the Canadian government will continue to base their foreign policy on war and destruction, or if they will open their eyes to the resistance to it.—Jody McIntyre

Jody McIntyre is a journalist, author and political activist. He has written for the the New Internationalist, The Independent, The Guardian, The Observer, Al Akhbar English, the New Statesman, Electronic Intifada and Disability Now. He was Guest Editor for the October 2012 issue of the New Internationalist.

He is also the co-director of a forthcoming documentary on the Venezuelan ‘Hip-Hop Revolucion’ movement with Pablo Navarrete.

For updates, please follow @JodyMcIntyre.