Imperial History, Liberal Response

The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, RED/Fernwood Publishing, 2009

Yves Engler

Over the last two decades, activists on the Canadian left have confronted two major trends in Canadian foreign policy. The first involved the free-trade agreements of the 1990s and the international expansion of Canadian capital as part of the globalization agenda. As a result, Canada became highly integrated with American and world capitalism, and established international conditioning frameworks for the imposition of neoliberalism at home. The second trend involved the militarization of Canadian foreign policy through NATO enlargement in the 1990s and the

post-9/11 “war on terror.” From the Gulf War in 1991, to the conflicts in Somalia (1994), Serbia (1998), Haiti (2004), and Afghanistan (2001-present), the Canadian state has adopted a more overtly militarist approach to international relations, especially in the context of US-led “counter-terrorism” missions in “failed” or “rogue” states.

This realignment of Canadian foreign policy has generated new debates on the left. On one side are those who view Canada as an economic dependency of the United States and the new Canadian foreign policy as a corollary of such dependence.[1] On the other side are those who view Canada as an imperialist power with distinct economic and political interests in the world market and nation-state system.[2] Although both political currents participated in the anti-war and anti-globalization movements, the analytic, strategic and tactical tensions between them were never resolved: the former current tends to advocate a citizen-based politics to restore national independence and sovereignty in matters of domestic and foreign policy, whereas the latter hopes to engender class struggles against the state and the economic system it defends.

Yves Engler’s The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy (2009) makes an important contribution to these debates. By drawing upon academic, media, and activist research, Engler presents a reinterpretation of Canadian foreign policy history in order to guide present-day activism. He systematically assaults key mythologies of Canadian foreign policy – that Canada is either a middle power dedicated to peace and diplomacy in world affairs or an unwilling victim of American pressure and direction. Modeled on William Blum’s Killing Hope (2003), Engler’s book exposes the mercenary side of Canadian foreign policy from the time of British colonialism and the Cold War to the present.

In the process, Engler’s book undermines the dominant ideologies sustaining Canadian foreign policy and offers a new perspective, namely that Canada’s external statecraft supports the economic interests of the corporate and state elite within Canada to the detriment of democracy, development, and diplomacy in world affairs, especially in the Third World. As Engler puts it: “Canada’s role in world affairs has been…pro-empire (whether British, US), pro-colonial (whether British, US, French, Portuguese, Dutch, etc.) and serving narrow corporate interests” (231). Engler rejects the “junior partner” theory of forced collaboration with US foreign policy, arguing that Canada is “an independent player with its own self-interests, including those of Canadian companies.” Canada, Engler states, consistently uses “its wealth and power to act like an imperial bully” (5). He makes this argument by organizing the book into a number of regional and country case studies structured around common themes, including: support for colonialism; corporate expansion; diplomatic alignment with Washington; the economic and geopolitical logic of aid delivery; and Third World opposition to Canadian foreign policy.

In one important discussion, Engler considers the role Canada played in supporting the British Empire, shedding light, for example, on Canada’s involvement in putting down slave revolts in the British Caribbean in the early 1800s. During the age of “classical imperialism” (1870-1945), the Canada First Movement, the West Indies Union, and even the federal cabinet called for annexation to the Dominion of Canada of British possessions in the Caribbean and in Central and South America. Prime Minister Robert Borden opposed these colonial ambitions not on anti-imperialist grounds, but rather on racist grounds. He was concerned primarily with “the difficulty of dealing with the coloured population, who would probably be more restless under Canadian law… and would desire and perhaps insist upon representation in Parliament” (8).

Furthermore, Canadian support for British colonialism was not confined to the Caribbean, but extended into the Middle East, Asia, and the African continent. In the late 1800s, Canadian soldiers participated in the British war against Boer farmers in South Africa. In 1919, they supported the British Air Force in Afghanistan. In 1857, the 100th Regiment helped to suppress the nationalist uprising in India. The British conquered Egypt in 1882 with the help of Canadian military personnel, and China and Korea were colonized by Japan in the 20th century with diplomatic, missionary, and economic support from Canada. Thus, although Canada did not itself possess overseas colonies, it nevertheless strongly supported the British Empire and other imperial ventures from the early 1800s through to World War II.

As Engler points out, Canadian policy in the emerging Third World was dictated by independent economic interests, not simply by imperial ties. For example, by the early 1900s, Canadian banking and insurance dominated the financial sector of the Caribbean, with hundreds of branches and tens of billions in assets. In nearby Mexico, Canadian firms dominated the rail and utility sectors and Canadian executives strategized with Porfirio Diaz on how to suppress the 1910 revolution. In an early example of gunboat diplomacy, Canada’s HMCS Rainbow and HMCS Athabascan were dispatched to protect corporate investments from revolutionary forces.

Canada’s foreign policy alliance with the United States was struck after World War II. In the context of the Cold War, Canada functioned strategically as a “middle power” inside the capitalist bloc, and tactically as a “peacekeeping” force in various military conflicts. Engler describes how peacekeeping contributions – to Egypt, Cyprus, and the Congo – were overwhelmingly motivated by geopolitical calculations. In Egypt (1956), for example, Canada’s peacekeeping mission (for which Lester Pearson won a Nobel Prize) was designed to maintain friendly relations amongst NATO countries, support the US as an emerging superpower, help Britain and France save face in withdrawal, and contain Arab nationalism; that is to say, Canada’s peacekeeping mission in Egypt was not (as is often claimed) devised to support the sovereignty and security of the Nasser government. In 1967, in fact, Pearson resisted Egypt’s attempt to expel Canadian peacekeepers, with the Department of Defence actually drawing up plans for a military occupation of the country. According to Engler, the mission in Egypt exemplified the particular strategies and tactics through which Canadian foreign policy operated in the Cold War system of imperialism.

Canada’s aid policy must also be understood through a geopolitical and economic lens. As Engler explains it, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) uses aid first and foremost to assist the global expansion of Canadian firms and to isolate or support Third World governments based on their alignment with US imperialism and Canadian corporate interests. This logic was first demonstrated in the 1950s as part of Canadian aid disbursements to India, where Canada worked to “disabuse Indians of their more extreme prejudices against the United States” (Lester Pearson in Engler, 159). Throughout the Cold War, CIDA worked in Latin America to counter Cuban influence and to expand markets through IMF and World Bank structural adjustment policies.

More recently, Engler writes, Canada supported an aid embargo against Haiti in the lead-up to the coup d’état in 2004, after which Canada ramped up aid to NGOs and security services complicit in the coup. CIDA also works closely with Canadian mining companies, which increasingly dominate the economic landscapes of Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia. As part of the new “3D” strategy of Canadian foreign policy, CIDA is currently developing a militarized model of aid delivery in Afghanistan, where development and reconstruction funds are tied to geopolitical goals of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of National Defence.

As Engler points out, these new security and military strategies must be viewed, at least in part, as a response to Third World resistance. Indigenous peoples, environmentalists and trade unionists around the world have a long history of protesting Canadian corporate and military activities. In 1966, social justice activists in Guyana organized demonstrations outside the offices of Alcan and the Canadian High Commission. In the 1970s, Canadian banks were picketed and firebombed in Trinidad. Today, Canadian mining companies are facing a global wave of protest from Mongolia and Papua New Guinea to Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Colombia. In all of these countries, poor communities are mobilizing against the dispossession, impoverishment, and ecological destruction that attend Canadian corporate involvement in the Third World. By revealing Canada’s close support for European colonialism, the US empire, and corporate interests across the world market, Engler makes a strong case for understanding Canada as an “imperial bully” (5). Canada, Engler writes, is “part of the command and control apparatus of the world economic system,” and theorizing Canadian foreign policy therefore “requires an economic analysis” (33). As Engler explains it, the “two [key] factors motivating Canadian foreign policy” are “direct corporate self-interest and a partnership within the US-led empire” (17).

Although Engler overstates the extent of “elite integration” (234) between American and Canadian corporate elites,[3] the primary weakness of his book lies in the scope of its analysis. In presenting a comprehensive survey of Canadian malfeasance in the Third World, Engler offers an ideological critique of Canadian foreign policy mythology (e.g., peacekeeping, multilateralism, aid, etc.). However, while he points to the need for an alternative theory (“an economic analysis”) of Canadian foreign policy, he nevertheless fails to provide one. On the contrary, the consistent pattern of Canadian policy abroad is understood not in relation to the systematic imperatives and contradictions of capitalism as a mode of production, imperialism, and class rule, but rather as a “bad” policy of a self-interested elite, who need “regulation” by a “citizen-based foreign policy” movement (143). Because Engler in effect calls for a new foreign policy based upon the “golden rule” of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (243), his analysis remains confined within the bounds of political liberalism, most evidently in his call for “change,” “the rule of law,” and “democratic accountability” (6) within the existing political economy of Canada. In short, Engler presents a contradictory argument: on the one hand, he exposes the capitalist logic of Canadian foreign policy and, on the other, he advocates liberal politics to address the problem. Due to this contradiction, Engler leaves the causal factors of Canadian foreign policy unaddressed and unchallenged.

To avoid this problem, activists must generate a theory of Canadian imperialism that links a critical analysis of Canadian capitalism to an oppositional strategy for transforming the state in a socialist direction. This analysis must proceed in the following way: first, from a systematic study of the Canadian economy and the social/class structure; second, from a detailed analysis of Canada’s foreign economic relations, including trade, investment, profit, and migrant labour flows; third, from a sociological mapping of the Canadian capitalist class and its articulation within institutional structures of power in civil society, the state, and transnational forums; and fourth, from a theorization of the foreign policy apparatus and the program of liberal capitalism it represents.

In building such a theory of Canadian imperialism, we must identify the strengths and weaknesses of Canadian capitalism and the particular role of the Canadian state as a secondary power inside the global political economy and the North American bloc. We must also highlight the strategies and tactics through which Canadian foreign policy operates in the context of neoliberal globalization and the US-led “war on terror.” Finally, in order to build effective international solidarity, we must identify and oppose the nexus between Canadian capitalism and Canadian imperialism. In particular, political alliances must be forged between those fighting Canadian policy abroad and those fighting Canadian capitalism at home, especially trade union activists, migrant workers, Indigenous peoples, and other oppressed social sectors and communities. In building such alliances, activists can mount a political struggle against Canadian capitalism and the patterns of exploitation, uneven development, and militarism it generates on a systematic basis. Through such means, we might also build a new movement for socialist revolution in Canada and around the world.

While The Black Book offers the best critical survey of Canadian foreign policy to date, its contribution to the anti-capitalist movement is limited insofar as it fails to articulate the imperialistic logic of Canadian statecraft, or to consider the social agencies and political solidarities that are needed to confront it. Although activists on the Canadian left should read this important book, we must also go beyond it in terms of analyzing the logic of Canadian capitalism and organizing resistance against it. To this end, we must begin to address the serious task of putting forward a new theory of Canadian imperialism.


1 See Maude Barlow Too Close For Comfort: Canada’s Future Within Fortress NorthAmerica, 2005; and Linda McQuaig Holding the Bully’s Coat: Canada and the U.S. Empire, 2007.

2 See David McNally “Canada and Empire” New Socialist 54 (2005); Greg Albo “Empire’s Ally” Canadian Dimension (2006); and Bill Burgess “Foreign Direct Investment: Facts and Perceptions about Canada” The Canadian Geographer 44.2 (2000).

3 See William Carroll and Jerome Klassen “Hollowing Out Corporate Canada? Changes in the Corporate Network Since the 1990s” Canadian Journal of Sociology (2010).