Canada’s Imperialist Project

Imperialist Canada

Todd Gordon

Todd Gordon. Imperialist Canada. Aribeiter Ring Publishing, 2010.

Canada’s increasingly muscular role in global affairs has generated much discussion in recent years. The reason is not difficult to discern: never before in Canadian history has the country waged a counterinsurgency war abroad for a decade – let alone has it ever had the capabilities to do so. Despite pronouncements that, in the months leading up to the ten-year anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, Canada will transition from a “combat” to a “training”- oriented mission, the country will remain deeply implicated in the prosecution of this bloody, protracted conflict long into the foreseeable future. If one takes a step back from the propagandistic rationales given for Canada’s involvement – freedom, democracy, women’s rights, development, nation-building, “hearts and minds,” and so on – there is precious little by way of comprehensive analysis of Canadian foreign policy to help people anchor their understandings of Canada’s global posture in a broader context.

Todd Gordon’s Imperialist Canada is a response to the memoirs of one Canadian imperialist, former Prime Minister Paul Martin, who wrote: “we are a developed country that was never a colonial power, and no one suspects us of neo-colonial ambitions.” As the title suggests, Gordon’s thesis attempts to rebuke such fantasies by arguing that Canada is an imperialist country that “benefits from and actively participates in the global system of domination in which the wealth and resources of the Third World are systematically plundered by capital of the Global North” (9). Any time an author attempts to take on a dominant narrative, the effort is at once an act of disproving and proving; if you’re going to try to challenge something as fundamental as a deeply held societal myth, you’d better back it up with a lot of data that is cogently argued, well organized, and verifiable. With this in mind, Gordon endeavors to provide an extensive overview and analysis of Canada’s “imperialist toolkit” (10). Striking a stylistic balance between academic and journalistic, the 432-page book offers the reader a dense, illuminating resource that will be a topic of debate and discussion for years to come. It will build on a small but important – and growing – tradition of analyzing Canada through the lens of imperialism.

Written from a Marxist perspective, the book is a call for Canadians “to rethink traditional views of Canada’s role in the world” and “build an anti-imperialist resistance… to mount a challenge to the power of Canadian capital and the state” (403). Gordon addresses what he sees as one of the greatest obstacles to such a movement: progressives who remain enthralled by “left- nationalist misperceptions” concerning Canada’s role in the world. Historically, this misperception has often been conveyed through the dependency thesis, where “Canada is dominated by foreign capital and… is more akin… to an industrially underdeveloped country” (15). Those who espouse this thesis, and who promote what Gordon sees as a flawed strategy in response to it, are the primary theoretical target throughout the book.

In the opening chapter, Gordon lays out the “contemporary imperialist order.” Citing David McNally, Gordon defines imperialism as “a system of global inequalities and domination – embodied in regimes of property, military power, and global institutions – through which wealth is drained from… people in the Global South to the systematic advantage of capital in the North” (26). Although Canada is objectively less powerful than the United States, Gordon argues that it can still “exercise and benefit from imperial control over third world nations” (27). Accordingly, he classifies Canada as a “junior” imperialist power to better situate its relative strength while re-asserting that this should not be taken to suggest that Canada “is any less imperialist in nature or intention” (56). Indeed, he explicitly rejects the popular left-nationalist notion, as advanced by journalist Linda McQuaig, that Canada is merely “holding the bully’s coat” (316).

The second chapter lays the groundwork for understanding how the Canadian imperialist project abroad is an extension of the establishment of Canadian capitalism domestically, at the expense of the Indigenous people who inhabited Turtle Island prior to the arrival of white settlers. “The whole foundation of Canadian capitalism,” Gordon reminds us, “[...] is premised on the forceful subjugation of indigenous nations and their resources to its interests” (67). Importantly for Gordon, the dispossession of Indigenous peoples via the accumulation of capital is not merely an “historical curiosity” (68); rather, during the current era characterized by neoliberal globalization, the assault on Indigenous peoples has only intensified (78). Describing the comprehensive claim process as “dispossession by treaty” (88), he argues that assimilation and the negation of Indigenous self-determination remains the Canadian state’s objective (105), as it renders Indigenous nations to the status of its “own Third World colonies” (123) – if not without continuing steadfast resistance to such a level of subjugation.1

The next chapter connects foreign relationships to domestic imperial practices. Quoting Richard Waugh, the CEO of Scotiabank, one of Canada’s largest and most imperialist banks, Gordon demonstrates that “throughout our history, Canada by necessity has had to look to international markets to generate wealth” (138). For Gordon, it has been necessary to feed “the growing imperial hunger” (134) for wealth accumulation, which cannot be entirely satisfied at home. The recipe that the Canadian state offers Canadian capital is a mixture of policies and institutions that provide the “necessary economic and political climate [for their] penetration of foreign economies” (138). International aid, the Export Development Corporation (EDC), and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s (DFAIT) Investment Cooperation Program (formerly CIDA, Inc.) are described as key state agencies that facilitate the expansion of Canadian capital into the global south. Together, says Gordon, they amount to a “subsidy for corporate investment” (149). As a rebuke to NGOs and progressives who argue that more aid is better, he writes, “increased spending will not help the word’s poor – indeed, it will likely increase the pain Canada’s already causing the Global South” (169).

Next, Gordon turns to a host of case studies to illustrate abuses against people and the environment by Canadian capital, often with the support of the state. Focusing primarily on Latin America, Gordon names several Canadian “mining imperialists” that have engaged in controversial and often illegal and widely condemned practices in countries such as Guatemala, Ecuador, and Colombia. Unbeknownst to many Canadians, the “capitalist plundering” of these companies often breeds fierce resistance in the communities affected by them. Throughout the chapter he often links Canadian corporate malfeasance to collaborations with the state agencies discussed in the previous chapter, arguing that “Canadian capitalist plundering of the Third World… has become widespread in the age of neoliberal globalization” (261). The frequent clashes between Canadian capital and Indigenous communities abroad shows how the former engages in “neoliberal terrorism,” thereby showing the country’s true face as “the aggressive imperialist pursuer of economic self-interest” (263).

In the final two chapters, Gordon discusses the security dimensions of why, and then how, imperialist Canada has been “making the world safe for capital.” Here he demonstrates that it is untrue that Canada “is incapable of projecting, and/or is unwilling to project, Canadian power at home or abroad” (276). He draws a correlation between Canada’s evolving global security position and the evolution of increasingly globalizing Canadian capital. Developing a military that has the capability for both domestic and global expeditions “has become a priority for the Canadian ruling class” (278). Returning to an earlier point, he highlights the domestic roots of Canadian imperialism in the form of original (and ongoing) capital accumulation at the expense of Indigenous peoples and the development of Canada’s security posture from its engagement against Indigenous nations, “the security threat from within” (278).

From Oka (1990) to Gustafson Lake and Ipperwash (1995), to Burnt Church (2000), and Caledonia (2006), Gordon argues that “military and paramilitary assaults against indigenous nations have been a formative part of Canada’s development,” (278) citing policies carried out on the ground, as well as testimony from prominent intellectuals and policy-makers and the Canadian military’s own counterinsurgency manual. There is a pervasive fear within the ruling class toward the perceived “threat” posed by Indigenous resistance against colonial relations. Gordon transitions from the internal security posture to the external with a revealing quote from a Canadian army general who told a Senate Committee that the army’s operations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region “has the same challenges that we had during the Oka crisis” (289).

In his conclusion, Gordon calls on the Canadian left to challenge Canadian imperialism. Since imperialism is inextricable from capitalism, such a mobilization must centre on “the capitalist system of imperialism and the ruling elite in Canada who lead it” (402-3). Canadians must figure out ways to pose a serious challenge to the power of Canadian capital and the state, while building relations of solidarity with the targets of Canadian imperialism both within and abroad.

The book, however, is not without its weaknesses. While Gordon discusses Indigenous resistance to Canada’s internal imperialism, he provides no examples of non-Indigenous resistance. With little discussion of the struggles of immigrants, the book excludes the critical work of organizations such as No One is Illegal. While describing Canada’s role in the 2004 coup in Haiti, there is no mention of the cross-country Haiti solidarity network that formed in opposition to it. While there is a detailed overview of Canadian mining practices abroad, the reader doesn’t get a sense of the activism of the anti-mining solidarity groups such as Rights Action and Protest Barrick. In the case of Afghanistan, whatever exists of a Canadian anti-war movement is likewise absent.

Perhaps the most glaring omission is that of Que?bec. It is especially odd that the internal colonization of the Que?becois would not be discussed in a book that is premised on forms of imperialism, new and old. Whatever his position on this question, it ought to be introduced and problematized. There is also no discussion of the emerging sub-imperial role of Que?bec itself, through Que?becois capital, through multi-lateral forums such as La Francophonie, or through Que?bec state institutions that have supported the imperialist interventions in places such as Haiti. It follows that there is also no discussion of the anti-war left in Que?bec, or of the emergence of Que?bec Solidaire, the left-wing political party.

Another deficiency is that while Gordon correctly asserts that Canada has not fully integrated its foreign policy apparatus with the US, he neglects to point out some important collaborations that are carried out between the two countries’ national security apparatuses; and he does so at the expense of a thorough delineation of Canada’s strategic alliance with the US and other core allies like the UK and Australia. Take the transition to the “3D” or “whole of government” approach to foreign policy, which Gordon only references in passing. Although he mentions, for instance, the Martin government’s 2005 International Policy Statement (IPS) on several occasions, Gordon doesn’t address how it emerged as the policy manifestation of institutional changes that had been taking place since the end of the Cold War. Nor does he contextualize the fact that core imperialist allies like the US, the UK, and the Netherlands have also made the 3D approach a core means of cohering their policies. Here the question is not so much one of integration, but of a general philosophical consonance between imperialist powers large and small in the present conjuncture. It also speaks to a certain division of labour between these powers, which Gordon seems to fall short of capturing due to his over- emphasis on down playing inter-imperialist collaborations.

Likewise, Gordon fails to convey the depth of concrete relations between the Canadian and US military-industrial complexes, the increasing number of private Canadian military corporations, or the close collaborations between the two militaries regarding the development of their complementary counterinsurgency doctrines and practices. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Canada should, for the first time in its history, develop a counterinsurgency doctrine at the same time as the revival of counterinsurgency in Washington. That Canada has created the capabilities to wage counterinsurgency is possibly one of the most important developments in the history of Canadian power.

Although Gordon breaks important new ground in studies of Canadian imperialism by foregrounding the connection between imperialist wars at home and abroad, he pays too little attention to how the ruling classes attempt to legitimize the imperialist project internally. The reaction of the mainstream media and ruling elites to the Regina professors who spoke out against pro- war propaganda on campuses across Canada in 2010 speaks to the need to understand and properly contextualize such matters.

Finally, Gordon makes the important point that “the right’s analysis of Canada’s military role in the world is more accurate than the left’s” (12). The right may be “wrong and very misleading,” (15) he says, but they often exhibit a clearer understanding of Canadian foreign policy. Yet Gordon himself does not make much use of the right’s analysis; the case of Iraq, in particular, shows how his analysis could have been stronger had he done so. Rather than framing Canada’s role in Iraq on a continuum that began in 1991, Gordon accepts the premise that Canada did not participate militarily in Iraq, and spends little time analyzing the various ways in which Canada both supported, legitimated post facto, and materially benefited from the invasion and occupation. As a self-proclaimed “energy superpower,” Canada has shared interests with the US in maintaining control over as much of the world’s oil supply as possible. Not only is Canada one of the world’s largest importers of Iraq’s oil, many Canadian oil companies operate in the region. This last point speaks to a general weakness in Imperialist Canada: however autonomous Canadian imperialism is in some cases, in its strategic orientation it is, at the same time, inextricable from the imperialism of the US, and the interests of its closest non-US imperialist allies.

Although there’s considerable new research yet to be conducted into Canada’s imperialist practices, all told, Gordon’s book is an important contribution to the need for a “new theory of Canadian imperialism” that Jerome Klassen called for in UTA 10.


1 Here, unfortunately and without qualification, Gordon eschews the use of the term Fourth World, usually reserved for Indigenous peoples; see George Manuel’s The Fourth World: An Indian R eality, Free Press, 1974.