Canadian Imperialism This Fall: Onwards and Upwards

In the end, the vote for the much sought-after seat wasn’t close, and Canada withdrew after the second round, conceding to smaller, debt-plagued Portugal. The Tories blamed Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, who definitely is worth criticizing for a score of issues, including his support for torture, his failed Employment Insurance reform and his general arrogance. But the defeat should be seen as a rebuke of the Tories’ aggressive foreign policy stance, including their unwavering support for Israel, pathetic contribution to international aid, support for the 2009 Honduran coup and their attempt to scuttle the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s efforts to get some of its foreign debt written off because the African nation had the temerity to shut down Vancouver-based First Quantum’s mining project.

Ecuador in Its Sights

I could have included Canada’s behaviour towards Ecuador in that list. On September 30, a section of Ecuador’s police and military organized demonstrations against the moderately left-of-centre government of Rafael Correa. The demonstrations quickly turned violent and Correa was actually taken hostage by police. The president was eventually freed, and the right-wing uprising put down by military forces loyal to the government. Correa and most supporters of the government called the military and police uprising an attempted coup.

Most South American governments and regional organizations were quick to condemn the coup attempt. But the Canadian government’s press release, which noted that it was “concerned about the growing unrest in Ecuador” — no mention of a coup attempt — was only issued after Correa was freed. In a move echoing its initial response to the coup against the very mildly reformist government of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, the release then called “on all parties to refrain from violence and any other actions that could imperil the rule of law and the country’s democratic institutions.” But, as in Honduras, only one side was attempting a coup and trying to undermine the country’s “democratic institutions.” The implication is that Correa bears some of the blame for the violent efforts of the police and military to depose him.

At the October 6 meeting of the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States, held to discuss the OAS Secretary General’s visit to Ecuador, Canada took the opportunity to criticize what it views as the democratic deficiencies of Correa’s Ecuador and other left-of-centre governments in the region. Canadian Ambassador Allan Culham put it this way:

“I would like to take this opportunity to remind us all of what I think is an important element of governance that we should not forget, and that is the need to create democratic spaces which are respectful of dialogue and respectful of all sectors of society to be sure that they have the opportunities to express views [yes, this is a representative of the Conservative government speaking!] … The creation of setting this tone of governance is an important part of all of our joint responsibilities and the enhancing of democratic principles throughout the hemisphere.”

The context for Canada’s unenthusiastic criticism of the coup attempt isn’t hard to discern. Canada, led by its insatiable mining industry, is a major foreign investor in the Andean country. There is a history of mass mobilization against Canadian mining and oil companies in Ecuador, and Canadian capital hasn’t had it easy since Correa was elected in 2006. Elected in part on a wave of anti-neoliberal sentiment and social movement struggle, the Correa government proposed changes to mining and taxation policy, calling for, among other things, greater regulation and state involvement in the resource sector and higher taxes and royalties on foreign investment. Canadian companies, with the support of the Canadian embassy in Quito, responded with a direct lobbying campaign to water down the legislation.

The proposed mining policy was weakened. Correa has declared his support for more “responsible” mining development led by foreign companies and attacked indigenous organizations and activists opposing the destruction of natural resources. But Canada is still clearly unhappy with the Ecuadorian government. The mining law leaves open the possibility of higher royalties on a per-case basis and Canada is still unsure of how committed Correa really is to giving foreign investors the full support and openness they prefer (and usually are provided in countries whose mining codes are developed with the assistance of the Canadian International Development Agency). Canada wants governments in the South completely prostrate, not just on their knees. The fact that Ecuador is a member of the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America (ALBA), the regional alliance of states led by Venezuela, adds to the hostility of the Canadian government.

There is also the matter of the new constitution, written by a constituent assembly Correa’s government convoked. Although critics on the left charge (quite fairly in my view) that Correa is not fully respecting the constitution, particularly when it comes to his support for large-scale resource development, the constitution formally supports a more inclusive political system, doesn’t embrace neoliberalism and defends the rights of nature and “pluri-nationalism” in recognition of indigenous peoples in Ecuador. In other words, even if Correa’s support for some aspects of the constitution is in the end quite tepid, the constitution reflects a developmental vision quite distant from that of the Canadian state and capital that is seen as threatening Canadian interests should it actually be fully respected.

The Correa government has also indicated its plans to withdraw from the Foreign Investment Protection Agreement it has with Canada. Modelled on Chapter 11 of NAFTA, FIPAs are designed to lock in the rights of foreign investors. In response to Ecuador’s announcement, Canadian politicians have made at least four trips to Ecuador in the last 15 months to discuss the country’s investment policy. It’s also likely that this has consumed much of the Quito embassy’s time and energy over the last year, even if such information isn’t readily available to the public.

Facing Down the Scourge of Mining Standards…

But all was not lost for Canadian imperialism in the last couple of months (and the Ecuadorian story isn’t finished). The Bill C-300, a private member’s bill to impose very modest standards on the international practices of Canadian mining companies was defeated at the end of October after furious lobbying by the mining industry (Canada’s mining industry is the world’s largest). Put forward by Liberal MP John McKay, the bill gathered steam in the wake of ongoing human rights and environmental violations in the Third World by Canadian companies (at least five opponents of Canadian investment have been assassinated in the last two years in Central America and Mexico, for starters) and the disclosure of a report commissioned and subsequently buried by the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, which found — surprise! — that Canadian companies have by far the worst human rights and environmental record in the world.

If it had been passed into law, the bill could have forced the withdrawal of public financial or political support from companies found to have committed human rights or environmental offences, though they faced no threat of criminal sanction or loss of incorporation. The Tories opposed it, of course, but they don’t have a majority in the House of Commons. The opposition parties weren’t whipped for the vote, and in the end 13 Liberals (including Ignatieff), 4 NDPers and 5 Bloquistes “missed” it. It’s probably a good thing for Canadian embassies throughout the Americas, though, since had the bill succeeded they likely wouldn’t have much to do anymore.

… and Democracy in Haiti

Canada has also been continuing with its commitment to undermine democracy in Haiti. Presidential and legislative elections will be held on November 28 in that extremely impoverished country. Once again, however, the Fanmi Lavalas (FL) party has been banned from participating by the country’s electoral council (largely handpicked by the administration of outgoing president and imperial ally, René Préval) on extremely flimsy procedural grounds. FL was led by former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, with widespread support among the Haitian poor, before a Canadian-, American- and French-backed coup forced him from office in 2004.

Despite the exclusion of FL (and 13 other parties), Canada has committed $5.8 million in financial assistance to the sham election. It hasn’t said a thing about the ban on FL or the continuing exile of the immensely popular Aristide. FL was also banned from senate elections in April 2009. It organized a boycott in response, and the turnout was less than 10%.

The election is taking place as Haitians are still trying to recover from the devastating earthquake of last January. However, much of the aid pledged by donor nations, including Canada, hasn’t been distributed, and most of the 1.5 million people displaced in the earthquake still live in squalid conditions with little access to clean water, healthcare or even tents. And now they face a cholera outbreak. Canada did, however, announce new aid measures on November 4:  $9.5 million for the construction of new headquarters for the Haitian National Police. “Security” has been a big part of Canadian aid since the 2004 coup. Canada has been funding a police force that has engaged in human rights violations and prisons that have been overcrowded with opponents of the coup. This security aid will be more pressing in the months ahead, as protests against the UN occupation and illegitimate government increase.

On balance, then, not a bad couple of months for Canadian imperialism. No Security Council seat, to be sure, and no coup in Ecuador (if perhaps a reminder to Correa to be careful). But no mining legislation or democracy in Haiti either.

Todd Gordon is a socialist in Toronto who teaches political science at York University. His new book, Imperialist Canada, has just been published by Arbeiter Ring. He can be reached at tsgordon [at]