Interviewed by David Barsamian
25 March 2013
What’s going on in Canada? Justin Bieber? Snow? Hockey? Since 2006, the vast country of 35 million people has been led by Stephen Harper. He is prime minister and head of the Conservative Party. Earlier in his political career he was a Member of Parliament representing Calgary in Alberta province. To say Harper has close ties with Canada’s powerful oil and mining interests would be an understatement. He is a fervent advocate of the tar sands project in Alberta and has aggressively backed its expansion. Scientists such as James Hansen call the extraction of this particularly dirty oil a “monster” and “game over” for stabilizing the climate. Harper is strongly backing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast. That project, opposed by many in the U.S., is on Obama’s desk right now
This lecture is available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio
Yves Engler has been called “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” and “in the mould of I.F. Stone.” He is the author of many books, including Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping: The Truth May Hurt, The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, Canada Israel: Building Apartheid, and The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy.
You can listen to Yves Engler speak for himself here.
I’d like you to read the opening paragraph from The Ugly Canadian.
“While millions disagree with Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party’s domestic agenda, fewer Canadians are aware of his government’s destructive foreign policy. Many of us only pay close attention to matters that directly affect us, or our families. So when the Conservatives make it harder to collect unemployment insurance or raise the Old Age Pension, people notice because it affects them or someone they know. When a Conservative MP introduces a private member’s bill to restrict a woman’s right to choose an abortion, media outlets across the country report on it and pundits produce reams of analysis, much of it critical. But when our government encourages a coup in Honduras or mining legislation to benefit Canadian companies over indigenous communities in Peru, there is little critical reporting in the dominant media. This is because the only direct Canadian self-interest tends to be that of the companies trying to profit from the situation. Investors put pressure on the government to promote their self-interests while few, if any, Canadians have a direct stake in defending Honduran democracy or the rights of poor villagers in a remote corner of Peru.”
Who is the ugly Canadian? Who is Stephen Harper? What are his political origins?
Stephen Harper’s foreign policy is not something that’s completely distinct from previous Canadian governments’ foreign policies. But it’s a particularly ideological bunch that are in power today, very close to the tar sands oil interests and a couple decades of right-wing ideology that comes with the oil sector in Alberta. Also, it’s a foreign policy that is very close with the rise of Canadian mining companies globally. Those companies have risen in influence around the world at incredible rates, going from about $250 million in investment in Africa in 1989 to $30 billion today. They dominate throughout Latin America with hundreds of billions of dollars of mining investments there.
So Stephen Harper comes out of a particularly right-wing regional movement from Alberta, where the bulk of Canadian oil is. And at the foreign policy level he has very much extended this sort of right-wing ideology. The rise of the tar sands and the rise of Canadian mining investment are some of the economic forces that are driving this particularly ugly Canadian.
Andrew Nikiforuk, the journalist, who has been a guest on this program, told me when I interviewed him in Calgary that Alberta was “Texas on steroids” and it was Canada’s “petrostate.”
There’s a lot of truth to that. Harper’s ties to the oil sector in Alberta are extensive familial ties. In large part the political party he represents comes out of a backlash to a national energy program in the 1980s. Basically, that was not liked by the oil companies in Alberta, and they funded an alternative Reform Party for a while. Then it morphed into the Conservative Party and a whole host of right-wing think tanks. For Alberta regionally, every position in the House of Commons from Alberta, minus one, was won by the Conservative Party. So the province is the bastion of support for this government and all those particularly regressive elements that tend to come with the oil sector.
If Alberta were an independent country, it would have the third largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
And the plan is to keep extracting that no matter what the ecological toll is. That’s where you see, with the Keystone pipeline protests, why the federal government and the Alberta government have both been so active in their lobbying in the U.S. to get that pipeline built. Because this is not just about something that’s going to play out for the next couple years. They have plans to extract billions of barrels of oil and keep expanding the extraction process. And, obviously, Alberta is cut off from a seaport. There’s opposition to building pipelines to the West Coast through British Columbia.
They want to get that oil to market and the most profitable of the options is down to the Gulf Coast. So you have a federal government that has literally spent millions, probably into the tens of millions of dollars, lobbying in the U.S. on behalf of TransCanada and the Keystone pipeline. The Alberta government also, all the ministers repeatedly in Washington speaking to governors throughout the U.S., sending letters to Congress people or senators that come out in opposition to the pipeline, going to county meetings and writing letters to The New York Times. And on and on and on, just an incredible lobbying battle. Because the Keystone pipeline is not just about the short term. The plan is to continue to expand the tar sands. And there are a number of companies that are making and will be making lots of profit from that process. From an ecological standpoint it’s a catastrophe, but from the standpoint of economic growth and profit, there’s a lot of money to be made in the Alberta tar sands.
James Hansen, the well-known U.S. scientist says that if this project continues, that it would be “game over.” You hear a lot of these kinds of apocalyptic terms around the tar sands—tipping point, game changer—but there is a solid consensus that this would significantly exacerbate climate change.
There’s no doubt about it. The first thing that people have to understand is that they have started with the easiest oil. It gets dirtier as the extraction process goes along. And increasingly, while there are efficiency improvements in the extraction of the current dominant form of extraction of tar sands oil, they’re increasingly going to in situ extraction, which is pumping moisture down to pull out the oil. And that’s even more energy-intensive. From the oil sector crowd, they say they’re getting better, more efficient, it’s less harmful to the environment. But in fact they’re moving toward a model of even more difficult oil to get out, which is more energy-intensive, plus the impact on the indigenous communities that live there, and the destruction of forest at incredible levels.
Are there not problems with coal extraction? Are there not problems with traditional oil extraction? Of course there are. There need to be radical changes in how we structure our cities and how we structure our economies. There is no doubt. The tar sands are not the only problem out there. But with the plans of expansion they have going, I think this should be seen as a line in the sand for the environmental movement. So far the mobilizations against the pipeline, certainly in B.C., have been very impressive in terms of galvanizing environmental activism; and, clearly, in the U.S., with the Keystone protests, they’ve been very good at galvanizing environmental activism and putting the question of climate justice and climate disturbance on to the political agenda, which is an incredibly important development.
More than 1200 people were arrested at the White House in the largest civil disobedience action in recent memory. And the Sierra Club, a conservative environmental organization in the U.S., has now endorsed civil disobedience as a technique to try and stop this project from going forward.
That’s a very positive development. I saw that more recently, if Obama okays the Keystone XL, up to 5,000 people are planning to use their bodies to disrupt the building process. It is just one element in a bigger fight. I’ve written a previous book called Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay. I think we need to move completely away from the private automobile, for instance, among many other changes in terms of the environment and economy. So we need to be moving towards a model of walking, biking, and mass transit for people to get around. We need to be changing the ways in which food is grown to be less energy-intensive. There are lots of changes that need to be done.
Interestingly, the Keystone protests in the U.S. have really put the Conservative Harper government on the defensive on the climate issue. They, of course, pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol. They’ve criticized the opposition NDP for its supposed job-killing climate change program. So they’ve been really aggressive in doing their best to do nothing on that issue. But the protests in the U.S. have forced them on to the back foot. Now they’re starting to talk about bringing in stricter measures around greenhouse gas emissions on a number of fronts. It’s probably mostly rhetorical at this point, but it’s interesting to see how the social movement in the U.S. has really impacted the official political discussion in this country around greenhouse gases. What’s needed is bigger and more militant protests. And pushing groups like the Sierra Club and other more conservative organizations to drop this desire to always be respectable and moving towards activism and taking the science seriously.
The New Democratic Party, in this last federal election, 2011, for the first time in their history became the official opposition. They’re traditionally the labor-supported party. They’re sort of the social democrats, clearly to the left of the Democrats, though increasingly less to the left of the Democrats and clearly moving to the right. But they have a history of being tied into social movements. They were the party in Saskatchewan that brought in Medicare, the national single-payer health insurance. They’re the main opposition at this point.
The premier of Saskatchewan, at the time, was the father-in-law of the actor Donald Sutherland.
Tommy Douglas was the premier when they started the process of bringing in Medicare in Saskatchewan 50 years ago.
How have the protests in the U.S. against Keystone affected Canadian activists? Have there been sit-downs and blockades?
In British Columbia there have been. There are two different main pipelines planned to take oil from Alberta to the coast through B.C. The Northern Gateway has received the most amount of protest, which looks like it’s dead in the water because of a combination of indigenous opposition, First Nations. B.C.’s unceded territory. So the First Nations have legal rights that are quite significant. That combined with the environmental movement have really put that on the back burner. And there is another pipeline planned to go into a port in the Vancouver area. There’s lot of opposition from the municipalities. At this point there hasn’t been that significant of a direct action. There have been wide-scale pledges of, If they start this process, we’re going to block it physically. At this point it looks unlikely that they will be able to get the pipeline through, because even the right-wing provincial government of B.C. has come out in opposition to the main pipeline.
There has been some direct action, sort of symbolic direct action or symbolic getting arrested, against the Keystone XL in Ottawa. But the battle to some extent in Canada has been lost, because the National Energy Board has okayed the project and the opposition has really been coalesced more on the pipelines out to B.C., because that’s where groups have much more capacity to actually block the pipelines, whereas the one down south is much more difficult to oppose.
And that Northern Gateway pipeline is an Enbridge project. And then the U.S. pipeline is being projected to be built by TransCanada.
Both of them are Calgary-based. Enbridge is a major pipeline company that wants to take that oil out to the West Coast and then export it to Asia, possibly export it down to Southern California. TransCanada is the one building the Keystone XL, has already built portions of that longer pipeline, and is now calling on the Obama government to okay the cross-border component, which he has authority to say yes or no to. I think they’re the two most important pipeline companies in Canada.
But it’s not just the companies themselves. It’s the whole Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers that’s behind this, and at the end of the day all of the companies that are invested in the Alberta tar sands that have direct interest in the building of these pipelines. So the companies themselves are big multinational corporations, but they have numerous bigger multinational corporations, from Total to Exxon to many others, kind of behind them in supporting the building of these pipelines.
And China is proposing to invest quite significantly in the tar sands.
A Chinese oil company, CNOOC, recently purchased for $15 billion, Nexen, a Canadian company heavily operating in the tar sands. The purchase by the Chinese company is in part because they obviously want access to the tar sands oil, but it’s also the expertise. The Canadian companies producing in Alberta are at the kind of forefront of the extraction technologies of this really dirty and difficult to get to oil. So for the Chinese, there are other parts of the world where similar forms of oil exist, so there’s a desire to build up that expertise for use globally.
A Canadian organization called someofus.org has called FIPA, the Foreign Investment Protection Agreement, between China and Canada, “the most secretive and sweeping trade deal of a generation.”
It’s been postponed. The Harper government signed FIPA. But it has not been passed in the House of Commons because about six months ago, when it became public, there was a groundswell of opposition. Because the accord really extends the investor rights of Chapter 11 in NAFTA, which allows foreign companies to sue the government if they feel they’ve had their profits impacted. And it has a really long shelf life. Once it’s signed, it’s in effect for 30 years. Whereas NAFTA, whatever country—I think it’s six months they have to give notice to pull out of the agreement.
There’s speculation that FIPA is a way of locking in Chinese investment into the tar sands. Some even speculated that the Conservative government wants this accord with China to strengthen the push to get that oil from Alberta out through B.C. and actually be able to hang it over the heads of the provincial government in B.C. and the communities that oppose it. That by the rules of FIPA the Chinese company would be able to sue Canada. That would then put further pressure to build the Northern Gateway pipeline to get the oil out to Asia. Whether that’s true or not, I’m not sure.
But what is clear is this is a further intense extension of investor rights and that whole process of corporate capitalist globalization that’s been going on for a couple of decades of putting the rights of investors above those of indigenous communities, above those of governments to regulate, above environmental accords, etc.
How did the sale of Nexen to CNOOC go over?
Harper okayed the purchase but it was controversial, even fairly controversial within the government itself.
Someofus.org says that this takeover of Nexen will open the floodgates to a wave of foreign buyouts of Canada’s resources.
That’s not the criticism I would make. First of all, there’s lots of foreign investment in the tar sands already, companies from Exxon to the French company Total to Norway’s Statoil to state-owned oil company from Qatar. I think one of the reasons why the Nexen purchase received so much opposition, even from establishment voices, is that China is seen as sort of a geopolitical rival of the West, of the U.S., Canada. So when a state-owned company from Qatar invests in the tar sands the reaction is different. Qatar is an ally of the West. It’s equally as repressive as China, it’s a state-owned company like the Chinese company, but that gets very little criticism.
I oppose foreign investment in general into natural resources. In fact, I oppose Canadian corporate investment. I think natural resources should be in the hands of local communities, in conjunction with provincial and national governments. And that should be everywhere in the world. That doesn’t just go for Chinese investment into Canada, but that also goes for Canadian mining investment in the Congo. You read in the business pages of The Globe and Mail or the National Post, the two dominant business papers, about how one Canadian company has paid $3 billion to another Canadian company to buy a mine or two in the Congo. The question of the Congolese is just completely off the agenda. But foreign investment, particularly in natural resources, whether it’s an American company or a Chinese company, I’m not a big supporter of either of these options.
Talk about the First Nations in Alberta and how they are adversely affected by the tar sands project, the Athabasca Nation. There has been a huge increase in rare cancers, there’s been contamination of water, wildlife has been imperiled.
In Fort Chipewyan, which is probably the worst hit significant sized community—multiple thousands of people live there, predominantly indigenous people—the cancer rates have risen significantly. There has been just incredible pressure on the doctors—this is going back several years—when it started to become clear that the toxins being released in the tar sands extraction were increasing cancer rates. There were some attempts by a doctor working there to document the issue. He got incredible pressure, basically got run out by the provincial government. The question has been proven beyond a reasonable scientific doubt at this point, that there have been increased cancer rates, but that’s put aside for the profits that the oil companies are extracting. There is a long history in this country, obviously, of natural resource extraction being at the expense of the first peoples, that had their land taken from them and continue to have their land taken from them across what is currently called Canada.
Not unlike the U.S.
One of the chapters in The Ugly Canadian is “Mining the World.” You quote Harper saying, “Canadians are justly proud of our mining industry for its elevated sense of corporate social responsibility.” Then you quote a Foreign Affairs spokesperson from Ottawa, “Canada’s mining sector leads the world in responsible mining practices.”
That’s just Orwellian. The way to hide a problem is by boasting in the complete opposite direction. Even the Mining Association of Canada, there was a report of theirs leaked in 2011 which showed that Canadian mining companies were engaged in the biggest number of what they call “corporate social responsibility problems” around the world. The evidence, the documentation, is just absolutely overwhelming. At this point, and unbelievable as it might sound, you can pretty much pick any country in the global south and you will find an example of a Canadian-run company that’s involved in a conflict with the local community that has spurred violence, that has spurred ecological problems, from Ghana to Papua New Guinea, Chile to Guatemala. There is an example of a Canadian mining company that hired security forces who were then involved in raping people from the local community. Oftentimes because there’s resistance to the mine, people are killed because the community opposes the mine and the company is adamant that it’s going to move forward. So the examples are just absolutely overwhelming. Mostly ignored, of course, by the dominant media in this country. But groups like Mining Watch Canada and a whole series of different independent media outlets have just documented story after story after story. Increasingly, they have trickled out into the dominant media.
But the Harper government has blocked all attempts to bring in minimal regulations for mining companies. One of the reasons there are so many mining companies based in Canada, on Canadian stock exchanges, particularly the Toronto Stock Exchange and the Vancouver Stock Exchange, is that communities don’t have the right to pursue legally a company in this country that is responsible for abuses abroad. The U.S. something like 100 countries in the world have laws that allow people from other countries to pursue a company from the U.S. or elsewhere in a home court for what they did abroad. That doesn’t exist in Canada.
It’s precisely because the whole regulatory environment is incredibly permissive to what companies based in Canada do abroad, a big part of the reason, that so many of the mining companies are based here. Sixty percent of the world’s mining companies are based in Canada, on Canadian stock exchanges. I think it’s something like 40% of all mining capital from the world is on Canadian stock exchanges. So Canada is far and away the biggest player in the global mining sector, particularly in the juniors; a big player among the big companies, but particularly among the junior mining companies. The Harper government is just an ardent defender of the mining sector, no matter what the companies are involved in abroad. If there are examples where the company’s security forces have killed people, they still defend the Canadian mining company.
What you described as the lack of legal redress and criminal prosecution, is that connected with what you call, “Canadian mining investment is dependent on extreme free-market capitalism”? Is this extreme free-market capitalism?
It’s not free-market capitalism when you have the Canadian government lobbying on your behalf in Ecuador to introduce Canadian miners to local authorities. That’s not extreme free-market capitalism. That’s a clear example of government supporting the mining sector. But that’s ignored in the discussion. But what the Canadian mining sector has benefited from is a whole series of pro-capitalist reforms, often pushed by the International Monetary Fund through its structural adjustment programs, things like the reforms that came alongside NAFTA in Mexico. In the lead-up to NAFTA there were changes to the ejido system. Corporations in Mexico benefited from the elimination of the ejido system, where local communities had control over the rights of the subsoil and mining. This placated Canadian and other foreign investors. They did not have to worry about having “their” property taken over by local communities. At the time of NAFTA, in the mid-1990s, there was no foreign mining company operating in Mexico. By 2010 there were 375 Canadian mining companies operating in that country. Almost the entire mining sector is Canadian-dominated.
As I mentioned before, in 1989 there was $250 million in Canadian mining investment in Africa. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there was a whole series of structural adjustment programs pushed by the IMF, which often opened up those African countries’ natural resource sectors to foreign ownership and exploitation. Canadian companies are a dominant player throughout Africa; they’ve been the primary beneficiary.
When we talk about the ugly Canadian in terms of Harper’s foreign policy, structurally an important component of that is that these Canadian mining companies that are all across the globe understand that resource nationalism and socialistic reforms are a big threat to their profits. That’s part of why you see that Peter Munk, who is the head of Barrick Gold, the biggest Canadian mining company, came out viciously against Hugo Chavez. Even though his company has had no investments in Venezuela, he denounced Chavez as a dictator and has been very aggressively opposed to him because he understands that the sort of socialistic reforms that were being pursued there are a real threat to his interests elsewhere, if other countries start pursuing those reforms.
One of the first reforms that movements against neoliberalism pursue is they call for higher royalty rates on foreign investment, in the natural resource sector they call for nationalizing of natural resources. So the rise of the mining sector has had a major impact on creating a more generally right-wing Canadian foreign policy.
Chavez, of course, passed away in March of 2013.
And the Canadian government was the only government that used the opportunity to criticize Chavez, which prompted a very hostile letter from the Venezuelan government to the Harper government. Which is just another example of this over-the-top behavior—even Obama had the good sense to write a sort of don’t-say-anything type of statement about Chavez’s death, but Harper used it as an opportunity to again show that he’s the most right-wing government in the hemisphere.
Harper’s hostility to nationalist governments in Latin America doesn’t extend to Cuba.
It is a very interesting development. First of all, there are lots of Canadian corporate interests in Cuba that have to some extent benefited from the U.S. embargo. Now, ideologically, they are, of course, incredibly hostile to Cuba, but they have kept that pretty minimal. Here and there there’s an odd criticism that’s ideologically driven, but they’ve mostly avoided an open fight with the Cuban government. But also, there are about a million Canadian tourists who go to Cuba every year. So there’s a sense of—you could almost call it solidarity among Canadians, an understanding that the American embargo is unfair and it’s a punishment of Cuba that’s not warranted. So the combination of quite a bit of sympathy among the public and significant corporate interests have led to a situation where the Harper government has just decided to try to avoid the question and has quieted down the most ideological bunch in their attacks against Cuba.
Canada is militarily involved in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Are mining companies also involved because Afghanistan is known to have huge deposits of precious metals and minerals?
There has been a whole series of articles in the business pages of the Canadian papers going back five, six, seven years about the natural resources in Afghanistan and precisely the position that Canadian companies would be in to benefit because of the heavy military involvement of Canada in Afghanistan. Some are saying as many as a trillion dollars’ worth of natural resources, of different minerals, in Afghanistan. Because of the security situation, it’s been slow in terms of developing. One Canadian company did get a quarter stake in I think it’s an Indian-led project, a fairly significant project in Afghanistan. But there is no doubt that that was one of the issues sort of hovering in the background of Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan, which continues with about 1,000 Canadian troops that are no longer supposed to be militarily involved, they’re just supposed to be training Afghans, but are clearly still part of the U.S.-led occupation of that country.
And in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the tenth anniversary of which was recently observed, Canada to some extent did not directly get itself involved militarily but it profited enormously from the U.S. invasion.
It wouldn’t be correct to say that Canada didn’t get involved militarily. Canada didn’t join, the Chrétien government, because of massive protests, particularly in Quebec. There were huge protests in Montreal. And with a provincial election coming up in Quebec, a fear in the Chrétien government of the time, since like 80% of Quebec were against the war, that supporting the war would benefit the sovereignist Parti Québécois, that wants an independent Quebec. They didn’t join the “coalition of the willing.” They didn’t formally endorse the war but they did a whole bunch of things that supported it. For instance, there were Canadian troops integrated in U.S. units that were part of the invasion; there were Canadian generals, one general who then became the head of the Canadian military, who was actually in charge of 35,000 foreign troops in Baghdad, and a couple of other Canadian generals in similar positions at different points; there were Canadian naval vessels off the coast of Iraq.
Actually, the government had a legal opinion that because of Canada’s role in charge of this NATO force off the coast of Iraq, that we were actually legally at war with Iraq because it was about stopping Iraqi ships. There were Canadian training missions of jets in Iraq. A whole series of different forms of Canadian support to the war in Iraq, but not the main form, what Bush wanted above all else, which was that public endorsement of the invasion.
So Iraq, on one hand, is an example of the success of the antiwar movement in this country, but on the other hand, it’s an example of how deeply integrated the Canadian military establishment is with the U.S. military establishment. There are something like 150 different military accords between Canada and the U.S., most prominently through NORAD. So this country has a deep history of being tied into U.S. militarism, going back certainly to the post-World War II period.
In North Africa and the Middle East you write that the reasons for Harper’s foreign policy may be more complex than the straightforward promotion of wealthy people’s financial interests. What are some of those reasons?
It depends on the country. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the Harper government, is deeply tied to the monarchy. Part of that has an economic component. Part of it is that Saudi Arabia is a long-standing U.S. ally in the region and I guess was threatened in the context of the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests.
In the case of Israel, the Harper government has made Canada the most pro-Israel, diplomatically at least, country in the world—very aggressively in support of whatever the right-wing government in Israel does, says nothing about the expansion of settlements. But I think Harper, like George Bush Jr., is tied in to a sort of evangelical Christian Zionist movement. Obviously, Israel is seen as a geopolitical ally.
I wrote a book called Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid, which goes into the long history of Canada’s support for Israel, which predates the creation of Israel in 1948. There are long-standing Christian Zionist views in this country, and also a long-standing view of Israel and Zionism before the creation of Israel in 1948, of Israel being a tool of Western imperialism in the region. There were people going back to the late 1800s in this country calling for a dominion of Israel as part of the British Empire, just like Canada.
So Israel is an example where there’s a mix of motivations for this strong pro-Israel support. But two of those are a combination of a Christian Zionist movement that Harper represents and also, part of what the Conservative government wants to do. They want to replicate the sort of social model of the Republican Party, where it’s completely pro-business party. But how do you develop a base of activists and how do you have people vote for you? Part of that in the U.S. is focusing on social issues and trying to build a base of support among a certain subsector of the population through Christian Zionism, and other sorts of social issues that they’ve pursued.
Quoting Andrew Nikiforuk, “Republican religious tribalism is now Ottawa’s worldview.”
Exactly. I think Harper pretty consciously looks to the Republican Party as what to try to replicate—fortunately, in lots of ways unsuccessfully on a number of the social issues. The public has become so accepting of things like gay marriage that it’s difficult for them to go where they want to go, abortion being obviously the biggest issue. But still a big chunk of the Conservative Party MPs are people who are antagonistic to abortion, who are antagonistic to gay marriage. That’s a big part of the base of their party.
Ten percent of Canadians identify themselves as evangelical. So that’s about 3 to 3 1/2 million people, including the prime minister and some of his cabinet ministers as well. In the U.S., Christian fundamentalists see the extraction of resources as a bounty that God has given and used that as justification.
The church that Harper goes to—it’s unclear if he really believes in this stuff or he sees this as politically useful to belong to this church—has said similar kind of stuff like that about climate change and God’s role and the denial of climate change, that it’s our duty to extract these resources and the like. To me, it’s obviously a self-serving ideology from the standpoint of oil and mining companies. Nonetheless it convinces many people who aren’t necessarily directly benefiting from the process in significant ways.
Years ago I remember listening to a Noam Chomsky lecture which was recorded here in Toronto. He began with, “I landed today at an airport named after a war criminal,” the Lester Pearson International Airport at Toronto, the very one that I landed at today. Why would Chomsky describe Pearson, a former prime minister of Canada, as a war criminal?
Actually, that story that Chomsky tells in the book Understanding Power I included in the forward that he wrote for my book Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping: The Truth May Hurt. In Canada it’s important to note that there is this strong idea of Canada being a benevolent international actor. A lot of people, even on the left, believe that it’s Harper that has wrecked Canadian foreign policy, that prior to that it was morally directed. That’s untrue, and it’s an important part of what I’ve tried to challenge in my previous books.
Lester Pearson is the preeminent symbol of that supposedly benevolent Canadian foreign policy. He was the most important post-World War II Canadian foreign policy decision maker. He was head of External Affairs from 1949 to 1956, he was then prime minister from 1963 to 1968, and had a number of different roles in the External Affairs bureaucracy.
Chomsky’s focus for referring to Pearson as a war criminal—I agree, correctly so—is Pearson’s role in the Vietnam War, and specifically in terms of delivering American bombing threats to the North Vietnamese. That came out in the Pentagon Papers, that Pearson, in a meeting with Lyndon Johnson, had okayed having Canadian officials who were on the International Control Commission, which was supposed to be bringing peace to the region, go to the North Vietnamese and say, If you don’t do this, we, meaning, of course, the U.S., will bomb you. And the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam was quite clearly a war crime. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. There was Canadian complicity in that process, among many other elements of the war in IndoChina.
But Pearson’s record, actually, is the reason that the second part of the title of my book is called The Truth May Hurt. I think for lots of left nationalists, it hurts them to hear this stuff. But Pearson played a big role in the founding of NATO. He played a terrible role in the Korean War. He was the external minister. He actually threatened to resign if Canada didn’t send ground troops to Korea. That’s a war that left 3 to 4 million people killed. At one point the U.S. stopped bombing North Korea because all buildings of more than two stories were thought to have been destroyed. This was a war of incredible brutality, something that makes the war in Afghanistan or the bombing and the war in Libya look tame comparatively. But Pearson was a big player in that. And he was the person most responsible for moving Canada from support for British imperialism towards support for American imperialism in that post-World War II period.
Why did Canada get militarily involved in Libya?
One, it’s a strong proponent of NATO, going back to the creation of NATO. There are also significant Canadian corporate interests in Libya that were put in jeopardy with the uprising and some of the Western response to that. Another internal Canadian government document that just came out a couple days ago showed that immediately before the war was over the priority was securing Canadian investments and benefiting from the reconstruction process in Libya.
There were some specific elements. The Canadian government in the process was trying to purchase 65 F35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin, which has been a very controversial issue in Canada.
Because of the cost, primarily. That’s what the dominant media focus has been on, because the cost is just escalating to $35 billion or $40 billion, and the government has sort of tried to suppress the cost. They initially said it was going to be $9 billion, and then they came out, It’s going to be twice that, and then they just tried to lie about it. That’s most of what the media talks about.
Obviously, from my standpoint, we shouldn’t be buying F35 fighter jets because the point of F35 fighter jets is to kill people. And I think there’s lots of progressive opinion in this country that opposes the F35 for that reason. That’s been a controversial issue. The bombing of Libya was just before the Canadian election and right at a time when the F35 was particularly controversial. So from the government’s standpoint, the bombing of Libya sort of justified spending more on fighter jets. The corporate media basically said, We need these F35s because this wonderful moral crusade we’re doing in Libya is an example of why we need a top-of-the line fighter jet.
But a big part of the reason why the government wants the F35 is because the military is so into it, and the military is so into it because that’s the top-of-the-line fighter jet. And to be well integrated into the U.S. military, that’s your best bet, to be that away, alongside many Canadian companies that are involved in the production of the fighter jets.
But when it came to neighboring countries of Libya, to wit, Tunisia and Egypt, Ottawa, the Harper government, supported the Ben Ali and Mubarak dictatorships right till the end.
Egypt was a particularly embarrassing situation for Harper. Three hours before Mubarak publicly announced his resignation, Harper was making a speech essentially endorsing Mubarak’s transition plan, which was something that was opposed overwhelmingly by the pro- democracy movement. In the case of Tunisia, it was a bit lower-profile, but likewise they supported Ben Ali to the bitter end. So the idea that they supported the bombing of Libya or the opposition in Libya just because they believe in democracy is absurd and is obviously shown in the case of Egypt or Tunisia. But it’s also shown in the case of Saudi Arabia, where they’ve strengthened Canadian military, diplomatic, and business ties. Saudi Arabia, of course, being a monarchy that is one of the most repressive places in the world.
The Harper government is also engaged in a major navy ship building expansion and is setting up military bases around the world. How has the post-9/11 War on Terror environment intersected with the growth of Canadian militarism?
It’s been a fundamental sort of justifying of the ramping up of militarism, the war in Afghanistan being the most obvious example, that that was sort of justified in the post-9/11 context. And then that justified a really ramping up of military budgets, which began a little bit before Harper took office but then just exploded in the first five years of the Harper government, with the Canadian military budget going from about $15 billion to about $23 billion over about five years of significant increases every year.
They’re in the midst of a massive $35 billion warship building project, which is about projecting force abroad, which is also what the setting up of seven military bases around the world is about. One is already set with Jamaica, Kuwait, Germany, and plans—this came out about a year and a half ago—the government didn’t want this to come out but it came out through a leak—for bases in Kenya, in South Korea, in Senegal. It’s a little bit unclear which countries will ultimately accept the Canadian bases and which countries the Canadian government will choose. But it’s about being able to respond to conflicts or events all around the world. And the history is that, contrary to the mythology, what the decision makers say, is that usually they send Canadian troops places because there is an economic or a geostrategic reason to send them, not because it’s about helping the poor of Haiti, for instance, which is one of the justifications they gave for the bases.
But there has been a real extension of Canadian militarism. Which has really surprised, taken a lot of Canadians aback, just how aggressive that increase in militarism has been.
So that image of the blue-helmeted Canadian peacekeeper is largely a myth.
It’s always largely been a myth. For a lot of people the Harper government has just exploded that in their faces. It’s never been true, as I’ve tried to point out in previous books. And, in fact, even the creation of peacekeeping in 1956 with the Suez crisis, Lester Pearson’s motivation, who was then the External Affairs minister, was to support the U.S., which opposed the British-French-Israeli invasion. The U.S. didn’t oppose that invasion because they had a moral disagreement. It was because they wanted to tell the former colonial powers, France and England, that there was a new boss in the region, Washington. And they were also worried that the British- French-Israeli invasion would add to Moscow’s prestige among the recently decolonized Arab countries. The motivation for creating the peacekeeping mission was to advance Washington’s geostrategic interests. But it got morphed in the history books written by the establishment to be this idea of a benevolent Canadian foreign policy, which has close to zero basis in reality.
And what’s happening further north, that is to say, the Arctic? What with global warming increasing the melting of the ice there, the sea lanes are going to be opening and Canada is going to be defending the north, presumably.
They justify the spending on the military partly on those grounds. In fact, what I understand from the F35 fighter jet, for instance, it’s actually not the right fighter jet if you really wanted to protect the north, because the distances are so large and it’s not ideal for flying in those contexts. But there’s no doubt that there’s increasing corporate interest in the north. One of those sad ironies of climate change is that they see this as an opportunity: the oil companies, that are largely responsible for the climate change, see the climate change as an opportunity to extract more oil that they previously were not able to get after. And also, of course, there are questions of significantly cutting the travel time for shipping of goods across the north. There are questions about territorial rights. The Canadian government has very wide demands or believes its rights to control over the seaways are quite strong, and there’s disagreement among a handful of countries in the north over those issues.
In post-9/11 U.S. there has been an evisceration of many guaranteed rights under the Constitution. Have similar things occurred in Canada, under the rubric of protecting the citizenry from the terrorist threat?
Defintely. There was a big increase in the security certificates, which are basically used against a handful of Muslim Canadians who were targeted by CSIS, which is the internal and external intelligence agency, sort of a cross between the FBI and CIA. There has, fortunately, on that issue been quite an impressive push-back from activist groups, which has forced a number of individuals to be released—long, multi-year protest movements that combine street activism with legal battles. But there has been expansion. Things like the G20, G8 protests in Toronto, just an incredible number of arrests and temporary legislation that was brought in that comes out of the post-9/11 rise of a security state. I don’t think it has been quite as intense as in the U.S., but nevertheless a significant rise of sort of Islamophobia and different laws that justify state control or stopping of dissent or creating fear among different immigrant and particularly Muslim communities.
At the Pearson airport today I was pulled over and questioned, basically because I have Pakistani, Syrian, Egyptian, and Iranian visas in my passport.
Certainly an Iranian visa would attract the attention of the authorities because the Harper government has gone out of its way to be incredibly hostile to Iran and talk up preparing for an attack on that country. Recently they shut down the Iranian embassy in Canada. There are about 200-300,000 Iranian Canadians. There are thousands, tens of thousands, I think, of Iranian students who have come to study here who overnight have no access to visas. Their ability to travel, to go home, to stay have just been thrown into jeopardy. So there’s no doubt that CSIS has been particularly interested in those questions. And that might have contributed to your being asked questions.
I should say, the official was pleasant and wanted to know where I was going, where I was staying, things like that, and she said, “Have a nice time.” But what prompted Harper to sever diplomatic relations with Tehran and to oust all Iranian diplomats in Canada?
They alluded to a threat of an Iranian government- sponsored terrorist attack against Canada. That’s how they justified it, or partly justified it. But I think what actually prompted it was they’ve taken increasingly a bellicose position on Iran and have been repeatedly condemning Iran in a whole series of different international forums.
But part of what prompted it was actually Iran had just hosted the nonaligned summit, which was a big rebuke to Washington’s, Ottawa’s, Tel Aviv’s position on trying to isolate Iran. It was a couple weeks after that that Ottawa severed relations, kicked out the Iranian embassy. It was partly a way to try to draw negative attention towards Iran. Iran is again being further isolated, was sort of what they were trying to portray.
I think one of the reasons that enabled the cutting off of diplomatic relations is because for so many years previous to that they’ve been dissuading business relations with Iran. The main objective of a Canadian embassy anywhere in the world is to advance Canadian corporate interests. But once the government has tried to stop those corporate interests in the country, to some extent what’s the point of having an embassy anymore?
There are Canadian naval vessels as part of the U.S. armada running provocative maneuvers off the coast of Iran. Canadian government officials a number of times have referred to how the Canadian military is planning for an action against Iran; repeated diplomatic criticisms, a long list of hostile comments and actions towards Iran over the past three, four, five years.
Al Jazeera had a story on Canada’s war on science. They’re saying, “Canadian campaigners are calling it a war on science, a slow and systematic unraveling of the environmental and climate research budgets under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. Hundreds of researchers have lost their jobs, with those remaining reportedly forbidden from talking to the media without a government minder. The government, on the other hand, says the cuts are part of a wider deficit-reducing austerity program.”
As they cut funding for Environment Canada, they increase carbon-capture programs, that are basically a big subsidy to the oil sands companies. The Harper government, as part of this pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol, part of their support for the tar sands industry, has cut a slew of different programs that deal with climate change or climate disturbance, the research element. And it’s actually prompted fairly significant protests from scientists.
About eight months ago there were a couple thousand scientists in their white coats who marched on Parliament Hill denouncing the war on them, as they see it. And there has been a muzzling of Environment Canada researchers. Where previously reporters were able to call different government researchers to ask them what research they were working on, what it means, to get an understanding of it, the Harper government has brought in this whole process of completely controlling what is said. So here you have a situation where these are public servants, researchers who are doing all kinds of important work, and they are not allowed to talk to the media. As I said, it fits within their overarching sort of hostility towards climate science. I think it also kind of fits into a little bit of their social kind of conservatism, just a general sort of anti-science position.
Talk about the corporate media and its influence in Canada in terms of shaping public opinion.
On the foreign policy level, the space for serious criticism of Canadian foreign policy is almost nonexistent. As a personal anecdote, I’ve written numerous op-eds on different Canadian foreign policy topics for different corporate dailies. Basically none of them ever get published. For the last 10 months I have been working for a union, and I’ve had about 15 different op-eds on domestic issues published, albeit from the institution, from the president of the union, so there is an institutional weight that comes with that. That’s part of it. But most of it is that there is just incredibly limited space on foreign policy. On domestic issues there is a little bit more space to have critical voices.
There is a more significant union movement in this country than there is in the U.S., and that does have some impact on media dynamics. Obviously, there’s the CBC, the public broadcaster, that is perceived to have been a bit more of an open voice. I think that’s mostly exaggerated, certainly on foreign policy. The CBC is absolutely unwilling to cover something like The Ugly Canadian book. Generally, it’s pretty similar. The media here in this country get most of their money from advertising, which comes from big companies. The Globe and Mail, the most important paper in the country, is owned by the richest person in the country. It’s actually more concentrated than U.S. media, because in the U.S. there are controls, as I understand it, on owning the main paper and main TV station in a single market, whereas in Canada Global Television and Post Media, which are the biggest chain of newspapers and one of the biggest TV stations, was owned by the same company.
Is that Thompson?
That was Asper. They went into bankruptcy about a year and a half ago, so it’s been busted up a little bit. For instance, in Vancouver, they owned the two daily newspapers, the Global Television TV station, which would have been the second or third biggest, one of three stations that you would have when you’re not on cable, as well as a whole slew of the weekly papers. So the concentration of the media in this country is worse than that in the U.S. And the underlying structure: owned by big companies dependent on advertising, responsive to criticism that comes from corporations, other rich people, institutions of power. So it’s pretty important in terms of shaping opinion, especially on foreign policy. As it gets further away from people’s day-to-day lives, the power the media has in terms of shaping people’s understanding is quite extensive.
Who is the richest person in Canada?
Your book The Ugly Canadian is published by Fernwood, a small, independent publisher. How many copies of books like this are printed?
The standard for Fernwood is they print between 500 and 1,000 copies. And Fernwood at this point is probably the biggest of radical left-wing publishers. There are only a couple of them. And this book, I think there were 3,000 copies printed, and hopefully most of them will be sold.
And what about political alternatives? What do you see challenging the hegemony of the Harper government in Ottawa?
First of all, the Harper government won with 39% of the vote, with about 60% of the public voting, only 60% of registered voters, not counting younger people. So only about 25% of the population or so actually voted for the Conservatives, and they got a majority government with that percentage. So it’s a pretty tenuous situation. They are somewhere between maybe 30% and 40% of support. So about half of the voting public that’s quite antagonistic.
In the electoral arena, I think there’s a high likelihood that in 2015, which is the next election, they won’t win, especially if the housing market crashes and if things like the Keystone pipeline don’t get built, because so much of their whole economic model is based upon the extraction of oil, particularly tar sands oil. There are lots of challenge in the official arena, with the NDP and the Liberals. And the Liberals have the son of Pierre Trudeau. Justin Trudeau is going to almost certainly be the next head of the party. So they’re in this whole process of reviving the Liberal Party, which has been in power for 70% of Canadian history. The NDP also challenges them in the official arena.
More interesting for me are the movements of contestation from below. There are significant social movements on foreign policy issues. There’s a growing pro-Palestinian movement. There’s, unfortunately, a fairly quiet antiwar movement at the moment. There’s a significant anti-mining or opposition to Canadian mining companies abroad. That’s a growing movement in the country. There’s the environmental movement, particularly in places like B.C. There’s a plan for a pipeline across Canada. Line 9 it’s called. So here in Ontario there’s lots of opposition to that. So there are significant social movements. The labor movement is more politicized than in the U.S., a bit more class-conscious, a bit more antagonistic to bosses’ control. So that exists. That’s generally on the defensive and it’s unfortunately too much of a bureaucratized kind of movement. But there are oppositions.
There are some interesting things. The Harper government hasn’t gone after Medicare in any significant way, understanding that even among Conservative voters it’s the top issue. Overwhelmingly Conservative voters support Medicare.
This is the single-payer health system.
And the more you hear about problems with the U.S. medical system, the more support there is for the single-payer system in Canada, because the stories do trickle up about just how bad the model of private health insurance is in the U.S.
So while they’re a majority government, and they’re incredibly ideological on a whole bunch of issues—they’ve done terrible things, particularly with regard to the environment, their foreign policy is horrible, their undermining of First Nations’ rights—at the end of the day they are still constrained by the political reality.
And the political reality is that there is almost 30% of the public that’s in unions, almost three times as much as in the U.S., there is a Medicare system, there’s a sense of the correctness of the government being the main player in health care, there is a tradition, as much as they’re trying to change that, of sort of openness with regards to immigration. So there are constraints, there are social movements. But like in the U.S., there are also the institutions, the dominant media and the 1%, that at the end of the day have overwhelming control over public policy.
How did you become an activist?
I actually went from playing junior hockey. When I was 19, I stopped playing junior hockey. I have a left-wing background with my parents, but for most of my teenage years I was focused on trying to make the NHL. That didn’t work out. And I had some opportunities to travel in Latin America and had the good fortune to go to Montreal, to Concordia University, which at the time was the most politically active university in the country. I didn’t go there for that purpose, but that’s what I was exposed to, and then got involved in student political affairs and became a vice president for the Concordia Student Union. It happened that Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then the former prime minister of Israel, was going to speak at Concordia. And in the aftermath of Netanyahu not being able to speak, I was expelled from the university.
There were huge protests that led to cops actually releasing pepper spray or tear gas inside the university building, to the point where thousands of students that were in their classes were subjugated to the pepper spray or tear gas. It’s not exactly clear. They deny the tear gas element. Windows were broken. It was quite a raucous demonstration that the police a combination of both lost control of and really exaggerated their response. But there was a really significant pro-Palestinian movement at Concordia University and a really significant radical left that for about five years running was probably the most active, very heavily involved in the protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, pro-Palestinian, different feminist struggles. So I had the good fortune to be exposed to those movements. And that sort of contributed to my activism today.
Who are some of your intellectual influences?
Many of the books that you’ve done with Noam Chomsky. I’ve read I don’t know how many of them. I can remember being on a bench in Guanajuato, Mexico, having gotten one of the small ones, The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many that you did with him, in the little English library there for travelers. So people like Chomsky have been important in helping me to figure out the world. Writers in Canada like Rick Salutin, many others. Places like ZNet and CounterPunch or rabble.ca are important outlets of different left-wing voices.
(Due to time constraints some portions of the interview were not included in the national broadcast. Those portions are included in this transcript.)
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