Filling a crying need and shaking the myths

 Yves Engler’s The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy


blackbookWhen long-time Liberal “busboy” and former “rat-packer” Don Boudria was briefly minister for International cooperation and the Francophonie, he invited me to lunch during “Development Month” in 1997 to get some exposure in La Presse about his new portfolio and plans.

“Canada is received with open arms in Africa, you know. That’s because we come without the colonial baggage of the French and the Brits”, said he, a History graduate.

I could not let that delusional mantra go unchallenged. “That’s not true”, I said, “Canada is the very model of successful colonialism, or we’d be speaking Cree, Ojibwe or Inuktitut, instead of English and French”.

“Vous avez un point là”, he conceded after some thought, translating literally from the English: “You’ve got a point there”.

Yves Engler’s The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy is chockfull of such “points”, that demolish, as he writes in his Introduction, “Canadians’ self-appraisal of their country’s foreign policy (as) more positive that (that of) any other country”.

Consider the following hidden gems highlighted by Engler and his editors, Fernwood and Red Publishing, in promoting the book’s launch in the Spring:

  • After World War I, Canada asked Britain for its Caribbean colonies;
  • Washington did not press Ottawa to break relations with post-revolutionary Cuba because it wanted Canada to spy on the island;
  • Canadian companies were heavily invested in apartheid South Africa;
  • Canada helped overthrow Patrice Lumumba, the first elected Prime Minister of the Congo (Kinshasa), who was then murdered;
  • Canadian “aid” has often been used to rewrite mining codes to benefit Canadian mining companies;
  • Days after the September 11, 1973 overthrow of elected Chilean President Salvador Allende, Canada’s ambassador in Santiago called the victims of the military coup “the riffraff of the Latin American Left”;
  • Canada has been the 5th or 6th largest contributor to the US war against Iraq;
  • On many occasions since 1915, Canadian gunboats have been deployed in the Caribbean and around Central America’
  • Canada had between 250 and 450 nuclear-armed fighter jets in Europe in the 1960s;
  • Leftist US intellectual Noam Chomsky considers Peace Nobelist Lester Pearson, the icon of Canada’s “peacekeeping diplomacy”, a war criminal because of his support for the US war on Vietnam.

These are not State secrets anymore. They are facts available to any researcher.  But few are interested to go there. And that’s the beauty of Engler’s nearly 300-page book: it draws its contents from the public record, churning and sifting the material for gems that, strung together, present a shining mirror to Canada’s dark side, and the reality check is devastating.

It is a measure of Canada’s ambiguous role in world affairs – an appeasing discourse to go with its well-polished image of a peace-loving “middle power” ever-ready to mediate in conflicts, coupled with a dark record of its treatment of its First Nations and a loyalty to Britain going back to the Boer War, a loyalty then transferred to Uncle Sam with World War II, as befits this major offshoot of the British Empire – that its intellectual elite has not produced any comprehensive and sweeping History of its Foreign policy.

What exist in print are scattered and partial studies of specific issues, like Canada’s role in the two World Wars and in UN peacekeeping or its relations with Europe or Latin America, or more recently on its part in the eight-year Afghan War, written by career-driven academics or journalists in line with the official or at least the dominant view.

Engler, like many other Canadians, was amazed at the poverty of the existing literature and at the total lack of any critical analysis of Canadian foreign policy as a whole. But unlike them, he set out to fill that need, an endeavour perfectly in line with his political activism.

Engler, who is not yet 30, has a thick record of arrests and suspensions related to his militancy on topical issues as campaigns against the WTO and the FTAA, Canada’s 2004 intervention in Haïti to topple the elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and Palestinian rights.

He was suspended in 2002 from Concordia University for his role in  blocking an address by Benjamin Netenyahu. Other suspensions followed for “breaches” of the initial order. He was seen distributing leaflets on campus. He argues he was there not as a student but in his capacity as elected VP of the Student Union, an exemption granted by the court. All this led to a five-year suspension in 2004.

He also made headlines un 2005 by smearing Foreign Affairs minister Pierre Pettigrew with cranberry juice during a press conference and shouting: “Pettigrew lies, Haitians die”. He was again arrested later that year for heckling Prime Minister Paul Martin and shouting: “Paul Martin lies, Haitians die”.

These are the burning concerns that drove his research. He points out in his introduction that he is neither a foreign policy expert nor a veteran diplomat. And that’s a very good thing too. He delves into the material unfettered, informed by his basic commitments and thirsting for a critical grasp of Canada’s behavior on the world scene.

The result is fascinating. Engler tackles his subject as a conscientious student and, even better, as a probing journalist. He uses classic tools of investigative journalism and presents his material through quotes from media articles, journals, books and electronic interviews and statements, injecting himself editorially to the strictest minimum.

Individual chapters deal with the Caribbean, the Middle East, Latin America, East Asia, Central and South Asia, Africa, and Canada’s international alliances. Each chapter comprises essays on individual countries, alliances and topics, and concludes with a discussion where the author sums up his insights, and a long list of footnotes giving the sources of quotations used.

But Yves Engler remains first and foremost a political activist. His Black Book is obviously not intended to adorn library shelves. It is meant as a tool for reflection, discussion and action. The penultimate chapter is in fact entitled: “Why our foreign policy is the way it is and how to change it”. The book closes with an 18-page bibliography.

Yves kindly invited me to say a few words at the Montreal launch of his book. I said it was the best gift I could have hoped for as I retired after 35 years as a foreign affairs journalist with La Presse. I tried over the years to bring a Southern sensibility to the readers of La Presse in trying to understand current affairs, way and beyond the simplistic dominant media and official discourse of Canada and its wealthy partners as “good guys” and the rest of the world as “evil, bad, unpredictable and all incompetent”.

I also said that a vote of thanks should go to Concordia University for giving Yves Engler the time and further motivation to write this book, following Playing Left Wing: From Rink Rat to Student Radical, and Canada in Haïti: Waging War on the Poor Majority (with Anthony Fenton). To be fair, he has earned his degree.

Jooneed Khan is a Montreal journalist and human rights activist.