The Myth of Progressive Canada

Canada’s growing economic and military might abroad is exploding any notions of “Canadian exceptionalism.” It might not be as vicious as the United States, but Canada is nonetheless an imperialist power.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau gives a press conference at a NATO summit on December 4, 2019 in Hertford, England. (Chris J Ratcliffe / Getty Images)

The myths about Canada’s supposedly progressive role in global affairs are so durable that even former prime minister Stephen Harper couldn’t sully them. The right-wing Harper decade never stopped Canadians from patting themselves on the back, nor has Liberal continuity with the essentials of foreign policy since. The image of Canada’s pivotal role in peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and the safeguarding of democracy and human rights around the world remains cherished.

One reason, no doubt, is that the dominant tradition of left scholarship in Canada since the 1970s has taken the form of a kind of left nationalism. Taking its cue from the contemporaneous emergence of World Systems analysis, left scholarship since that time has centered around Canada’s “dependent” status – its domination by the United States, its reliance on primary commodities like crude oil, natural gas, and uranium, and corresponding weakness in manufacturing.

But this analysis, which depicts Canada as an ineffectual if not benign player on the world stage, leaves little room for any investigation of the country’s imperial role — past and present. It directs our attention away from the comfortable niche Canada occupied in the structures of capitalist imperialism, first under British and then US leadership, as well as from its disgraceful treatment of indigenous peoples.

Your Friendly, Neighborhood Imperialist

Canada’s international personality is marked precisely by these two traits — an economy of regionalized resource extraction on one hand, and the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX), with its $3.25 trillion market capitalization, on the other.

Canadian direct investment abroad, chiefly in mining and finance, has also increased massively since the early 1990s with holdings in over 150 countries, giving Canada the fourth-highest ratio of outbound foreign direct investment to Gross Domestic Product. Canadian financial investment is concentrated in the Caribbean and Latin America as is mining and energy investment, though the latter is also spreading out to countries in Africa and Central Asia in particular.

The full panoply of Canada’s international activities should be seen in light of these massive investments abroad. The Canadian economic policy advocacy and aid regime — whether in multilateral forums such as the Bretton Woods institutions or bi- and multilateral trade and investment deals — promote neoliberal “good governance,” even in apparently high-minded and altruistic endeavors such as the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative.

The “good governance” advocated by these organizations is alleged to be the way to prosperity when, in fact, the programs they promote amount to “kicking away the ladder” of exactly the state interventionist policies that made rich countries rich in the first place. Worse, the programs are designed to privilege Canada’s own domestic corporations over private and public economic actors in the developing world. Canadian foreign policy institutions like CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency, even go so far as to work with developing world governments to make their state legislation more foreign investor–friendly. The end result is that Canada’s paltry aid budget — dwarfed by profits from developing world investment — largely ends up in Canadian pockets.

But this isn’t the frictionless process many neoliberals would want it to be. People can and do fight back. Canadian mining and energy investments abroad are facing increasing opposition just as they are at home, particularly from indigenous peoples. As Denault and Sacher argue, it is precisely the legal infrastructure of Canada’s mining sector — designed for a settler state bent on dispossessing local populations — that has ensured that the TSX is home to three-quarters of the world’s mining companies.

While financial speculation is hardly unknown on the world’s other stock exchanges, the TSX “has been singularly shaped by dubious practices primarily in natural resources.” Mining companies listed on the TSX can claim in the host countries “the same extra-legal status from which they [or their predecessors] profited so outrageously in their original domestic colonial environment.”

Todd Gordon suggests that we should see the rising tide of Canadian interventions — from Haiti and Afghanistan to Libya and Honduras — as part of a larger pattern of activities for advancing Canadian corporate interests abroad. These interventions accomplish many things at once: they serve to normalize increases in military expenditure, they give troops combat experience in the kinds of environments and against the sorts of opponents corporate capital is likely to run up against, they bring Canada to the tables that determine the distributions of the spoils of war in their modern form of contracts and concessions and other such goodies and — last but not least — they portray the developing world as a source of threats to security much as indigenous peoples and their resistance are portrayed as threats to the domestic order at home.

As American international power and presence have been on the decline since the 1970s, a new global aggression has emerged from the Canadian state. This trend has been accelerating in recent years with the widening recognition of a multipolar world. As President Donald Trump casts aspersions on the utility of NATO, the US is notably scaling back its international commitments. The coming years will likely find Canada seeking to act more openly and independently to enforce its interests abroad.

However, in doing this, it will face the very forces that have diminished US power — the spread of productive and political power that has made the world progressively more multipolar since Britain first lost its supremacy in the 1870s. Any overly aggressive defense of corporate Canada’s interests will put Canada in ever more dangerous situations.

Canadians must resist these recharged imperialist impulses as much for self-interested as for altruistic reasons. And resistance against Canadian imperialism abroad is, fittingly enough, of a piece with ending Canadian imperialism towards our indigenous compatriots at home. We must finally stop being a settler state and become a pluri-national state that no longer shows its indigenous citizens their place but instead gives them a seat at the table.

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Radhika Desai is a professor in the department of political studies at University of Manitoba, the director of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group, and the president of the Society for Socialist Studies.

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