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Alternatives in Canadian foreign policy and the racism of ‘The National’

Part seven in an eight part series investigating the crisis in Canada-China relations

Canadian PoliticsAsiaMedia

According to the late Greg Donaghy, former Head of the Historical Section at Global Affairs Canada, the Pierre Trudeau “government’s sustained and cumulative engagement with China, Japan, and the rest of Asia represented a more coherent foreign policy strategy than is generally acknowledged.” Photo by Peter Bregg/Canadian Press.

Amid the wreckage of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have turned their sights on China. University of Victoria professor emeritus and historian John Price examines the rise of the coalition of Anglo settler colonial states of Canada, the United Kingdom, the US, Australia, and New Zealand, and how they are today fomenting conflict in the Asia Pacific. You can read the series in its entirety here.


Writing in Ottawa’s The Hill Times recently, veteran journalist David Crane pointed out that the word “China” does not appear once in Justin Trudeau’s mandate letter to Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly.

“With the US drumming up an anti-China Cold War, and pressing us to join,” says Crane, “it’s vital that Canada independently determine its own best interest rather than being dragged along by America.”

Crane’s view regarding the necessity of an independent foreign policy is shared by many in Canada. Yet, Trudeau seems determined to pull Canada in the opposite direction.

Filled with fine phrases about reconciliation, democracy and human rights, Trudeau’s mandate letter to Joly makes clear that his priority is to “further strengthen our partnership with our closest ally, the United States,” and “to develop and launch a comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategy to deepen diplomatic, economic and defence partnerships and international assistance in the region.”

This strategy only further aligns Canada with US provocations in the Asia Pacific that could lead to disaster.

Trudeau has choices. Previous prime ministers have, at times, stood up to the US, even when under extreme pressure. Those moments should not be forgotten.

Iraq, Cuba, China

In 2003, then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien came under intense pressure from then US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to support the proposal for an invasion of Iraq based on faulty intelligence reports that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Claude Laverdue, national security advisor to Chrétien at the time, recalled that in one meeting, Blair was “mad, mad, mad and Prime Minister Chrétien became irritated… Blair kept saying to Jean Chrétien ‘can’t you see it, we get the same reports’ and Chrétien replied ‘no, I don’t see it.’” In the end, Chretien refused to support the proposed invasion.

I still recall the moment that decision was made public. Having participated in the massive 2003 mobilizations against the war, I came away relieved that for once my children would see that it was possible for a Canadian government to distance itself from a US-led invasion.

Iraq is not the only example. Cuba is another.

The Canadian government under Lester Pearson toed the US line on Cuba, and even opposed a visit by Cuba’s Fidel Castro to Expo ’67 in Montréal, a breach in diplomatic protocols.

Pierre Trudeau, after becoming prime minister in 1968, reversed the Canadian course, meeting with Cuba’s ambassador to Canada at the time, Pepe Fernández, and exchanging views in Spanish.[1] Trudeau visited Cuba in 1976 where he developed a strong personal relationship with Fidel Castro. Speaking to 25,000 Cubans, Trudeau declared “Viva Cuba y el pueblo cubano… Viva el Primer Ministro Fidel Castro. Viva la amistad cubano-canadiense.”

Trudeau was not afraid to defy the US policy of sanctions and boycotts of Cuba. Canadians have benefited tremendously, with over a million travelling to that holiday destination every year in the decade prior to COVID. Hundreds of companies have economic interests in Cuba, and it is Canada’s top export market in the Caribbean.

No wonder, then, that Castro was invited to be an honorary pall bearer at Trudeau’s funeral in 2000.

But the former PM was not the only one to buck US campaigns against Cuba.

A decade earlier, John Diefenbaker refused to get on board with John F. Kennedy’s campaign to break ties with Cuba, or to endorse the US economic embargo. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, he objected to arbitrary US action, instead proposing that United Nations inspectors go to Cuba to determine the actual situation regarding possible nuclear weapons.

If Trudeau continues down the line of appeasement of US aggression today, will we not be applying sanctions against Cuba tomorrow?

In 1957, Diefenbaker also broke sanctions against exports to China—promoting Canadian wheat exports to that country. Up to that point, the Canadian government had strictly abided by existing US-Canada policy of non-recognition of the People’s Republic of China, recognizing the regime in Taiwan instead.[2]

However, when it became clear that the US was flooding the wheat markets, Diefenbaker “righteously defied US strictures on exports to China, while presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy squirmed uncomfortably but impotently.”

A few years later, when Pierre Trudeau replaced Lester Pearson as prime minister, he would build on Diefenbaker’s obstinance. He broke with US policies and established diplomatic relations with the PRC on October 13, 1970, after tough negotiations in Sweden.

To say that both countries have benefited from mutual recognition is an understatement.

Nor should we forget that, instead of incurring the wrath of the US, Nixon and Kissinger followed the Canadian lead a few years later.

Racism and the marginalization of alternatives

Voices calling for an independent Canadian foreign policy continue to be strong in Canada.

We heard them during the Meng Wanzhou affair—over 100 Canadian diplomats called on Trudeau to release Meng, as did former Prime Minister Chrétien and 19 former politicians and diplomats including Louise Arbour, Lloyd Axworthy, and Ed Broadbent. NDP MP Niki Ashton sponsored a petition calling for Meng’s release, and the Hamilton Coalition to Stop the War launched a Canada-wide campaign for her release.

Many international affairs specialists continue to advocate for an independent Canadian policy regarding China and the Asia Pacific. Pascale Massot at the University of Ottawa, for example, has pointed out that Canada appears to be headed towards a post-hegemonic, polycentric world order, and that foreign policy should not be seen through a liberal-non-liberal binary and that a practical approach is necessary.[3]

This does not mean a transactional approach: “It is strategic and deeply principled to work closely with China on climate change.” Massot also points to the danger of being drawn into a “sharp conflict of hearts and minds against China, which would not serve Canadian interests.” The coming era of polycentric global governance will require an approach to China that is based on an “adaptive, modular, and strategic rationale for engagement.”

Similarly, senator Yuen Pau Woo had advanced the need to recognize China as a “global neighbour,” good or bad depending on your perspective, but one that cannot be bullied or ignored.[4] “Too often, the choice is presented as one that either ‘sees no evil’ (the PRC is an indispensable market), or ‘sees only evil’ (the PRC is a threat).” He concludes that “Embracing one extreme or the other will lead Canada only into dead-ends.”

And there are many others including Gregory Chin of York University who recently elaborated in a public interview on “new elements to the China story.”

Such voices, and those of the Canada-China Business Council and the Asia Pacific Foundation, are increasingly marginalized as public discussions about China have become toxic.

A case in point is a so-called news story last week on alleged “Chinese industrial espionage” featured on CBC News’ flagship program The National. This eight-minute feature, by Terence McKenna, went to new lows in biased reporting on China.

Most of the airtime was given to allegations of spying by three well-known anti-China advocates—Charles Burton, Joanna Chiu, and Michael Chong, as well as three Canadian spies, CSIS Director David Vigneault, former Director Richard Fadden, and former CSIS agent Michel Juneau-Katsuya. Yet it provided less than 30 seconds to a single dissenting view by senator Yuen Pau Woo, immediately rebutting his perspective.

The National’s special feature highlighted the CSIS-inspired firing of award-winning scientist Dr. Xiangguo Qiu, but neglected to mention that fellow scientists continue to support her, or the fact CSIS is advising the government not to release the material evidence because it might out their covert spy operations, some of which may be illegal. Qiu, along with her biologist husband Keding Cheng, had their security clearances revoked and were evicted from the National Microbiology Lab, along with several of their international graduate students, in Winnipeg in July 2019. It is still unclear why they were fired.

The piece gave a lot of airtime to Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former CSIS agent who now appears to be private contractor that the CBC often uses an authority on spying. But the CBC failed to disclose that Asian Canadians successfully sued Juneau-Katsuya for falsely accusing them of being agents of the Chinese governments in his book Nest of Spies. Instead, it highlighted Juneau-Katsuya’s suggestion that Nortel, a Canadian corporation, had failed because of alleged Chinese hacking, and that the Chinese company, Huawei, was involved. At best this is a fringe view, not backed by most business commentators. Nor did the CBC program report that US spies hacked into Huawei headquarters over a decade ago, and that Canadian spy agencies abetted that effort as part of the “Five Eyes” global spy network.

The piece raised the recent conviction of a white Harvard scientist for not disclosing payments he had received from a Chinese university, but failed to mention that the US Department of Justice’s program, “the China Initiative” has come under fierce criticism for racial profiling and, according to the New York Times, “has suffered an embarrassing setback” after it was forced to drop charges against MIT scientist, Dr. Gang Chen, for a lack of evidence.

The CBC program also failed to report that CSIS has instigated similar misguided prosecutions, as in the case of Canadian engineer, Qing Quentin Huang who, eight years after his arrest saw the charges against him stayed. Nor did it bother to disclose that two associations representing 1,000 Chinese Canadian scholars publicly protested against the racial profiling that is occurring in Canadian universities as a result of CSIS-sponsored interference in Canadian post-secondary institutions.

All this counter-information is in the public realm and easily accessible but apparently neither Terence McKenna nor The National cared to look.

In a perceptive commentary last year, Yuen Pau Woo and UBC professor Paul Evans pointed to the fact that “Canadian media coverage on China is almost uniformly negative.” They also asked: “Anti-China sentiment is rising across the country, and so is anti-Asian hate. How are the two connected?” The National’s feature illustrates the connection only too well.

Interspersed with the anti-China interviews were constant stereotypical visuals of masses of Chinese people and the Chinese military, marching in unison, images that are deeply evocative of earlier “Yellow Peril” imagery of hordes of heathen Asians waiting at the gates to invade a white Canada or United States. This racist imagery was rebooted after the establishment of the PRC when “the news media presented the Chinese under Mao as an inscrutable mass of political fanatics, a conformist colony of blue-suited ants,” observes US historian Christian Klein.[5]

Anti-Chinese images, like this illustration from the Globe and Mail, are common manifestations of Sinophobia.

Now The National is resurrecting the imagery of indoctrinated communist Chinese ready to go to war with Canada, with Chinese corporations, and their agents in Canada as their “fifth column.” It holds frightening parallels to the “Yellow Peril” imagery that was manufactured against Japan, and Japanese Canadians prior to the Second World War that resulted in the ethnic cleansing of Japanese Canadians from British Columbia in 1942.

The National’s feature can effectively pass as news, and “stick” because it uses language and images that are evocative: they draw on the deep well of racist stereotypes that have come before, have been resurrected with the pandemic, and given wide currency by demagogues like Donald Trump.[6]

The connection between anti-Asian racism and foreign policy has long been a staple of the anti-racist movement in the United States. Kent Wong and Stewart Kwoh put it succinctly in a recent essay: “The long, tragic legacy of anti-Asian violence in the United States is directly related to US foreign policy in Asia.”

“Attitudes of paternalism and fears of the Yellow Peril regarding the Japanese and Chinese maintained a stunning dynamism and persistence,” concludes Brandon P. Seto, and are a reminder “how the still potent but largely unconscious visual language of ‘oriental’ hordes and un-bridgeable difference infuses our sense of futurist dystopia.”

The National owes the country, and Asian Canadians in particular, an apology for fanning the flames of bigotry and hate. And Justin Trudeau needs to call for a fundamental reassessment of Canadian foreign policy to avoid taking Canada down the road to war.

Part 8: Indigenizing Canadian foreign policy

John Price is professor emeritus at the University of Victoria, author of Orienting Canada, and a member of the Advisory Board of the newly formed Canada-China Focus, a project of the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute and the Centre for Global Studies (University of Victoria).


[1] John M. Kirk and Peter McKenna, “Deciphering Canada’s Cuba Policy since 1959,” International Journal of Cuban Studies, 2.1/2 (Spring/Summer 2010), pp. 62-73.

[2] Greg Donaghy, “Pierre Trudeau and Canada’s Pacific tilt, 1945–1984,” International Journal, 74.1 (2019), 141.

[3] Pascale Massot, “Global Order, U.S.-China Relations and Chinese Behaviour: The Ground is Shifting, Canada Must Adjust,” International Journal, 74.4 (2019), 600-611.

[4] Yuen Pau Woo, “What is the People’s Republic of China to Canada? Towards a Rethinking of Bilateral Relations,” International Journal, 76.1(2021), 145-153.

[5] Christina Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 176.

[6] Gerald Roche, “The Epidemiology of Sinophobia,” Made in China Journal, 1 (January-April, 2020).

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