Beyond the Myth of Canadian Innocence: Yves Engler takes on Canadian Imperialism
Left, Right: Marching to the Beat of Imperial Canada
By Yves Engler
Black Rose Books, Montreal
by Tom Sandborn
My friends from Chicago think Canada is a paradise of social justice and humane governance. Michael is a cherished old comrade from peace movement work in the 1960s in San Francisco and his wife Carolyn is an extremely intelligent and progressive university administrator in the City with Broad Shoulders. When they visited Vancouver this summer for the first time, they were both very vocal indeed about how much more civilized and progressive Canada is than their home country.
While recognizing that in contrast to TrumpAmerica, almost any mildly progressive bourgeois democracy would look good, I had to try to disabuse them of the illusion (I think of it as the Michael Moore syndrome) that Canada has somehow freed itself from the racism, sexism, class oppression and collusion with imperialism that deform any country that is still in the toils of the International Capitalist Conspiracy.
The illusion of Canadian innocence is problematic enough when it appears in sympathetic American visitors, but, to the extent that it is adopted by Canadian progres-sives, it can work to confuse our analysis and hamper our joint efforts for international solidarity, social justice and environmental sanity.
Yves Engler, the author of Left, Right, has devoted his considerable talents and intelligence to a body of work designed to demystify the real nature of Canada, with a special focus on Canada’s support for the imperial regimes controlled by Britain and the United States, and on the made-in-Canada imperialism that has character-ized the country’s relationship to indigenous nations here and to the victims of colonialism around the world. His work includes nine other books and prolific journalism both on line and in hard copy, and he has been an important critical voice to the left of the NDP calling on all Canadians who see ourselves as progressives to take a long look at Canadian illusions of innocence and realities of capitalist entanglement both at home and abroad.
“Left, Right” continues this work of myth busting with a detailed look at all the ways Canada operates as an imperial power in its own right and all the ways Canadian governments have colluded in the imperial adventures of two major world empires. While it can be painful reading, this is an important book that should be read by everyone in Canada who considers themselves to be progressive anti-imperialists, and by those who might be persuaded to take such a stance.
In this and his earlier books, Engler has articulated an eloquent critique of Canadian foreign policy as fun-damentally “imperialism light,” exercising the nation’s power and moral prestige to support imperial adventures. Examples of this support range from the Nile expedition against Sudanese rebels in 1884-85 and the second Boer War in 1889 on through to support for American imperial adventures including the Vietnam War, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia at the end or the 20th century and the 2011 attacks on Libya. He also details the role of Canadian banks in the Caribbean and Canadian based mining companies around the world. He presents a scathing account of Canadian involvement in the removal from office and assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1961. The author says that the only war Canada has fought that was genuinely moral was WWII, and has scathing observations about the hidden and evil roots of WWI and the Korean War that will challenge the presumptions of many readers. Some readers, including this reviewer, might disagree with the assessment that WWII was a just war, despite the hideous nature of the Nazi regime. But that is an argument for another day.
Engler argues that the Canadian left has been largely ineffective in understanding and countering these made-in-Canada misdeeds because we have failed to be rigorous enough in our analysis and because we have too often bought into versions of the Canadian innocence myth. He is particularly critical of voices on the left who champion Canadian “peacekeeping” missions and fail to see them, as he does, as essentially covert ways to support the existing capitalist world order. He considers Lester Pearson a war criminal and the invention of UN sponsored peacekeeping a fraud. Active in Haiti solidarity work through much of his career, Engler is particularly critical of Canada’s role in the anti-Aristide coup it helped engineer and in the subsequent imposition of a regime more reliably pro-Western and pro-business class.
But Engler is not just a critic of others on the left, although that is his primary focus in this book. He has spoken out vigorously against right wing ideology and business class mouthpieces in earlier work. That said, his comments about the NDP, Naomi Klein, the Rideau Institute, the CCPA and other groups and individuals generally seen as on the left will give many readers pause. But he has a proposal for action, not just a list of criticisms. He argues for the creation of a website and network of local volunteer groups under the name the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute, a site and network devoted to critically examining the imperial edges of Canadian policy and linking groups and individuals who would like to change them.
This is a provocative and challenging book and a must read for anyone who wants Canada to operate in a humane and honorable way on the world stage. As for the illusion that we already do, I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s observation that hypocrisy is the first tribute that vice pays to virtue. Perhaps after 150 years of pretending to be an exceptionally virtuous nation, Canada might be ready to fill in the gap between that claim and reality on the ground. If, in fact our country moves away from its pattern of virtue signaling and vice promotion on the crucial topic of imperialism, Yves Engler and his lonely voice of prophesy will be one of the reasons.
Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver.
See original review publication, page 12: