Tyler Shipley, author of Canada in the World: Settler Capitalism and the Colonial Imagination, joins Team Advantage to discuss his latest book. How does the violence of colonization become Canada’s “first foreign policy?” How amenable was the Canadian state to Hitler’s fascism in the lead-up to the Second World War? What was the extent of Canada’s involvement in the Korean War? How does Canada’s foreign policy continue to orchestrate invasion, proxy wars, and coups?
Purchase Canada in the World at your local independent bookstore, or from Fernwood Publishing. Follow Canada in the World on Twitter @canadainthewrld, and follow Tyler Shipley @le_shipster.
A full transcript follows the break.
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Kate: Hello, and welcome to The Alberta Advantage. I am your host, Kate Jacobson, and joining me today is Brendan —
Kate: — and our guest Tyler Shipley, professor of Culture, Society, and Commerce at Humber College and author of Canada in the World: Settler Capitalism and the Colonial Imagination. Tyler, thank you so much for joining us here on the podcast.
Tyler: Thank you guys for having me.
Kate: So, you’ve written what should be, basically, a textbook — I think — to the project that is known as “Canada,” and it runs from the first instances of colonization all the way to recent foreign policy. And, through this history, your argument is that the project of Canada is consistent, from that initial colonization to the present. Could you explain what you mean with the book’s subtitle, “settler capitalism and the colonial imagination,” and why you believe these terms are essential to understanding Canada?
Tyler: Yeah. The project sort of started with — well, there was a bunch of things, but, in particular, there was a course I was teaching about Canadian foreign policy, and I did something that seemed obvious or intuitive to me, which is that I started the course with colonialism and spent the first few weeks establishing Canada’s colonial roots. My students were often surprised; they wanted to know about Canada going out into the world and having foreign relations. It was in the process of explaining to my students why I included colonialism that I realized this isn’t something that is done enough — it’s not articulated enough by people in Canada, and even by the Canadian left, that it’s important to think about colonialism as foreign policy. The English, the French, and, later, Canada, were encountering and interacting with foreign nations. I mean, it’s the height of colonialism that that has been erased and converted into some kind of domestic business, the internal problem of Canada, because these were foreign nations, and the colonizers understood that, and certainty the Indigenous nations understood that. So, the book is premised on the idea that if you look at colonialism, this foundational first case of Canadian foreign policy, you will find the basis upon which all the rest of Canada’s engagements in the world are premised. And so that’s where the subtitle comes in — the subtitle of the book, “settler capitalism and the colonial imagination,” refers to the two central pieces that I distill out of colonialism that I think repeat themselves throughout the rest of Canadian history. And I certainly don’t mean to oversimplify colonialism — there’s any number of layers and aspects of it — but I think, for the purpose of drawing a broad history of Canada in the world, there’s these two things. On the one hand, there is settler capitalism; I mean, that’s why Canada exists. Canada existed, was created, so that a section of the French and the British ruling classes landed in North America ruling classes could establish the dynamics of capitalism, the conditions under which they could make profit — from the land, eventually from the factories they built and everything else that was built here. That was the purpose; that’s why Canada exists. So, settler capitalism, then, was central to Canadian policy, and getting the land, in particular, because the land was what Canada needed to build capitalism on. And then the other piece is, I call it, the colonial imagination. This is the basic precepts of white supremacy, the ingrained idea that white people, European/Euro-American people, are — I think at some point in the book, I say — providentially destined to rule the world because, according to this logic, they are more advanced, more rational, more modern, and they represent the future of the human race, and everyone else represents the past. Indigenous nations, but also African nations, Asian nations — these are all the past, and white people are the future. This basic idea of white supremacy is how, of course, the early colonizers justify everything they do, the genocide upon which Canada is founded. And it also reproduces itself across the rest of Canadian history, and to me, that was the thing that was so important. I mean, it’s important on its own, of course, but the reason I pulled those two pieces and made them central to the analysis was that I was even surprised, myself, at how regularly they reoccur — in every case of foreign policy that I looked at, I found one or the other or both of those two dynamics. So, yeah — that’s the idea, that was the premise of the book, and hopefully it holds up.
Kate: I really loved your insistence that the initial colonization of the lands now known as “Canada” by France and Britain and, eventually, Canada as foreign policy because it immediately clarified, for me, how pervasive the idea is in Canada that colonization is an issue internal to Canada, and it comes up all the time in the language and discourse and the way that we talk about these issues. And one of the terms that reminded me of this, that really always grates on me, is when people say “our Indigenous peoples” or “Canada treats its First Nations really badly,” which is this very colonial worldbuilding in the language that’s being used and this idea that Indigenous people belong to Canada and that any conflict between Indigenous people and Canada is internal to the nation-state. So I was really struck by that and your articulation of that.
Tyler: Yeah, totally. I think you’re absolutely right, and it’s so subtle — as a lot of Canadian colonial ideology is, it’s very subtle — it almost seems, on the surface, like, “Oh, it’s inclusive! There’s new Canadians, there’s Canadians, there’s Canada’s Indigenous,” as if it’s this inclusive project, right? And that’s so much of what Canadian nationalism often tries to sell us, is this liberal idea of Canadian inclusiveness. But you’re absolutely right; it’s erasure. I mean, it’s a superficial aspect of the much deeper genocide of Indigenous nations, the actual erasing of them — or the attempt, I should say, to erase them, erase them off the land, dispossessing of the land, bbut also of their identity, of any connection to their culture and, therefore, of any right to the land, of any basis upon which they can claim the land, because that’s what it’s fundamentally about. And one of the things I try to do in the book — carefully, obviously, because these arguments can be overstated — but I carefully tried to keep coming back to the link between those two: the material project, which is “get the land,” and the ideological project, which is “we Europeans deserve to have the land anyways because we’re superior.” And those two things, they’re symbiotic; they exist to sustain and support the other, and you can’t really have one without the other. And I tried to carefully draw that out so that, on the one hand — well, I’ll give you an example. I found this crazy book — it was super useful to me, but not in the way the authors probably intended. It was this crazy book from the ‘90s from a couple of, I think, journalists, and the book is called The Great Adventure: How the Mounties Conquered the West, and it is a sort of retelling of the tale of the first North-West Mounted Police march out west. The predecessor of the RCMP — they’re created in Ontario, and they march out west, and they’re sort of the scouts, the precursor, to the full-fledged Canadian invasion of the land from the Red River and west. And it’s incredible. A lot of the book is taken from the diaries of these individual colonizers, North-West Mounted Police Officers. And it’s really obvious and explicit, reading through that book — I mean, I don’t recommend reading it; it’s heinous, and the actual reading of it is miserable and you feel sick to your stomach, but when you read it, you can see, so clearly, the way the two things — on the one hand, we are there to get the land, and on the other hand, we’re better, we’re smarter, we’re civilized, we’re rational, all of those — are interwoven, and they kind of rely on one another. The assumption that these North-West Mounted Police officers make, which is that, of course, the land is eventually going to belong to Canada, is premised on their idea that they’ve inherited that the Indigenous nations aren’t capable of running their own affairs, of properly using the land, whatever other narratives are constructed here. And, of course, that then turns around and justifies the fact that, well, of course we have to take the land from them. It’s a really fascinating read, and — like I said — I don’t recommend it because it’s very unpleasant. And I draw some quotes from those diaries for the book, and I won’t even repeat them because the racism is so horrific, but it really does give you a sense, I think, a really visceral feel, for how those two things were happening in that moment and how they were, I think, very foundational to what beomes Canada.
Brendan: Yeah, I actually found your use of that book really, really fascinating. And I was really struck by the quotes that you drew from these early North-West Mounted Police officers, specifically on the subject of the fact of foreign conquest and how these men very much discussed themselves as going into a foreign country. And yes, they saw it as legitimately becoming part of Canada so they could create civilization there, but they knew that, when they went out there, they were going somewhere else; they were among different nations. So it goes back to that aspect of recognizing that this is a form of foreign policy — as you say, a form of external relationship.
Tyler: Yeah. And, if I may, Brendan, what’s so interesting about that, what you just said, is that this idea, that these guys are going into what they call “Indian country,” and they know it’s foreign territory, that repeats itself through the rest of the history of Canadian foreign policy, literally, in the sense that Canadian soldiers refer to places that they are sent in the world as “Indian country.” They called Somalia “Indian country” in the 1990s; they called Afghanistan “Indian country” in the 2000s. So it’s so remarkable because those men right there, in the 1870s, were articulating what ends up being so consistent.
Kate: How did Canada respond to the global crises in the period between 1914 and 1945? Because the common understanding of the two World Wars, and certainly the understanding that is manufactured by our media and our education system is that Canada was one of the quote-unquote “good guys.” How does that match up to reality?
Tyler: It’s such a fascinating time in world history — there’s so much going on, and it is really incredible that, especially with respect to World War I, that there’s this mythology of Canada saving the world, Canada and the United States saving the world, for freedom and democracy and human rights and everything that gets said on Remembrance Day and repeated that has gone a long way from reality. I guess what I’ll say is this — I’ll sort of break it into two pieces, or even three. There’s the First World War, there’s the inter-war period, and there’s World War II. And in the two, Canada is unequivocally on the wrong side. In the First World War, there isn’t a right side; they’re all wrong sides. In the inter-war period, as fascism is rising, Canada is on the wrong side — Canada sides with fascism. And it’s only in World War II itself — what is commonly called World War II, in 1939 to 1945 — that Canada ends up on the right side of history; that is, on the side that’s fighting against fascism. But I’m going to explain why that happens. In the First World War, essentially, it’s a war between empires. The German Empire is rising, the British Empire is the predominant capitalist empire, America’s waiting in the wings. And World War I is a conflict over who’s going to be at the centre of capitalist world supremacy. They’re all bad guys. I guess I should say that more thoughtfully — unless you think the conquest of the rest of the world by Europe is a good thing, they’re all bad guys. From the standpoint of the working classes, these are the rich, these are the elite, these are capitalist elite in all of those countries. From the standpoint of the people of the rest of the world, these are the colonizers — no one in any of Britain or France or Germany’s colonies had any love for their colonizers. Most people didn’t. So there’s really no good side in World War I. Certainly, we could say, there’s no side that is fighting for democracy or freedom or human rights, and that’s just a joke. So, Canada lines up with Britain because of course it does, because Canada is still really deeply connected to the British empire and the Canadian elite sees its own interests as being wrapped up in the success of the British Empire more so than if it had been a German-centred capitalist economy. So, Canada throws down with its imperial chums and sends a huge number of working-class people to their death on behalf of the British Empire. And, you know, on Remembrance Day, wghen we’re asked to remember the sacrifices of World War I, it’s always kind of insulting because what Remembrance Day does is it tries to actually stop us from remembering what really happened, which is that a lot of working-class people died and were really angry about it. There was all kinds of protest in Canada against the war — obviously in Quebec, the struggles against conscription; Canadian police killed four people in Quebec City for protesting against conscription. I mean, this was not some sort of harmonious, “everyone across the country is on board with this;” working-class people were sick of being sent over there to die for what they increasingly realized was nothing. They knew they were dying for nothing. There’s a woman who lost five sons in the first World War, and there was a ceremony after the war where she was — I guess because of the fact that she had lost so many children — she was part of this ceremony, and she was standing with the royal family of Britain (I know that seems crazy, but that’s what happened) and she casually remarked to someone she had no idea why all of her sons had died. I mean, this is after the war, this is at a war ceremony. That tells you where the working class was at in terms of World War I. So, it’s nothing to celebrate. There is nothing to celebrate about World War I. And I would say that those people, those men, who were sent to fight in World War I, they didn’t make a sacrifice — they were sacrificed by the state. So, that’s Canada in the First World War. The inter-war period, of course — and Brendan and I have talked about this a little bit before we started recording — Europe in the 1920s and ‘30s, and the world in that period, is in crisis, and the Left is rising, and the Right is rising, and it’s clear that the system as it stands cannot hold, that it’s falling apart. Of course, 1929 is the beginning of the Great Depression. So you have communist movements rising at the same time as these reactionary fascist movements are rising, and the ruling classes of Canada are unequivopcally on the side of the fascists. Canada is, as I said before, obviously deeply interwoven with the British empire and the United States — they are thrilled at the rise of Mussolini in Italy, they actively participate in the rise of Franco in Spain. Now, of course, there were individual working-class Canadians who were anti-fascist, especially during the Spanish Civil War; more than a thousand Canadians go to Spain — these are mostly homeless men, actually, who, organized by the Communist Party of Canada, go to Spain and fight with the International Brigades to try to prevent Spain from becoming fascist. They lose, and they lose in part because they get no support from the Canadian government. In fact, they’re actively criminalized by the Canadian government. Canada becomes even more aggressively restrictive of Canadians who are trying to support the anti-fascist struggle in Spain after Prime Minster William Lyon Mackenzie King meets with Adolf Hitler in Berlin and Adolf Hitler asks him to ensure that Canada and the other Western powers enforce a strict policy of neutrality in the Spanish Civil War. And I don’t know how widely-known it is, that Prime Minister King met with Hitler — I mean, I know that the story’s out there, it’s impossible to hide. I read his diaries — they’re bone-chilling to read, he was enamoured with Hitler, just over the moon about this guy. And some of it’s creepy and weird in that Mackenzie King way — he calls him a mystic, talks about his liquid eyes and his hands, there’s some weird stuff there — but I think, for me, the part that’s really quite chilling is how receptive King is to Hitler’s politics, not just his personal ways, but his actual politics. There’s sections where King reflects on what it was like to meet Hitler and have Hitler talk about the way that “the Jews have ruined the great German cities like Berlin, and they’re in our movie theatres, they’re in our restaurants, we can’t get rid of them,” and King is very sympathetic to all of this. King himself, of course, a long-time anti-Semite and had blocked a Jewish family from buying a house in his area in Ottawa, he had a long history of antisemitism himself. And, of course, this was a time when Canada is refusing to accept Jewish refugees from Europe; people who were fleeing the increasing violence of Nazi Germany and the various collaborating states, and Canada famously says, in answer to the question of how many Jewish refugees we will accept, “none is too many.” So, during this inter-war period, we’re talking about a Canada that is firmly, materially, and ideologically on the side of fascism, and I think I make that case pretty clear in the book. And then, of course, it shifts — in 1939, Canada joins the Allied war effort against Nazi Germany. And that part of the story, of course, has been mythologized, and that part of the story has been turned into what we’re allowed to, historically, remember; we’re allowed to remember that Canada fought bravely in the fight against fascism. And don’t misunderstand me — Canada was absolutely on the right side of history when it fought against Hitler. I just think, as a historian, it’s super important — extremely important — to recognize that Canada could have taken steps much earlier to stop Hitler, and maybe the disaster of World War II wouldn’t have been necessary had Canada not matierally supported Hitler in his rise. This is, I think, pretty significant. So, yeah. Canada ends up on the right side of history, and, of course, the reason for that is the same as it was in World War I — Hitler’s ambition is to become the centre of world capitalism, to make Germany the centre of the new world, and the British empire isn’t willing to let that happen, the Americans aren’t willing to let that happen, and, of course, Canada sides with them. So it’s really, in that sense, World War II becomes a repeat, in some respects, of World War I. And, yeah, Canada’s on the right side — I don’t know that Canada’s there for the right reasons — I certainly am glad that Nazi Germany was defeated. I think the next point — and I won’t get into this now — and the next question that gets raised is, “what happens next?” And, if you’ve read the book, you know that what happens next is that Canada, the United States, and their allies, they all basically reconstitute many of the fascist powers once they’ve been knocked down a few pegs. It’s fascists and fascist collaborators in Germany and in Japan that are back in power very quickly — which, I guess, to sort of pull this all together, suggests that the Canadian ruling class never had any opposition to fascism as an ideology. That’s really the point here; sorry if I wasn’t articulate enough. It’s a bit late out here, out East. [laughs] But that’s the point — Canada was never ideologically opposed to fascism and, in fact, had much in common, and shared much, with fascist ideology. At a certain point, Canada had a problem with a capitalist rival, with a rival to the British and American empires, but Canada was never opposed, ideologically, to fascism, and that’s really important because it is part of that consistent pattern that goes back all the way to the genocide of the Indigenous nations at the starting point, and it stretches all the way to the war in Afghanistan and beyond. So, I know that was a bit of a longer answer, but I hope I tied together the threads that I was weaving.
Brendan: The period after the Second World War was shaped by decolonization in the global south and the Cold War. So, how did Canada relate to those events in the decades following the Second World War?
Tyler: Yeah. Well, I think one of the most fundamental things that people need to know about Canada — and this, I think, has a lot of relevance for today — is that Canada was deeply opposed to decolonization in Africa, in Asia. In the period after the Second World War, when many of the countries that are on the map today became independent countries, Canada would have had them remain colonies of France, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, etc. And this was a consistent pattern throughout that period. Honestly, it was a peace that even surprised me when I was working on the book — I mean, I didn’t think it would quite to the extent that it was, but right after the Second World War, when India and Pakistan get their independence, Canadian magazines are saying, “India is not a nation, India can never be a nation.” There’s a cartoon in one of the big Canadian newspapers where India and Pakistan are portrayed as babies, infants, with turbans, and it’s this racist caricature but also designed to say, “No, they’re children, they can’t possibly run their own country.” Canada criticizes Britain for relinquishing its control over its colonies too soon and does the same of France and others. So, Canada is very much against the independence of the peoples of the rest of the world. To me, this is obviously linked back to that colonial imagination that I talked about with respect to colonization in Canada. The same arguments that Canada makes — John A. MacDonald and his racist friends, when they were establishing the residential schools — it’s all about, “The Indigenous people can’t rule themselves, they’re savages, they’re irrational, we have to bring them into the modern world,” all of — and I’m never comfortable repeating what they say, but all of those things they said, that’s the same argument that they make to argue that the people of the Congo shouldn’t have freedom, that Belgium should continue to rule. I mean, imagine arguing that Belgium should continue to control the Congo. In a short span of time, the Belgian king killed as many as 10,000,000 people in the Congo. It boggles the mind. Congo was aggressively underdeveloped by Belgium. The Belgian elite made sure that the Congo was not equipped — materially, in terms of institutional infrastructure — to self-govern because Belgium wouldn’t allow it. It’s not that Congolese people didn’t have the capacity, it’s that the conquerors wouldn’t allow them to develop the capacity. Congo becomes free because of a popular revolution, and Canada is against it. Canada wants Belgium to hold on. Even after, when Belgium cannot hold on any longer, Canada assists Belgium in disrupting post-independence Congo. And, for me, this is a case that’s, I think, especially upsetting in terms of the Canadian context. There’s lots of cases like this; we could be up all night documenting Ghana and Nigeria, case by case, and there would be so many of them, but I focus on the Congo because, of course — I’m sure you guys know — the first Congolese prime minister was Patrice Lumumba, a former brewery worker who became a socialist and a Pan-Africanist and was a remarkable, remarkable anti-colonial figure and still held up as a really, really significant person in the constellation of African socialism and African independence and anti-colonial struggle. And it was a Canadian peacekeeper that gave up Lumumba’s location to right-wing forces who arrested and killed him. So, Canada was directly involved in the assassination of one of the greatest anti-colonial leaders in African history, Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba, who was a brilliant orator or articulator of how colonization worked, the logic of it — I mean, he was such a sharp mind — and Canada played such a central role in that. So, to me, it’s indicative of the part that Canada plays in that era, which is that Canada tries to slow the process of decolonization and, when decolonization happens, Canada tries to interfere in it to get the outcome it wants. And, of course, the outcome Canada wants — and now, here we come back around full circle to the capitalism piece — is a capitalist Congo. Patrice Lumumba was a socialist, and, had Patrice Lumumba been allowed to carry out the mandate he had been elected on, he would’ve created a socialist Congo. So Canada doesn’t allow that — Canada, instead, supports right-wing forces that would institute a capitalist Congo. And, needless to say, that was a disaster — I mean, that was Mobutu; the guy was the dictator for thirty years. So, Canada’s position in that period is that. And, of course, there’s other cases. There’s plenty of them, some more appalling than others.
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Kate: Mhm. So, you’re brought up that Canada and the United Nations, through the institution of peacekeeping, were culpable, if not outright responsible, for the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, but Canada is really known for the creation and the practice of peacekeeping as an institution, and it plays — or, it used to play — a really large role in the popular Canadian image of Canada in the world. How accurate is that image of Canadian peacekeeping, and what does peacekeeping have to do with imperialism and colonialism?
Tyler: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, it’s so interesting that peacekeeping became so central to the Canadian story for so long. You know, the first peacekeeping mission — this is so ironic — the first official peacekeeping mission for Canada was the Korean War, which — there was no peace to keep. The Korean War was one of the most brutal wars of the 20th century. It’s largely forgotten, but there was a greater tonnage of bombs dropped in the Korean War than in the entirety of the Second World War. It was an utter pulverization of the norther part of Korea, but also of the socialist movements in the southern part of Korea. And I think, in some ways, the Korean War — even though it’s an early case — is a really good encapsulation of what peacekeeping was really about, which was stopping the process of decolonization and/or managing that process to ensure that the various states of the world would join the capitalist camp and would side with the United States and would allow the western powers to interfere and exploit people in those countries. Korea, after its experience of the Second World War — which was obviously a horrific conquest by Japan — Koreans independently, without any Soviet intervention or any other silly things that the West always cooked up — Korean working-class people organized the reconstruction of their society, of their state. They formed the Korean People’s Republic, and they immediately began rebuilding and taking over factories and running them themselves and rebuilding houses and rebuilding sewage pipes and everything that was necessary. And that was totally unacceptable to the West, that there could be this independent, successful socialist state in Korea. And so, on the Western side, in the South, the United States brought back, seemingly, a Korean exile bourgeois figure to be the dictator of South Korea and provoked a conflict with the North such that, in 1950, the Korean War starts. And Canada is an aggressive proponent of the Korean War, which Canada calls a peacekeeping mission. They just devastated North Korea. For people who are confused by where North Korea ended up, go back and read about the Korean War — the country was bombed. As the story goes — I don’t know how true it was, but there was report, at the time, that every single building more than one storey off the ground in North Korea was bombed and destroyed because bombers were running out of targets. That’s how this story came to light. So, North Korea was pulverized in this peacekeeping mission and, of course, the stage was set for South Korea to remain firmly capitalist. They were disappointed that they weren’t able to take the North, but they isolated the North and it became this strange, isolated hermit kingdom, whatever it is. And, in many ways, that is what peacekeeping was about. And, if you look at the other peacekeeping missions all the way through; the Suez Crisis, that’s the one that made Lester Pearson so famous — “Oh, complicated conflict, Lester Pearson forged this peace!” I mean, I won’t get into the details with you guys right now, but, essentially, the Suez Crisis was resolved in a way that was good for Britain, that was good for France, that was good for Israel, but which was not good for Egypt, and the Suez Canal is, obviously, in Egypt. And Canada played a really important role in brokering the very manipulative process by which British and French capital would still get to dominate the Suez Canal, Israel would gain some territory, and Egypt would get screwed over. So many of Canada’s peacekeeping missions follow those kinds of patterns — obviously, the Congo case that I already spoke about. And then, of course, it gets really horrific later on in cases like Somalia — which I know is moving into the future a bit, that’s in the 1990s, but — in Somalia, in particular, you really see that white supremacist ideology come through. For anyone who doesn’t remember, Canadian soldiers left Somalia, disgraced, after they tortured and murdered a Somali teenager, sixteen-year-old. And that was not the first Somali youth that the Canadian forces had killed. Again, the details are just so horrific and gruesome, and I won’t get into them, but — very reflective of that white supremacist attitude. And it runs all the way through peacekeeping. I mean, think about it. The very premise of peacekeeping is that we in Canada have figured it out — we in Canada have figured out how to run a just, fair, peaceful society, but some people somewhere in the world haven’t figured it out. We’re going to go and make sure that they figure it out — we’re going to help them, we’re going to teach them. Peacekeeping isn’t about solidarity; peacekeeping is about a certain kind of paternalism, a certain sense that Canadians know best, and what inevitably happens in Canadian peacekeeping missions is that the locals don’t want the Canadians there. They don’t see them as peaceful; they see through all the bullshit, frankly, that is sold here in Canada about these missions, and so they don’t profusely thank the Canadian peacekeepers the way those peacekeepers expected they would be profusely thanked. And that’s part of what provokes their anger; that’s why the Canadian peacekeepers in Somalia were so upset. And when they come back to Canada and they tell their stories, it’s all about how it was hot, and it was miserable, and those Somalis didn’t want us there, and they didn’t thank us, and they weren’t grateful for what we were doing. I mean, yeah, they didn’t want you there. Maybe you shouldn’t have been there. The peacekeeping narrative is really insidious, I think, and it’s given Canadians a really twisted sense of what Canada has done in the world, especially in that middle section of the 20th century. So, I really tried to take it apart in the book, and I really tried to get at the heart of what the peacekeeping ideology is, which I think pulls the veil off of those policies.
Brendan: Yeah. One thing that’s really striking — I actually recognized one of the sources for that, for those sections of the book, which is a book called Creating Canada’s Peacekeeping Past. And the fascinating thing about that is that the author, Colin McCullough, is not any kind of radical as far as I can tell, but is just an honest scholar who looked at the evidence. And one really interesting thing he does in that book — and I think there’s a few references to these in Canada in the World is that he looks at representations of Canadian peacekeeping in these old NFB documentaries and in Heritage Minutes and shows that exactly what you were saying in terms of there always being this premise that the Canadians are coming in to provide a solution that they have, and that, even if it’s not explicit, there’s a very clear hierarchy of nations in the world that’s being set up in those representations. Most Canadians receive that message, but it’s sort of at the dog whistle level, and nobody would — for the most part — think of that as being a colonial or imperial ideology that’s being put forward there.
Tyler: Yeah. Yeah. That book was so useful for that reason, and there were actually a lot of books that I found — where the authors were not necessarily radical but, as you say, honest historians and were trying to provide an honest picture of things — which were really useful to me because an honest portrayal of Canada’s history, I think, kind of makes the case that I’m trying to make, which is the case for this consistency — and, in particular, it’s the NFB films about peacekeeping, the ones that run from the late’50s all the way through until the ‘70s and ‘80s, that McCullough talks through and that I also use. Yeah, they really emphasize this sense of the very grounded, rational Canadians are going over there; there’s this selfless task they’re undertaking to go over there — wherever “there” is — and help these people. And one piece that’s quite disturbing — and I haven’t talked about this much; I don’t like to talk about it in interviews, but I think I should, probably, more — one of the NFB films makes this reference (and I cited it in the book) I probably won’t get it right, word-for-word, from memory, but I think it’s maybe in a film about peacekeeping in Cypress, and there’s this reference to, “Oh, the peacekeepers have said that the sights are beautiful, too,” and then they cut to this scene of a beach, and there’s all these women in bathing suits on this beach, and it’s this very sly reference, “Oh, and they’re going to get some ladies, too.” And, looking back on it, it’s creepy — and I’m sure they wouldn’t make a film like that now — but what struck me about that, this kind of dropping in this reference to, “Oh, join the peacekeepers and you might have some sex,” basically [laughs] that’s what they’re saying — I mean, that is what happened. There’s a horrifying book, a recent book, about sexual violence by UN peacekeepers. The book is not just about Canadians, it’s about UN peacekeepers around the world, although the book is very clear — and I think it’s an important point — that the vast, overwhelming majority of reported cases of sexual violence or sexual assault by peacekeepers is by white or Euro-American peacekeepers. I make the argument that that is part of that colonial imagination, that there is a thread that connects colonization on the land that became Canada with the peacekeeping missions, with the war in Afghanistan, with so many other cases, and one of those threads is, unfortunately, sexual violence. It’s very present in the conquest on this land. And, again, it’s hard to talk about, and it’s upsetting, and I won’t do details, but I do, in the book, get into some of the ways in which white settler male violence, sexual violence, is part of the conquest, part of the military conquest. And European colonizers did that — they used sexual violence as a weapon. And the fact that Canadians sexually assaulted people in South Korea during the Korean War, sexually assaulted South Korean women. They were supposed to be on the same side — not that that is relevant, but they were supposed to be on the same side as South Korea, fighting against North Korea — but there are these chilling cases of Canadian soldiers getting drunk and going down to some farmhouse somewhere, tying up the men and beating them and shaming them and then sexually assaulting the women. I mean, just horrific, horrific stuff. But there is this thread to it that runs through so many of these cases. And, because you mentioned the NFB films, I thought this would be a time to bring that up, because there it is, in an NFB film about peacekeeping — one of the ways they are trying to attract Canadian men to go and be peacekeepers is by this sly promise of sexual conquest. So, yeah. Sorry. I mean, god, what a horrible thing to get into. But I do think it’s important — it’s an important piece of all this.
Kate: Mhm. So, one of the things you brought up in that answer, there, was the Canadian war in Afghanistan, and I think that’s really important to address in this interview because there’s a really popular kind of idea in Canada that Canada was not particularly involved in the “War on Terror” (quote, unquote) because Canada did not send troops during the American invasion of Iraq. Could you give us some more details about the role that Canada played in the War on Terror, why the war in Afghanistan is so important, and what Canadians should know about it?
Tyler: There’s a few things here that are really important, but, because I’ve been talking about this colonial imagination, I want to stay on that thread for a second. In the same way that the book about the North-West Mounted Police was really valuable to me, one of the most valuable books for me on Afghanistan was a horrendous, horrendous piece of trash called Fifteen Days by Christie Blatchford, whom you guys probably recognize as the right-wing columnist who died recently. Just a horrific, horrendous book; one of many of these books that just kind of, “What’s it like to be a Canadian boots-on-the-ground soldier?” But she’s so aggressively colonial, herself and her ideology. The opening line of the book is, “Task Force 15 was a killing machine.” She just glorifies the violence. The book was incredibly useful for me because it was the Canadian military and military supporters and colonizers talking honestly amongst themselves about how great they were. And so, what I saw in the many, many quotes that Christie Blatchford had from Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan was that colonial imagination again, almost as if no time had passed between the genocide of Indigenous peoples, Indigenous nations, and the war in Afghanistan. You have this one soldier who is quoted saying — he’s saying this to an Afghani, he’s saying — “I’m better than you. We’re better than you.” And they repeat this over and over, this idea that the Canadians are better. The Afghans are always presented as they’re either scheming, murderous terrorists or they are simpering, pathetic allies. Sometimes, if they’re working with the Afghan National Police, the Afghan police are always framed as these weak, not serious; they don’t know how to get the job done, or they’re very thankful, grateful, innocent, the victims. They’re just so thankful, they’re just, “Oh, thank you to the soldiers, thank you so much, you’ve saved us,” all of which services the white supremacist myth that Canadians are better, they’re more rational, they’re more advanced, they’ve got better weapons, they’ve got better training, they know how to run a state, they know how to run a government, all that sort of thing. There’s a line, one of the soldiers says, “We went to Afghanistan and these people were, they’re 2000 years in the past. It’s like they’re walking right out of the pages of National Geographic.”
Kate: Oh. [laughs]
Tyler: Right? I mean, you couldn’t really get a clearer articulation of colonialism and white supremacy than that. And it’s pervasive in that war — it is pervasive. So, it’s explicit in what some of these soldiers say, but, of course, it’s also there in a more subtle and nuanced way, but it’s also there in the official discourse, which is: “Why are we in Afghanistan?” At first, of course, it was revenge for 9/11, but that didn’t sit well with people — especially when there was no one from Afghanistan even involved in 9/11 — so the narrative became, “Well, we’re here to help — we’re here to help them build a state, and we’re going to save women.” Remember that? That was so central to the narrative, was: the awful Taliban treat women badly, and so Canada’s going to go and save the women of Afghanistan. Now, the women will get to be in public, and they’ll get to go to school, and Canada’s going to build schools. And it’s all a sham. It’s all just a total sham. In terms of the actual reconstruction, of building things like schools and hospitals, very little infrastructure was actually ever built. Most of the money that was earmarked for that got funnelled up into Canadian organizations and companies. In terms of the politics, I mean, obviously, it was colonial mobilization of feminism in the first place to say, “Oh, we’re there to save the women,” but even if — even if — you believed that nonsense, Canada actually oversaw the re-institution of some of the most horrific patriarchal laws in Afghanistan when Canada was basically controlling the Hamid Karzai government. And, when I say “basically controlling,” I mean that Canada had a unit of its military, Strategic Advisory Team Afghanistan, embedded within the Afghan government and essentially making policy for Hamid Karzai’s government. It was the occupation that kept Karzai in power for twelve years, and so he needed them, and, therefore, Canada had this really, really central role in running Afghanistan between 2002 and 2014 (well, actually, beyond, but especially in that period). And, in that time, some of the most patriarchal — again, I hate repeating these things, but — laws that would allow husbands to rape their wives if they refused sex. Well, Canada and its advisory team oversaw Hamid Karzai’s government re-introducing such laws; after they had been eliminated, Karzai brought them back to appease some of the patriarchal tribal leaders, and Canada gave that the thumbs-up, gave that the okay. So, even if you somehow were fooled into thinking that Canada sincerely went to Afghanistan to help women — which I’m not, but even if you were — they didn’t do that. I mean, I’m just kind of pulling at examples here, but Canada left Afghanistan a mess, a disaster. And it’s not that Afghanistan was in great shape in 2001 when the invasion began, but even that part of the story I think there’s a really important bit of context to. For a lot of Canadians — and I notice this in teaching; I notice in my teaching, I’ll often ask my classes, “What do you guys know about Afghanistan? What do you know about the country?” And they know about the war, they know about 9/11 and the war and so on, but a lot of my students don’t know very much about Afghanistan before. It’s as if Afghanistan didn’t have a history prior to Canada’s arrival. And, of course, it did. It has a complicated history and, without boring you all with the details, an important part of that history is that people in Afghanistan fought and struggled to build more progressive institutions and a more progressive state. There is a left — there was a left — in Afghanistan that fought for things like gender equality, tribal equality, secularism, socialism, all manner of things that many of us would support. And there were periods, especially in the 1970s, when Afghanistan was doing really well, comparatively and in terms of establishing some of the basis for a more just society. And then, of course, that was all interrupted by the US support for the mujahideen right-wing forces that went in and tried to harass the Afghan government, which then prompted the Soviets to invade and it all becomes this huge nightmare. And, again, without boring you with the details, that conflict is sort of what leaves Afghanistan in the situation that it’s in in 2001, which is that, yeah, it is ruled by a theocratic cabal known as the Taliban, and it’s not a great place, and it’s not in great shape, but — and this is really important — Canada did not make it better. Nothing Canada did improved the quality of life for people in that country — it made it worse. I mean, that’s just a sketch of what happened in Afghanistan. To address directly your question about Iraq, yeah, there is this bizarre idea that Canada stayed out of this war in Iraq because at the time, when George Bush launched the war, the Jean Chrétien government said, “Well, we’re not going to support the war unless it has UN approval,” and it didn’t, and so George Bush created his coalition of the willing. Canada wasn’t one of them, and so it seems like Canada did the right thing there, we made the right choice. But it’s bullshit. I mean, it’s just bullshit. The Canadian and US militaries are deeply interwoven, deeply connected, and so there were Canadians who fought in the war in Iraq in a variety of different ways. There was a Canadian general who was part of the planning of the war in Iraq because he was part of a joint chiefs panel with the American generals. There obviously was Canadian equipment being used in the way, and there was strategic planning with respect to the war in Afghanistan. So, part of the deal was, when the US were in Iraq again, that meant they were going to have to move troops out; there was a troop surge from Canada to make up the difference. So, I mean, the idea that Canada took some kind of a moral stand against the war on Iraq, it’s just stupid. It’s really dumb. But it’s a great piece of ideology, a great piece of propaganda for the Canadian liberal elite who want Canadians to believe that Canada is somehow more enlightened, more peaceable, more just in the world. And it worked well because a lot of people still have the sense that that’s how it went.
Patrick: One thing that I think has rightly gotten a fair bit of attention on the Canadian left in recent years is Canadian imperialism in Latin America and the Caribbean. What can you tell us about the history of Canada’s role in that region and what it looks like today?
Tyler: In some ways, that’s where Canada first flexes its colonial muscles internationally. All the way back to the turn of the century, Canadian capital is expanding into Latin America and the Caribbean-Canadian banks, Canadian railroad companies. Mining comes a little bit later, but electricity provision is a big one. The largest private sector company in Brazil at the turn of the century was a Canadian company which went through several different names — Brascan, for a long time, was the name of the company, but in Brazil they called it the Canadian octopus — the “polvo canadense” — because its tendrils, whatever those things are called that octopuses have, tendrils were into every aspect of the Brazilian economy. The Canadian state went to bat for Canadian capital in Latin America. The worst, I think, case in the earlier era was in the 1930s when the Canadian military was sent to El Salvador and landed on the coast of El Salvador and met with the Salvadoran military government and planned and strategized around what became a horrific massacre of Indigenous Salvadorans who were engaged in a popular struggle against the dictatorship. It’s remembered as “La Matanza,” The Massacre. Something in the range of 40,000 people were killed while the Canadian ships sat there giving their tacit approval. They didn’t directly participate, but, immediately after the massacre, the Canadian commander came ashore and met with the generals; they had lunch, they played golf, and the generals thanked the Canadians. “Oh, you provided a huge morale boost for our troops.” Canada knew what it was doing. And, of course, at the heart of all of this was a Canadian company, a company based in Montreal called International Power which provided electricity at extremely high rates because they basically had a monopoly in the country. And International Power was one of the main, one of the primary, grievances that people in El Salvador had — it was symbolic of the way that working class Salvadorans were exploited by this regime. People need power — they need light, they need electricity — but it’s extremely expensive and, of course, wages are very low, so the fact that electricity is so expensive is really brutal. And, of course, the profits are flowing back to Montreal. And so, when this popular uprising begins, International Power is on the phone with the prime minister. I mean, literally — I don’t know if it was the phone at that time, but they’re on the wires, because Prime Minister Bennett was close friends with I. W. Killam, who was the head of International Power. And so, Prime Minister Bennett sends the gunships to stop what he calls, quote, “the communist Indians.” And they did. It was a massacre; it was a horrendous piece of history that Canada participated in. And that’s the 1930s. And you can run through the rest of the history of Latin America and you find case after case after case. They often look very similar — there’s often Canadian capital invested, it quickly becomes mining (which, todaay, is one of the main industries), and it’s almost always about supporting some dictatorship because that dictatorship will give advantages to foreign — and, specifically, Canadian — capital. I guess, to pull it into the modern era — the case that I had the most personal connection to is Honduras. My first book was about Canada in Honduras; it’s a place where I’ve spent a lot of time, and I’ve done a lot of work and interviews and so on, and, in Honduras in 2009, the democratically-elected government was overthrown by the military and a dictatorship was put in place. That dictatorship remains in power to this day, and Canada was one of the chief supporters of the military coup. Canada did all kinds of political, diplomatic, economic work to cement the position. I mean, in the moment, when the coup happened, leaders across the world said, “Whoa, whoa whoa whoa. You can’t do that. You can’t just kidnap a president. Come on.” But Canada did a lot of the on-the-ground work of — “Well, we can’t go back in time. Help Honduras move forward, hold new elections, and everything will be okay.” And, of course, they did hold new elections, they were a sham, the dictatorship is still in place. And that dictatorship quickly signed a free trade agreement with Canada. Canada has a ton of money invested in mining; it has a lot of Gildan factories based there (another Montreal-based company, sweatshop employer). There’s a ton of industries that have invested in Honduras, and they want a government in place that will support their interests, support the interests of capital. So, yeah. All the way back to the 1930s in El Salvador to the 2000s, 2010s in Honduras, that’s been a very consistent pattern. And Brendan, you’re right — that is one area that there does seem to be a bit more awareness of, these days, it’s kind of broken into the mainstream, but it’s still a long way away from a real consciousness in this country of the extent to which Canada is — I guess, to put it bluntly, but I think it’s important to do this — the extent to which Canada is making people’s lives miserable around the world. And I think it comes down to that in a way, because we’re always told, and the narrative is always, that Canada is helping; Canada helps everyone else live better lives wherever they are. We’re just trying to help. “Oh, Haiti has an earthquake! Let’s send help! Can we help them in some way?” There’s this perception that Canada’s out there helping people have better, more secure lives, and it’s false, it’s the opposite. Canada has consistently contributed to the worsening of people’s lives, of regular, working people’s lives, day in, day out — sometimes dramatically, in these horrific massacres, but often less dramatically, just making sure that wages do not go up, making sure that companies don’t clean up their pollution, and then the river gets poisoned and people get sick. Whatever way it is, Canada is consistently making people’s lives worse for the benefit of a small nnumber of wealthy Canadians who own a lot of capital, and I think we need to grapple with that fact.
Kate: So, in Canada in the World, you discuss a variety of radical movements and individuals who have resisted Canadian colonialism and imperialism from both outside Canada and within Canada. And this includes mass movements that had real effects on the actions of Canadian governments. What can we learn from these histories of resistance?
Tyler: Yeah. I mean, the only thing that’s ever interrupted any of the things that I’ve been talking about has been popular movements against them, moments of political upsurge and radicalism against the Canadian state. That’s the only thing that’s ever thing that’s ever interrupted it. And, obviously, there hasn’t been a revolutionary movement yet that has been able to change the Canadian state, but there have defnitely been moments where it’s been interrupted, whether we want to talk about the 1920s and ‘30s when a lot of organizing was being done by the Communist Party of Canada, a lot of work was being done with homeless people and around the work camps, the labour camps, that were created; in 1935, there’s a huge upsurge of rebellion in Regina — I skipped over the Winnipeg General Strike, of course, in my hometown in 1919 — so there have been moments. There have been moments of Indigenous resistance which are crucially important and, I think, need to be considered central to all of this. Early points of rebellion and resistance at Red River and Batoche in the northwest, but also more recent, whether we want to talk about Oka or Burnt Church or Elsipogtog or the very recent moments of rebellion: Wetʼsuwetʼen and so on. And I think those are the moments, and those are the places, where the Canadian state (and the Canadian ruling has) has not been able to quite do what it wants, has not been able to quite fulfill its long historical goals around settler capitalism and the colonial imagination. So, those moments are important, and they’ve had important consequences. Some of the early upsurge is why we have some of the — limited now, but the labour protections that we have come from the Winnipeg General Strike. The activism of Chilean immigrants, Chilean refugees who came to Canada after Canada supported Pinochet in Chile — a lot of Chileans fled the country, some to Canada, and their activist, activism that they broght from Chile, was part of the reason Canada had to back down on the Contra wars in the 1980s. It was political mobilization, popular mobilization, that forced Canada to take a position against apartheid in South Africa. It didn’t want to — the Canadian ruling class and the South African ruling class were tight! They didn’t want to go against apartheid, but it became politically necessary to do so; it became impossible for the Canadian state to be a complete pariah in supporting South African apartheid, partly because of mobilization here. So, I think that’s fundamental; I think it’s really important, and I think everything that is done in terms of political mobilization in Canada has to be done with a very, very clear sense that this is Indigenous territory and that whatever kinds of radical, revolutionary movements we want to build, they have to be, at some level, Indigenous, anti-colonial struggle. This is land that has not been decolonized — it is still colonized land, and decolonization has to be a first step as part of any revolutionary project. And that’s not to say that the rest of the multi-racial working classes of Canada shouldn’t also be a part of that — they should, we all should, we all have to be — but it is to say that there has to be some centring of decolonization that’s fundamental, because that’s fundamentally what Canada is. And, if our goal is to decolonize Canada — the thing called Canada, obviously — then it has to begin with decolonization and the creation of something different here that is not Canada, something that is better. So, yeah. It’s hard to find places to have hope these days [aughs], but I think that’s where we have to look.
Kate: Tyler, thank you so much for joining us here on The Alberta Advantage. If our listeners are interested in picking up your book and in following your work, where should they look?
Tyler: Yeah, the book is available at Fernwood Publishers, on their website. I think there’s probably a few other bookstores that are starting to carry it as well. There is a Twitter account for Canada in the World, for the book, which I would encourage people to follow; I post little vignettes, little pieces of the history that is covered in the book. And of course people can always reach out to me directly; I’m pretty easy to find, and I’m always happy to talk about discount pricing options and shipping options and whatever to make sure anyone that wants to read the book can read it. And thanks to all of you guys for having me here and giving me a chance to talk about this stuff. I’m really grateful.
Kate: It was our pleasure. Thanks so much for joining us.
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Kate: If you liked today’s episode, you should check out the Harbinger Media Network, featuring shows like the popular, bi-weekly Toronto Ecosocialist podcast Oats for Breakfast, which approaches questions related to socialist strategy from an open, non-dogmatic perspective with hosts Umair, Sadia, and a rotating panel of guests. Find out more about the Harbinger Media Network and the entire cross-country line of podcasts at harbingermedianetwork.com.
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