Excerpt: Canada in the World (Introduction)
Excerpt: Canada in the World (Introduction)
In 2017, the Complete Canadian Curriculum guide for third graders claimed that “the First Nations peoples moved to areas called reserves, where they could live undisturbed by the hustle and bustle of the settlers.”(2) This was a radical and absurd misrepresentation of Canadian history, but it was reflective of a longstanding ideological project to convince Canadians that their country was a well-intentioned contributor to the greater good of the world. In that version of history, Canada has been a haven for refugees, it has been a voice of reason in times of international crisis, it has sought to preserve peace when others wanted war, it has made sacrifices when war was necessary to defeat injustice, and it has helped other nations build prosperous and functional societies like the one Canada built after Indigenous people, presumably, moved to the reserves where they could live “undisturbed by the hustle and bustle of the settlers.”
This book, Canada in the World, offers a sober re-assessment of that story, providing a broad history of Canada’s engagements in the world since Confederation. Unlike many such studies, I treat the relations between the French, British, and then Canadian settlers and the Indigenous Peoples they encountered as a foundational element of what Canada became, and I also demonstrate that the legacy and logic of Canadian colonialism runs through the entire history of Canada in the world. Canada’s colonial project was driven by one fundamental material goal — the destruction of Indigenous political economic practices and their displacement by capitalism — and an equally important ideological foundation in the claim that Europeans were racially and culturally advanced and, thus, that their conquest of the Indigenous Peoples represented “progress.” The interplay between this economic compulsion and its ideological framing has remained integral to the story of Canada.
The structure of this book, Canada in the World, is designed to highlight the central thesis that Canada’s relationships in the world have consistently followed the patterns set during its colonial founding. Part I provides an overview of the colonial project that created Canada, with emphasis on the period around Confederation, a key point in the genocidal effort to eliminate what Canadian officials called the “Indian problem.” The creation of Canada took place within the broader dynamics of the emergence of capitalism, the spread of European colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which I discuss briefly.
As a new world order was constructed around those dynamics, the foundation for what would become Canada was being established in the minds and in the material conditions of its colonial architects. First, Canada was rooted in the desire to establish a private market in land and labour and create the conditions for capitalist wealth accumulation. Thus, like any settler capitalist state, Canada was designed to destroy the Indigenous inhabitants — by extermination, expulsion, assimilation or whatever other method — and replace their societies with one that would be dominated by a handful of wealthy capitalists and the laws and institutions that support a capitalist society.
Looking back at the period around Confederation and the conquest of the west, 21st-century Canadians are often tempted to assert that, while the racism of the early settlers was terrible, it was a product of the period in which they lived and it is unfair to judge them by the standards of the present. This is profoundly inadequate. It ignores the fact that those attitudes never went away, even if they were gradually refashioned and new language used to express them. Though Part I emphasizes the moments around Canada’s creation, it carries the story forward to the 21st century to illustrate that colonialism never ended but, rather, remained a pervasive part of the Canadian story. This reality is tragically evident, for instance, in the appalling rate at which Indigenous women and children are murdered or disappeared in Canada, often with little, if any, investigation. Furthermore, as the rest of the book illustrates, Canadians’ attitudes towards people outside of its borders remained steeped in the same attitudes; what was said of people in Afghanistan in the 21st century reflected what was said about Indigenous people in the 1880s.
Part I, then, lays the groundwork for the argument at the heart of this book, which is that those key components of Canada’s founding — settler capitalism and the colonial imagination — remained central to Canada’s engagements in the world henceforth. In Part II, I return to the period around Confederation and track the parallel dynamics of Canada’s looking outward to the rest of the world, illustrating the ways in which the very same Canadians who were consolidating colonialism in Canada were projecting it elsewhere. Sam Steele, celebrated police officer who helped conquer the Indigenous Peoples and supervised the virtual slave labour of Chinese workers on the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), would later travel to South Africa to administer concentration camps holding mostly black South Africans on behalf of the British Empire. Cornelius Van Horne, capitalist tycoon who was the president of the CPR, was quickly off to Cuba where he brought his “clearer northern brain” to monopolize the island and extract profits.(3) By the 1930s, the Canadian military would be supporting a massacre of thousands of Indigenous farmers — “communist Indians,” Prime Minister R.B. Bennett called them — in El Salvador, in order to protect the profits of the Canadian company which monopolized electricity provision in the country.(4)
This section of the book then locates Canada within the period of global tumult that developed in the early 20th century and exploded between 1914 and 1945 with two world wars and an economic catastrophe. The class dynamics of Canadian society — muted somewhat by the early stages of colonial conquest — became much clearer in this period as working-class Canadians, often immigrants, were sacrificed on behalf of the British Empire and the global supremacy of the Anglo-American powers. Central to this section is a re-assessment of Canada’s place in a world gripped by left-wing revolution and fascist reaction; most notably, Part II critically examines Canada’s relationship to the far-right movements that rose around the world in the 1920s and 1930s to illustrate that Canada often did more to foster their emergence than to stop them. Although Canada’s participation in the Second World War was mythologized as selfless and heroic, the defeat of Nazi Germany would have been much easier had Canada not spent so long supporting Hitler, refusing to accept Jewish refugees and abandoning countries like Spain and Portugal to fascist domination.
Explaining Canada’s behaviour in this period is difficult unless one remains clear about its founding principles. Canada’s commitment was to a capitalist world, and thus it shared with the fascist powers a deep-rooted desire to crush the movements of the left that had risen up dramatically in the early 20th century in opposition to the poverty and immiseration of capitalism. In particular, Canada sought the destruction of the Soviet Union and, when Canada’s own invasion failed to defeat the Russian Revolution, it hoped to wield fascism abroad as a hammer against communism. Furthermore, like the fascist powers, the Canadian ruling classes nurtured an abiding belief in hierarchy, in the idea that the world was divided into categories of people who, based on their race, gender, class or religion, were more or less fit to rule over others. Hitler, after all, admired Canada’s genocidal policies towards Indigenous Peoples, just as Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King admired “the constructive work” Hitler’s Germany was doing in having “met the Communist menace at the time she did, and in the way she did,” which was, of course, by mass murder.(5) King and Hitler also, notably, agreed “that in a large percentage of the [Jewish] race there are tendencies and trends which are dangerous indeed.”(6) Ideologically, then, the Canadian government was not so distant from the fascists, even while many individual Canadians abhorred them.
The world looked very different after the Second World War, and Part III grapples with Canada’s emergence as a so-called “middle power” during the Cold War. This was the era when peacekeeping became part of Canadian identity, when an image was built of a Canada that was a neutral and well-intentioned arbiter in international affairs. The reality was much different: as the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America fought for their freedom from Euro-American colonial or neocolonial authority, Canada consistently sided with the colonial powers and undermined those struggles for freedom. Canadian magazines declared that India was not a nation, Canadian officials urged Britain not to relinquish control of its colonial possessions to politically “immature” Africans, and Canadian weapons were donated to France to oppose the Vietnamese fight for independence. Across the globe, Canada insisted that colonized people were not capable of self-governance and mobilized racist stereotypes of Congolese cannibals, Papuan people living in trees and South Asian leaders wearing diapers.
Indeed, many studies of Canadian foreign policy begin from an unsubstantiated
assumption that Canadian policy is generally well-intentioned and seeks to strike a balance between the well-being of Canadians and the greater interests of the international community. Such an approach ignores the fact that Canada, like the rest of the world, is divided into different classes of people with different interests; what is good for some may be bad for others. I understand history as being shaped by conflict between and within that range of social classes and communities. The Canadian state, in this framework, acts as an institution that seeks to manage class conflict to the ultimate benefit of the Canadian capitalist class. Hence, the phases and episodes in Canada’s foreign engagements are reflective of the evolving needs of the ruling classes. This book not only recounts various pieces of Canadian history but, in addition, contextualizes them within the framework of the Canadian colonial capitalist project.
Still, this book is an examination of the Canada that is: how it has fit into the world, what role it has played, how it has shaped and been shaped by the dynamics around it. There is much covered here that is not typically included in foreign policy studies, ranging from the dynamics of class and race in Canada, the relationship between early waves of Canadian feminism and the Great War, and shifting attitudes towards immigration and who was included as “white” and/or “Canadian.” There are also forays into global and regional politics that may, on occasion, seem not to be directly related to Canada. One of the weaknesses of many of the existing studies of Canada’s engagements in the world is that the narrow focus on Canada means that the broader context in which Canada is engaging can be obscured. In fact, the Canadian government has often relied upon simplistic and de-contextualized narratives of its activities in order to cloak them in an air of harmless, good intentions. To truly understand the role Canada plays in various historical moments, it is imperative that we properly understand those moments.
There are many such explorations of regional and global history into which I insert Canada’s place, and in crafting these historical accounts I am deeply indebted to the work of other scholars. Outside of several years of fieldwork in Honduras, and the occasional personal anecdote, the knowledge that I marshal for this book is drawn from secondary sources, hundreds of them, each one containing many years of work and thinking by someone else. Although I have tried to use these sources faithfully, even when I am criticizing them, it needs be said that in a book as broad in scope as this, there are likely moments where the nuance and texture of my sources gets lost. I can only implore the interested reader to follow up on the sources that I have drawn from to get the deeper picture that, on occasion, I have had to sacrifice for relevance and brevity.
There is a fundamental question at the heart of this book: what is Canada? What is at the core of the thing — the state, the society, the culture — that was built on the place that is now called Canada and which was once under the jurisdiction of hundreds of Indigenous nations? No single answer will ever be fully satisfactory, but my intention is to cast some light on this problem by looking at how Canada has engaged in the world. What did Canada say? What did it do? Who did it support? Who did it oppose? What was Canada’s contribution to the events that shaped people’s lives over the past century and a half, and what role has it played in building the world our children will inherit? The answers to these questions will not be comforting to anyone who is committed to the idea of a nice, kind Canada trying to help people. But given the state of the 21st century world, I make no apologies if this book is jarring. The problems that Canada has helped create are so great that some view them as an existential threat to humanity itself. Even less dire interpretations of the coming calamities suggest that we must, as a species, change course
urgently. A necessary first step for people located in Canada is an honest and unflinching look in the mirror.