Understanding Canadian Imperialism

Why is this taking place? How do we explain what’s going on?

In a well-researched, wide-ranging work Todd Gordon details the many ways in which Canada is an imperialist power. Canada-based multinational corporations maintain exploitative relations with the Global South, with the full backing of the Canadian state, including a beefed-up military. He also highlights the ongoing colonial empire-building process of depriving indigenous peoples of their land and resources which starts in the Canadian state but extends to other parts of the world.

Understanding Imperialism

Documenting the real story of the predatory role of Canadian corporations and the Canadian state is an important and worthwhile task. However, Imperialist Canada doesn’t just tell that tale — it is also an important of work of theory. The book attempts to lay a solid foundation for understanding contemporary imperialism in general. And this understanding frames its more particular understanding of the global reach of Canadian corporations and the Canadian state.

This emphasis on theoretical foundations is a very refreshing counter to the widespread retreat from any kind of systematic coherent analysis and explanation of global injustice and the dynamics which create it. We need to understand the world in order to come up with effective strategies to change it.

Gordon writes better and with far more clarity and far less jargon than most academics. Unfortunately, at this point there is a very marginal left-wing intellectual culture in Canada and theoretical debates are often confined to a narrow layer of university faculty and graduate students. The theoretical aspects of the book can be a bit challenging for people not previously familiar with the debates. However, the book is copiously footnoted and this points readers to all sorts of interesting writings that many will never have heard of before.

Importantly, Imperialist Canada is not just theoretical. An enormous amounting of supporting evidence is presented in a very organized and quite accessible way.

The introduction presents a strong case for why we need to rethink Canada’s role in the world. Gordon argues that existing ideas — including those of much of the mainstream left and particularly Canadian left-nationalists — don’t enable us to clearly understand Canada’s role in the contemporary neo-liberal world. Gordon argues Canada has a coherent capitalist class with a very strong outward orientation, and that Canadian foreign and military policy is driven by those class interests.

In the next chapter Gordon tackles the question of what imperialism is and what shape it takes in the contemporary world. Following David McNally, he argues that “imperialism is system of global inequalities and domination… though which wealth is drained from the labour and resources of people in the Global South to the systematic advantage of capital in the North.”

Earlier forms of imperialism saw the conquest and colonial control of much of the world by European states, often with enormous violence. This has very clearly changed — although it has not entirely disappeared. Today the dominant mechanism of imperialism is the imposition of capitalist market imperatives, which have spread to virtually all corners of the globe.

This understanding of the domination of market imperatives on a global scale contradicts widely-held misconceptions that imperialism is reducible to the policies of horrid right-wing governments like those of Bush and Harper.

Gordon does not reduce imperialism to economics. The book is interlaced with passages about the highly racist ideological dimensions of imperialism and the “War or Terror.” Racism may be slightly less crude than at the height of the colonial era a century ago. But the underlying stereotypes remain and are used to justifying ongoing domination of the South, military interventions and the exploitation of cheap labour. However, this work is very clearly Marxist in its focus on underlying ways in which the accumulation of capital drives imperialist expansion.

Capitalism sustains itself through constant expansion. Much investment is now highly speculative and involved in high-risk financial transactions. However, the Marxist writer David Harvey has emphasized that opening up new geographical spaces of accumulation, along with privatizing previously state-held assets and public services, is a fundamental feature of neo-liberalism. This theme of accumulation by dispossession forms a central part of Gordon’s narrative.

Capital seeks new markets around the globe, looking for cheaper sources of labour and access to new sources of raw materials. In doing so it targets areas not fully absorbed into market relations, including the lands of indigenous people.

Canadian Imperialism Begins at Home

In a key and well-developed chapter, Gordon looks at how Canadian capital aided by the military and political authorities has carried out accumulation by dispossession at the expense of indigenous peoples in northern North America.

This involved the subjugation of indigenous nations and the seizure of their lands and other natural resources. Land was acquired by outright thievery, treaty-making and treaty-breaking. As a result of the destruction of their traditional ways of life many indigenous people were compelled to work for wages. The Canadian state pioneered an apartheid-style model of social control and set up residential schools to try to eliminate indigenous identity. However, assimilation efforts were never accepted and there is a long history of indigenous resistance.

This process of accumulation by dispossession continues into the present. While many indigenous people seek to preserve what’s left of their land-based ways of life, the federal government pushes for assimilation and the creation of a cheap and flexible indigenous labour force.

Governments seek to extinguish aboriginal title through the comprehensive treaty claims process, while specific claims drag on endlessly. Some indigenous communities have tried to secure rights through court challenges. Gordon points out the problems in relying on the law. He draws inspiration from many examples of direct action, including roadblocks, blockades and occupations, in response to incursions and resource grabs on native land.

Bay Street Goes South…

Canadian capital’s role in the Global South is certainly not new. However, Gordon argues that its activity there has expanded enormously in the neo-liberal era of globalized markets and investment.

Gordon effectively uses quotations from business leaders and government documents to show that they see gaining access to foreign markets and opportunities for expanded investment as important priorities. The future of Canadian capital is seen as lying not in the limited domestic market or in the US but on the global stage.

Canadian capital has an increasingly outward orientation. While the majority of its foreign investment goes to the US and other developed capitalist economies, a growing share is flowing to the South in search of higher profits.

Gordon notes ongoing efforts to expand in Asia. However, he places a strong emphasis on Latin America. Multinational corporations and the government believe Canadian capital can become a major player here. This analysis seems very timely, given Harper’s recent trip to Brazil, the Canada-Colombia free trade deal and the new deal signed with Honduras.

This corporate activity in Latin America is being made easier by neo-liberal policy changes that open the door to foreign investment in many sectors, notably in mining but also in telecommunications, utilities and banking.

The book is particularly strong in showing how deeply corporate interests and state policy are intertwined. Corporate aims include greater protection for investments and the demolition of obstacles to profit such as environmental regulations, labour laws and “excessive” royalties and taxes. Corporate expansion aboard is generously financed by state institutions such as Export Development Canada. The book also exposes the grossly self-serving character of Canada’s aid programs.

Meanwhile, Canada participates in international financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. These organizations foisted structural adjustment policies on the South. They have rebranded their efforts in terms of poverty reduction, but Gordon shows how their policies are still based on promoting market-based growth, not on addressing skyrocketing global inequality and injustice.

The fourth chapter of the book deals with violence and ecological disaster as consequences of expanded investment. A large chunk of this material deals with Canadian mining and energy companies. It is a revelation for those not familiar with the exposes of anti-mining activists. The documentation of a large number of abuses by a large number of companies convincingly demonstrates that we are not just dealing with a few bad apples. The book also indicts the record of Canadian corporate investors in the hydroelectric and telecommunications sectors, the sweatshop production of garments and financial services. Gordon argues these patterns of exploitation draw upon and reproduce the racial dynamic of imperialism.

… and so do the Canadian Forces

The next chapter, “Making the World Safe for  Capital,” shows that today’s largely market-based imperialism continues to generate resistance. So, like the direct colonialism of the past, today’s imperialism involves the use of armed force.

Much attention has been focused on the US military. But what about Canada’s military build-up? Gordon sharply contests Canada nationalist explanations from social democratic and liberal writers who say that Canada has departed from being a “peacekeeping nation” because of US influence. Instead he focuses on the strong linkages between Canadian capitalist expansion domestically and abroad and shifts in Canadian military and security policy.

He illustrates the strengthening of the “security” apparatus against alleged domestic threats — primarily indigenous militancy, but also against immigrants of colour. This preoccupation is not only domestic but extends far beyond Canada’s borders. Canada has joined with the US and major European powers in trying to impose an imperialist version of liberal democracy on the Global South.

Canada’s new military doctrine, like that of the US, is preoccupied with instability and threats  posed by “failed” and “failing” states, “terrorism” and regional conflicts. As Gordon writes, “the idea of the Global South as a dangerous and potentially hostile place, and the most likely location of future military missions, is firmly entrenched in Canadian security thinking.”

He shows how these purported threats don’t stand up to scrutiny. At the same time he tackles “humanitarian intervention” justified by the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which Canada played a major role in developing. This provides a rationale for interventions against sovereign states in the South and in practice has been applied in a totally hypocritical, arbitrary and politically self-serving way. There is nothing peaceful about such interventions. Indeed, they are increasingly focused on military combat.

Many people say they would like Canada to go back to playing a peacekeeping role.  Here again Gordon debunks the supposed golden age of Canadian peacekeeping. He usefully contrasts the mythology to the actual, often far from benign, historical record from Vietnam to Somalia.

Imperialist Canada contains very useful information on the build up of the war machine and its relationship with the US and NATO. It identifies how Canadian firms abroad are increasingly turning to private forms of “security,” including paramilitaries and private military contractors (modern day mercenaries).

The book also contains substantial case studies of Canada’s role in Haiti and Afghanistan and its new Latin America security doctrine, focusing on Colombia and above all on support for the 2009 coup in Honduras. Gordon mentions Canada’s strong support for the Israeli occupation policy. However, this observation, while true, is not elaborated upon in the same comprehensive manner as other cases examined in the book.

New Paradigm

Overall, Imperialist Canada greatly adds to our understanding at both the level of theory and evidence. Gordon brings certain previously marginalized questions, including the dispossession of indigenous peoples, into the heart of our understanding of Canadian imperialism. He also develops a reasonably coherent narrative linking Canadian corporate expansion abroad, especially in the Global South, with the state’s foreign, security and military policies.

In tackling such a vast subject, the author is perhaps inevitability selective about what points are emphasized, less emphasized and not included. There is very important material on indigenous people and the labour force. However, the vast majority of the labour force in the Canadian state has been created through immigration. Gordon very clearly takes note of the racist character of Canadian immigration policy in the neo-liberal era as well as historically, and recognizes there is more global migration under contemporary imperialism. However, much more could be said.

The book focuses on refuting Canadian nationalist claims that we are being swallowed up by the US. Gordon certainly doesn’t deny the increased levels of harmonization, which he prefers to call increased cooperation, between security and military apparatuses. However, he fails to mention the prospects for a North American perimeter security agreement, which seems to be very much part of the Canadian ruling class’s agenda as well as that of the US.

Most disconcerting, in part because no explanation is offered, is the total lack of any discussion of Quebec. The book reflects a real knowledge of indigenous struggles. But it is silent about past and present challenges from Quebec to the Canadian imperialist state. In the 1960s and early 1970s Quebecois struggles had radical left-wing and anti-colonial dimensions. The Canadian state went to great lengths to suppress them, most dramatically through the 1970 imposition of the War Measures Act. Reality has moved on but many unaddressed questions remain.

In the conclusion Gordon most clearly advances the argument for anti-capitalist politics from below and the centrality of building an anti-imperialist movement. Reforms bringing in stronger regulations and human rights standards may be helpful but are not in any way sufficient. An anti-imperialist movement needs to challenge widespread notions that Canadian imperialism is merely a by-product of US imperialism (“holding the bully’s coat,” in Linda McQuaig’s words) and that peacekeeping is the answer.

Gordon is most inspired by acts of resistance by indigenous peoples within the Canadian state and beyond and by movements against Canadian mining and other projects in Latin America. Such solidarity is a fundamental beginning point. However, there is a vast gap between abstract potential for an anti-imperialist movement and the current political situation, which is obviously very challenging.

Imperialist Canada offers no balance sheet of anti-imperialist organizing within the Canadian state, either in terms of some achievements in building opposition to Israeli apartheid and Canada role’s in Haiti or the failure to build mass movements at home which could compel a reversal of course. But hopefully by raising the profile of Canadian imperialism this book will spark further discussion about how to effectively oppose it.

Harold Lavender is an editor of
New Socialist Webzine.