Volume 51, Issue 2: Spring 2017

Canada and the pirates of the Caribbean

1830 watercolour from Barbados

Perhaps a new rule is in order: Everyone must take a history lesson before seeking some fun in the sun.

Recently, NDP Member of Parliament Erin Weir asked if Canada should try to expand into the former British slave colonies. “The slush we’re getting in Regina is no fun. Right about now, a lot of people are wondering — would Canadians benefit from a tropical territory?” Former NDP MP Max Saltzman proposed welcoming the Turks and Caicos Islands into Confederation if its people make a democratic decision to join Canada. Former Conservative MP Peter Goldring recently endorsed this proposal.

But, Canadian imperialism in the Caribbean is no joke and should not be ignored or taken lightly by left-wing leaders.

In fact, moves to extend Ottawa’s dominion over the region date back to when the Canada First Movement sought “a closer political connection” with the British West Indies in the 1870s. By the early 1900s, Canadian policy supported annexing the British Empire’s Caribbean possessions (the various islands as well as today’s Belize and Guyana). At the end of World War I, Ottawa asked the Imperial War Cabinet if it could take possession of the British West Indies as compensation for Canada’s defence of the Empire. London balked.

Canada’s sizable financial sector drove these efforts. With their presence in the region dating to the 1830s, Canadian banks were major players by the late 1800s. In Towers of Gold, Feet of Clay: The Canadian Banks, Walter Stewart notes: “The business was so profitable that in 1919 Canada seriously considered taking the Commonwealth Caribbean off mother England’s hands….”

Organized labour backed Canadian influence in the region. During British rule, the Trades and Labour Congress’ (Canadian Labour Congress’ predecessor) journal pushed for a publicly owned steamship service to increase “contact” with the West Indies. A 1929 editorial in the Canadian Congress Journal claimed, “there is every reason to believe that a considerable trade of benefit to both countries will be developed.” In a story the previous year titled “Development of Trade with the West Indies,” the Journal depicted ties to the former slave plantation colonies glowingly. Referring to the great wealth generated trading with the Caribbean slave colonies, the article noted, “for well over 100 years, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick traders and sailors established contact with the islands, bringing Canadian fish and produce in exchange for fruits, sugar and other products.” Unwilling to devote valuable sugar planting space to food crops, Caribbean plantation owners bought high- protein, salty Canadian cod to keep hundreds of thousands of “enslaved people working 16 hours a day.”

Other writers have pointed out the Left’s indifference to Canadian imperialism in the region.

In Canada: A New Tax Haven: How the Country that Shaped Caribbean Tax Havens is Becoming One Itself, Alain Deneault discusses the Left’s blindness to Canadian power in the region. Deneault notes:

How is it that Canadian intellectuals with a background in political economy and the critical tradition have not noticed the troubling nature of Canadian influence in the Caribbean as exerted by MPs, banks, development agencies and experts of all shades and stripes? Even when they have information that ought to lead them in this direction, Canada’s ‘critical’ intellectuals do not feel that this is their responsibility… The problem is not that they are blind to the involvement of foreign states in Caribbean development; rather, they suffer from a specific form of blindness to Canada’s agency. Canada’s political culture is the issue here, including, first and foremost, the political culture of its left-wing academics….


Deneault highlights prominent Left nationalist Kari Polanyi Levitt, author of Silent Surrender: The Multinational Corporation in Canada. An economics professor in Jamaica and Trinidad for many years, Levitt ignores Canada’s pernicious role there. Deneault writes: “While it is impossible for her not to see the domination of Canadian financial institutions such as Scotia Bank or the Royal Bank of Canada in cities in which she spends time such as Kingston or Port of Spain, Levitt manages to make them arbitrarily into symbols of Canadian commitment to the development of the Caribbean! The same denial comes into play when she looks at the role of Alcan in Jamaica. Of course, nothing in the behaviour of this multinational sets it apart from its American counterparts, but Levitt in 2012 stubbornly persists in viewing it as a company that, had it not been bought by Rio Tinto, would have been in the vanguard of a possible Canadian response to American domination in the countries of the South.”

Why are many on the Left unable to understand that opposition to imperialism needs to include the version closest to home?

Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.