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Canadian foreign policy nationalism must be named and challenged

Canadian Politics

Canadian Armed Forces personnel serving on the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission listen as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to them in Gao, Mali, Saturday December 22, 2018.

It is easy to love your country. The messages encouraging patriotism are everywhere, and they fulfill a need to belong. But nationalism in Canada’s foreign policy is a major obstacle to a more just world.

Reaction to the recent and humiliating rejection of Canada’s bid to win a seat at the United Nations Security Council, and the opposition campaign surrounding it, highlighted “Team Canada” thinking among progressives. In other words, some on the left feared being viewed as unpatriotic, while others either simply ignored their country’s imperialism, or openly bought into the belief that the “world needs more Canada”.

Indeed, the prevailing notion that Canada is a leader in global peacekeeping operations presents a stark example of how nationalism stunts common sense. For more than a decade, Walter Dorn, a teacher at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, has fervently promoted military engagement through the UN. As the Rideau Institute adviser recognized, Canada’s number of peacekeeping engagements “is at its lowest point in more than 60 years”, and far more Irish and Norweigan soldiers were part of UN missions than Canadians over the course of the last several decades. Still, Dorn bemoaned Canada’s Security Council defeat to Norway and Ireland.

This begs the question: if your central political objective is promoting peacekeeping, and the other candidates vying for the two remaining Security Council positions are more engaged in UN missions, what’s to lament? In fact, Dorn ought to celebrate the foreign policies of Ethiopia, Rwanda and Bangladesh, since they are the top contributors to UN peacekeeping. Is he too Eurocentric to countenance such a reality?

A similar dynamic was at play among most nuclear disarmament groups. Ireland’s position on nuclear disarmament is far better than Canada’s, and still superior to that of Norway. Still, few among the nuclear disarmament community supported Ireland or opposed Canada’s Security Council bid (most backed it).

Even some prominent pro-Palestinian activists refused to sign an open letter calling on countries to vote for Norway and Ireland instead of Canada due to its pro-Israel positions. According to research compiled by Karen Rodman of Just Peace Advocates, since 2000 Canada has voted against 166 General Assembly resolutions critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Ireland and Norway haven’t voted against any of these resolutions. What’s more, Ireland and Norway have voted yes 251 and 249 times respectively on resolutions related to Palestinian rights during this period. Canada has managed 87 yes votes, but only two since 2010.

Representatives of the primary victims of the Canadian state also engage in crass foreign policy nationalism. On the day of the UN Security Council vote, Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde tweeted, “First Nations consider the work of the United Nations vital for global peace and security. Canada is an important voice to be heard at the United Nations Security Council. Good luck to minister Champagne and ambassador Blanchard on today’s vote!”

Bellegarde is an accommodating Indigenous leader and the AFN is highly dependent on the federal government. Yet, as I detail in Left, Right: Marching to the Beat of Imperial Canada, it is not uncommon for First Nations leaders to make similar statements. In a January commentary in the Georgia Straight, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip wrote, “for generations, Canada has proudly supported human rights on the international stage at the United Nations forums while consistently failing to apply the same moral compass here at home.” According to this formulation, the same government that runs roughshod over Indigenous rights and lands is suddenly framed in more lofty terms as a crusader for justice in the international sphere, where it often acts in lockstep with US foreign policy dictates and is subject to less democratic oversight. Of course, this is an absurd and erroneous statement, but one that is not uncommon in Canadian political culture.

Another slightly less direct, though equally bizarre, form of nationalism can be found amidst anarchist political circles. Many who say they oppose borders were indifferent to the #NoUNSC4Canada campaign and Canada’s imperial practices abroad more generally. No Borders Media provides a stark example. One would presume a group with such a name would take internationalism seriously. But a look through months of No Borders Media’s tweets demonstrates very little critique of the abuses of Canadian foreign policy abroad. At what point, to paraphrase a slogan making the rounds, does “silence regarding Canadian imperialism become violence” towards its largely black and brown victims?

One success of the #NoUNSC4Canada campaign was that it challenged foreign policy nationalism without pretense. It focused on Canada’s dubious record and suggested its Security Council competitors were more deserving of a seat on the international organization’s most powerful decision-making body. If you care about climate disturbances, support Ireland and Norway because their per capita greenhouse gas emissions are far lower; if you care about Palestinian rights, back those two countries since they do not vote against UN resolutions upholding Palestinian rights; if you oppose rich countries dumping their trash in poor nations support Ireland and Norway because they signed the Basel Ban Amendment. And on and on.

Canadian foreign policy nationalism needs to be named and challenged. It is an obstacle to building a more just world.

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.

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