Last month military forces trained by the Canadian Special Operational Regiment subdued a hijacker who took command of a Halifax-based CanJet plane at an airport partly run by Vancouver Airport Services. While Canadian companies and institutions played a major role in these events this drama did not, in fact, take place in Canada. It happened in Montego Bay.
Canada has long been influential in Jamaica and across the English-speaking Caribbean. Some prominent Canadians once wanted to add Britain’s Caribbean colonies to Canada’s expanding territory.
In the late 1870s the Canada First Movement sought “a closer political connection” with the British West Indies. By the early 1900s official Canadian policy supported annexing the British Empire’s Caribbean possessions (the various islands as well as British Honduras [Belize] and Guyana).
The West Indies Union movement reached its apex in the early 1900s, but the idea continued to find support after World War One. At the end of the conflict the other British Dominions (South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) that fought alongside London were compensated with German properties.
With no German colonies nearby Ottawa asked the Imperial War Cabinet if it could take possession of the British West Indies as compensation for Canada’s defence of the Empire. London balked.
Ottawa’s push to wrest control of the British Caribbean was spurred by insurance and banking companies, which entered the region when the Halifax Banking Company signed an agreement in 1837 with the Colonial Bank, a London headquartered operation that had a preeminent place in the British Caribbean.
Prior to opening a branch in Montréal, in 1882, the Merchants Bank of Halifax (later the Royal Bank) established itself in Bermuda. Most of the other major Canadian banks quickly followed suit.
According to The Economist, by April 2008 Canadian banks controlled “the English-speaking Caribbean’s three largest banks, with $42 billion in assets, four times those commanded by its forty-odd remaining locally owned banks.”
Canada has also played an important military role in the region. Ottawa has trained Jamaica’s security forces since not long after the country’s independence in 1958.
Canada, notes Canadian Caribbean Relations in Transition, “cooperated closely with Jamaica in setting up the latter’s national security organizations. Cadet training schemes were followed by reciprocal high-level military visits and consultations. Aircraft were sold to Jamaica and pilot training was undertaken. Technical assistance was initiated and expanded to include joint training exercises.”
Canadian military training in Jamaica has been particularly controversial. When “a battalion of 850 Canadian troops landed in the mountainous Jamaican interior to conduct a tropical training exercise” in the early 70s, Abeng, a leftist Jamaican paper, cried foul. The paper’s editors claimed Ottawa was preparing to intervene to protect Montréal-based Alcan’s bauxite facilities in the event of civil unrest and/or in case a socialist government took office.
While numerous books dealing with Canadian-Caribbean relations scoff at Abeng’s accusations, the archives confirm the paper’s suspicions. “Subsequent [to 1979] planning for intervention seems to bear out the Abeng accusations,” notes military historian Sean Maloney.
Code-named, NIMROD CAPPER, “the objective of the operation revolved around securing and protecting the Alcan facilities from mob unrest and outright seizure or sabotage.” Later, Canadian military planning resumed from where NIMROD CAPPER began with an exercise titled “Southern Renewal,” beginning in 1988.
Maloney explains: “In this case a company from two RCR [Royal Canadian Reserves] was covertly inserted to ‘rescue’ Canadian industrial personnel with knowledge of bauxite deposits seized by Jamaican rebels and held hostage.”
The Canadian navy has intervened repeatedly in the Caribbean. According to Maloney, “Since 1960, Canada has used its military forces at least 26 times in the Caribbean to support Canadian foreign policy. In addition, Canada planned three additional operations, including two unilateral interventions into Caribbean states.”
On top of defending commercial interests, Maloney says Canada’s navy and military regularly exercise in Jamaica as part of an economic competition with the U.S. Canadian soldiers garrisoned Bermuda from 1914-1916 and St. Lucia from 1915-1919. They also replaced British forces in Jamaica from 1940-1946, as well as in Bermuda and the Bahamas during segments of this period.
Perceptions of race underlay the use of Canadian troops during World War Two. According to Canadian Defence Minister Norman Rogers, the governor of Jamaica “had intimated that it will be risky to remove all white troops.”
The situation in the Bahamas was even more sensitive. In June 1942 rioting broke out over the low wages received by black labourers. Canadian troops arrived in the Bahamas just after the riots and their main task was to protect a paranoid governor, the Duke of Windsor.
While the English Caribbean rarely registers on Canadians’ political radar it’s the region of the world where Canada’s has had the greatest influence.
But the sentiment that Canada has imperial tendencies in the Caribbean is widely held there. “Canada is in fact, already sometimes classed with the United States and Britain as an imperialist exploiter in Jamaica and elsewhere,” noted a book published in 1988.
In the midst of protests in the early 1970s against Canadian banks in Trinidad, Maclean’s magazine quoted an External Affairs official who noted that “we’re not colonialists by intent, but by circumstances. We’ve taken on a neocolonial aura there.”
When RCMP officers were hired to run Antigua’s police force in early 2008 the National Post quoted a Canadian expat explaining how “some see a climate of neocolonialism.”
Yves Engler is the author of the forthcoming The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy. To find about his book tour in May/June: http://blackbook.foreignpolicy.ca/