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Do Canadians Think They’re Morally Superior to Everyone Else?

Yves Engler's Left, Right: Marching to the Beat of Imperial Canada debunks the myth of Canada the good.

Left, Right: Marching to the Beat of Imperial Canada
Yves Engler
Black Rose / University of Chicago Press
May 2019

Oh, Ca-na-da. It’s no secret that Canadians love to distinguish themselves from Americans. During the best of times, when things are well south of the border, this expresses itself as a smug superiority (that things are even better up here). During the worst of times, like right now under Donald Trump’s anarchic presidency, it expresses itself as sympathetic pity (and plenty of articles in the Canadian press about Americans who want to seek refuge across their northern border).

The myths that sustain this image of Canada the Good are many. Canada — the country that managed not to have a self-inflicted meltdown over universal health coverage (actually, it did, but that was
back in the ’60s so we’ve mostly forgotten about it). Canada – the country with a small but plucky military, which punches above its weight in global affairs, not by invading countries but peace-keeping others’ post-conflict settlements. Canada – the country which is kind, thoughtful, laid-back, and occasionally surprises everyone with its nonchalant progressive stands: legalizing cannabis and gay marriage, embracing Cuban friendship and solidarity, standing up against South African apartheid and other instances of institutionalized racism.

Both Brigadier-General Roméo Dallaire and politician Stephen Lewis represent the sort of leftist that Engler targets as popular yet misguided: white saviours telling the world how to save Africa, neo-colonial Canuck patriots proselytizing the maple leaf mission.

Of course, much of that is a self-promoting myth, and perhaps one of Canada’s outstanding traits is its ability to believe so wholeheartedly in its own myths, while at the same time proselytizing them so successfully to the rest of the world. Canada’s vaunted MediCare system has been suffering for years, not because it doesn’t work (it worked terrifically for many decades) but because stingy federal and provincial funding cuts, themselves linked to unsustainably low corporate tax rates, are killing the healthcare system.


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Canada’s military may be small but it played key roles in imperialist conflicts like the Korean War in which millions of innocents were slaughtered. Canadian peace-keeping was ‘invented’ as a way to prevent the collapse of NATO when that military alliance was under strain; Canada’s famed sanctions against South Africa over apartheid were actually quite slim (targeting less than 50% of its pre-sanction trade with that regime, and unlike several other countries Canada refused to cut off diplomatic relations with the Apartheid regime). Even its Cuban policy has differed in form but not in motivation from America’s. Where America has struggled unsuccessfully for years to crush Cuba through blunt mechanisms like sanctions and outright invasion, Canada’s policy has been more subtle, a soft politics designed to bring about regime change through friendly nudging and the sort of fiscal pressures that can be applied through trade, not sanctions.

But who would’ve guessed?

Indeed, a growing number of writers and activists are challenging the image of Canada the Good, this silent and sanctimonious consensus which bridges the political spectrum, providing a common frame of reference in which white Canadian public figures from the right and the left tend to operate. One of the most vociferous critics of Canada’s self-presentation is Yves Engler. Engler is the sort of writer/activist so dedicated to the truth that his reputation sometimes suffers for it. ‘Success’, from a materialist perspective, is rarely just a matter of perseverance and hard work; it’s also a matter of political savvy. The truly driven, those unwilling to brook hypocrisy or self-censorship, often find themselves silently respected for their integrity, yet also subtly silenced from mainstream discourse, marginalized along the sidelines. It’s a pity, because without them, what a terrible and deluded world this would be.

Engler is one of those writers because his target as often falls on the left as well as the right. Positioned on the left of the political spectrum himself, a great deal of his writing output is concentrated on exposing the hypocrisies of his country’s ostensibly progressive people and institutions. If he were American, he’d be the one pointing out that Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris have dragged their heels on concrete policy around abolishing ICE, after dancing around their position on the issue to begin with. Not because he’s against Bernie Sanders or Kamala Harris, but because an honest society should not rely on heroes, and besides ICE is an ongoing affront to human rights and decency.

Engler’s latest book, Left, Right: Marching to the Beat of Imperial Canada, falls squarely into the category of left self-critique and offers a masterful, exhaustive exposé of the self-interested and imperialistic approach that has characterized Canada’s foreign affairs policy. In it, he is most concerned with the ways in which Canada’s left – broadly defined – has, despite its critical and leftist positions on domestic issues, aligned itself with cheerleading fervour behind the Canadian establishment on foreign policy matters.

His first target is the New Democratic Party (NDP). Often called Canada’s ‘third party’, the NDP was formed from the merger of its predecessor Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a western Canadian social democratic party and the Canadian Labour Congress in 1961. (The CCF and its legendary leader Tommy Douglas – voted ‘ greatest Canadian‘ in a 2004 national survey by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation – was responsible for introducing the country’s universal medical care program.) The NDP has never formed a federal government but has won several provincial governments over the years.

The NDP, says Engler, has done much to be lauded for “in mitigating the worst effects of capitalism” through left-leaning social policies at a domestic level. However, it has consistently upheld the status quo at an international level and sometimes championed American overseas imperialism even more vociferously than the centre-right Liberal Party. He offers examples from the CCF and NDP history. The CCF showed an unwillingness to challenge western colonialism following the Second World War. It instead endorsed efforts by western countries to regain and maintain their colonies in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa in the face of those regions’ independence movements. It supported the Marshall Plan for reconstruction in post-WWII Europe (considered controversial by left-leaning European parties because it was deliberately pitched as an effort to undermine left-leaning European parties and labour unions). NATO endorsed Canada’s military presence in the Korean War; tacitly supporting the British occupation of the Suez Canal; supporting the western military intervention in Congo, which eventually led to anti-colonialism leader Patrice Lumumba’s assassination.

For years the NDP leadership, for its part, has worked assiduously to mute any criticism of Israel or support within the party for the Palestinian cause. The NDP also failed to criticize Canadian support for a variety of coups, from President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s US-backed ouster in Haiti to ongoing efforts to undermine democratically elected Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

The party has been an active supporter of NATO and other western militaristic ventures and supported military intervention in Syria and Libya. Instead of supporting international peace and anti-militarism initiatives, the party actively throws itself behind bills focused on supporting and growing the military, Remembrance Day campaigns, and other projects that offer positive promotion for the country’s armed forces and, by extension, for militarism. His list of policy examples is extensive. Not just content to promote militaristic policies, the NDP has also actively sought to suppress critique of its foreign policy from within the party, he says, offering examples of critical resolutions being derailed at conventions or critical (i.e., pro-Palestinian) candidates being pushed out of the party.

Why has the NDP proven so hawkish for a supposedly left-wing party? Engler is torn as to whether it’s deliberate opportunism (seeking votes from veterans and the military), or whether party elites have simply bought into the deeply ingrained mythology that Canada is a country which uses its military for good in the world.


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Et tu, organized labour?

Engler then turns his sights on the labour movement. Unions have also sided with imperialistic and militaristic foreign policy ventures on the part of Canada, he argues, from the Korean War through to contemporary struggles in the Ukraine and the Middle East. His argument here is compelling. In an example he doesn’t use but which reinforces both his points, Canada’s largest union, Unifor, which represents workers employed in the Canadian arms industry, gained notoriety for pressuring the NDP to keep silent on matters which could put that industry in a critical spotlight. (One example is the country’s role in producing weapons to sell to Saudi Arabia, which is embroiled in a range of brutal conflicts in the Middle East).

A key problem, Engler points out, is that unions rely heavily on government funding for much of their international solidarity work. This funding can reach into the millions of dollars and wind up funding entire branches of unions and staff positions. By becoming so heavily reliant on government grants and funding priorities, unions have come to shape their international solidarity work in ways which reflect Canadian government priorities. Even when this process is not conscious, the lure of so much accessible money can blind unions to the loss of their critical autonomy. This has turned unions into an extension of Canadian foreign policy and has reduced their ability and desire to pursue international solidarity initiatives of their own, or ones which might conflict with Canadian government policies and cause them to lose funding.

What’s up with the unions? Engler looks to “the importance of the dominant media in shaping both unions and the NDP’s international positions… If union activists and leaders only hear the story told by state and corporate shills, how can we expect better?”

One of the ways the left has sought to respond to and challenge “the dominant media”, as well as the spread of business-backed right-wing, conservative think-tanks, has been the establishment of left-wing think-tanks to produce research and public policy dialogue from a progressive vantage point. Canada has its share of left-leaning think-tanks, in particular the Rideau Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). Engler is critical of their role as well: they can be progressive at a domestic level, yet more often than not align with the state at a foreign policy level, he says. (This is not universally true, however. CCPA, the labour movement, and other targets of his ire have fought assiduously against Canada’s free trade negotiations with Europe, the United States and elsewhere). He draws an intricate genealogy of personnel associated with these think-tanks, and their connections with the broader establishment. He takes aim at several of Canada’s sacred icons, such as Linda McQuaig, Michael Byers, and Stephen Lewis (progressive elites popular with the NDP, who appeal to the ‘progressive patriot’ brand that seeks to leverage the Canada-the-Good narrative to raise support for progressive policies domestically while upholding nationalist foreign policy).

He even goes after former Brigadier-General Roméo Dallaire. Dallaire played a leadership role with the United Nations force in Rwanda during the eruption of genocide there in the 1990s, and he’s subsequently built a formidable career around criticism of the United Nations bureaucracy and their ostensible failure to take decisive action despite compelling evidence of a looming eruption of violence. (He penned a best-selling book on the subject – Shake Hands With the Devil (Random House, 2003) – conducted speaking tours, and was eventually appointed to the Canadian Senate.) Engler challenges some of the facts surrounding Dallaire’s account of the events in Rwanda, but more importantly, he explores the role Dallaire has played in reinforcing a classic Canadian myth – that of an underdog country which uses its small but valiant military to try to enact good in the world. Both Dallaire and Lewis represent the sort of leftist that Engler targets as popular yet misguided: white saviours telling the world how to save Africa, neo-colonial Canuck patriots proselytizing the maple leaf mission.

The very notion of ‘peacekeeping’ comes under Engler’s critical scrutiny. Those of us raised in Canada were also raised on the notion – ingrained year after year in history and social studies classes from primary through secondary school – that ‘peace-keeping’ is a uniquely Canadian and uniquely virtuous invention. Canadian soldiers don’t fight offensive wars – instead, they courageously police the peace. That’s not quite the case, and Engler holds nothing back in his critique. The notion of peace-keeping itself was first articulated by Canadian foreign minister (later Prime Minister) Lester B. Pearson in response to the 1956Suez Crisis in which Canadian troops were dispatched to Egypt to police the peace in that country after a military intervention by British and French troops in retaliation against Egypt’s nationalizing of the Canal.

Yet ‘peace-keeping’, in that instance, wasn’t really an attempt to broker peace between truculent former colonial powers and a newly independent post-colonial state. Rather, it was a response to the threat of division within NATO at a time when the Cold War was ramping up. The United States disapproved of the British and French invasion (partly because it was done without notifying them) and Canada negotiated the insertion of its troops as a compromise solution to defuse the situation while preventing any western loss of face and to prevent an escalation of tension between erstwhile western allies.

“A claim to righteousness in international affairs is fundamental to Canadian exceptionalism, the idea that this country is morally superior to other nations,” Engler writes. Nowhere, perhaps, is this truer than in Canada’s obsession with its peacekeeping role.


(Left, Right cover image excerpt)

Engler doesn’t let anyone off the hook. While acknowledging the country’s heinous reputation vis-à-vis Canada’s Indigenous peoples (including the complicity of erstwhile progressive parties in this process), he also criticizes prominent Indigenous people and institutions for their role in upholding Canadian colonialism abroad. The Canadian Forces and Government have done a great deal of work in recent years to promote the contributions of Indigenous people in Canadian overseas military conflicts, from the 19th century to the present. Yet what is so praiseworthy, Engler asks, in celebrating Indigenous Canadians for their role in promoting colonialism, and in slaughtering and oppressing other Indigenous peoples abroad under the Canadian flag?

The last few pages of his book are a pitch for a new organization he’s trying to get off the ground – the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute – to provide the sort of progressive foreign policy critique that he feels the rest of the left is failing to do.

Left, Right is fascinating, but is not without its faults. There’s so much information Engler wants to convey that sometimes the book turns into a grocery list of criticisms: example after example of leftist hypocrisies which becomes, by the end, overwhelming. It’s not just the sheer barrage of criticisms which is overpowering. Because Engler crams so much into such a short space, there’s not much room to analyze any of his examples in very great depth. There is a certain plausibility to all the arguments he raises, yet there are nuances omitted as well.

Not everything governments or other establishment institutions do is bad. Sometimes good things can come from questionable motives (not all the key players fighting the Nazis in World War II were doing it for freedom and democracy, yet it’s undeniably good that the Nazis were defeated). Likewise, sometimes questionable outcomes can result from the best-intentioned of motives (if only Chamberlain hadn’t been so hung up on preventing conflict that he let Hitler position himself to conquer the world…). Military interventions in spots like the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and elsewhere have all been fraught with problems and neo-colonial motivations, yet plenty of suffering civilians have doubtless welcomed the interruptions to the ongoing genocide. There is certainly an argument to be made that some of these interventions have done more harm than good – western intervention in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and other middle eastern countries have turned the Middle East into a violent, lawless nightmare for millions – but assessing the arguments for and against such interventions requires more attention than Engler provides.

Likewise, just because a union adopts the same position as the state, or just because a think-tank promotes intervention in an ongoing conflict, does not in and of itself mean that its position is not progressive and that its been co-opted by the military-industrial complex. It doesn’t mean they haven’t, either, which is why it’s so important to delve deeper into what are inherently complex issues.

In his haste to reinforce his arguments with sheer quantity of examples, Engler sometimes only reinforces his reader’s skepticism because it’s clear that he’s glossing over complex issues in a reductionist way, and assumes the reader is following. This doesn’t disprove any of his points, but perhaps readers might be less skeptical if he took the time to more thoroughly work through the nuances and different angles of a smaller number of examples. At the same time, his grocery list of (debatable) leftist hypocrisies is a tremendously well-researched resource, for those wishing to delve into the issues further.

Some of Engler’s positions do stretch credulity: for example, his characterization of the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution as a “coup” engineered by the West, and his criticism of the ‘White Helmets’ civil defense movement in Syria (which is jarringly similar to the pro-Assad propaganda promoted by Russia and its allies). There may be legitimate grounds for his arguments, yet he’s on such a roll that he doesn’t take the time to provide them in any thorough detail.

One can’t help but feel a certain sympathy for Engler. He is clearly an author of profound conviction and one who has alienated many among the progressive establishment in doing so. (His book makes an interesting allegation that the CCPA’s Monitor publication initially expressed interest in running a piece of his, criticizing a pro-peacekeeping report they had published, but the organization’s board later revoked its offer when they were unable to find commentators willing to refute his arguments, in what sounds like a leftish version of no-platforming). It’s often a solitary task, to be the one on the outside holding one’s erstwhile peers to account with ruthless, unforgiving absolutism. But this task is so important.

“Left self-improvement is not possible without critical discussion,” he writes. This much is certainly true, and Engler deserves credit for his work in leading that discussion.