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#NoUNSC4Canada thrusts critical discussion of Canadian foreign policy into mainstream

Canadian Politics

A Canadian soldier takes part in a simulated battle during Exercise Maple Resolve 17 at Camp Wainwright in Alberta, Canada, May 16, 2017. Photo by Sgt. JF Lauzé.

The #NoUNSC4Canada (No To Canada on UN Security Council) campaign has thrust critical discussion of Canadian foreign policy into the mainstream. It has also pierced through a stultifying ‘team Canada’ variant of nationalism that infests much of the left. While the historical record suggests otherwise, it is widely assumed that Canadian power is a force for good in the world.

Last Tuesday the Toronto Star published a powerful open letter calling on countries to vote against Canada’s bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. It was endorsed by 20 groups and more than 100 prominent artists, academics, activists and authors including David Suzuki, Roger Waters, Noam Chomsky, Pam Palmater, Rawi Hage, Sid Ryan, Antonia Zerbisias, Monia Mazigh and Romeo Saganash. The open letter points out how the Trudeau government has been offside compared to most UN member states on a host of issues from Palestinian statehood to Iran, and criticizes Canadian militarism and its support for controversial mining companies and climate policies.

Justin Trudeau was forced to respond to the letter during his press conference that day. Subsequently, the Canadian Press covered the letter and the Prime Minister’s response. Radio Canada’s Le Téléjournal recorded a long, sympathetic clip and published a story online.

Independent and alternative media organizations including Canadian Dimension, Dissident Voice, Rabble, Socialist Project, Presse-toi à gauche!, Left Chapter, Philippine Reporter, Legrand Soir, Les Artistes pour la Paix, L’aut’journal and others published the full letter while Telesur, Pacific Free Press, Redaction Politics, The Hill Times, Omny, Orinoco Tribune, Counterpunch, The Conversation, Common Dreams and others also covered it.

Also chiming in was Global News which published a somewhat unhinged commentary labelling the campaign a “ridiculous petition”.

Elsewhere, Pink Floyd founder and longtime activist Roger Waters posted a four-minute video clip to Facebook, detailing why he feels Canada doesn’t deserve a seat on the Security Council. The video has has been viewed more than 100,000 times. There has also been significant discussion of the letter on social media. To-date, more than 2,000 people have signed the petition, which will be sent to all UN ambassadors.

The #NoUNSC4Canada campaign has added substance to a discussion focused on whether Ottawa will win a seat, how much time and money the government has spent on it and whether it’s all worth it. Unlike almost all other substantive criticism, the campaign has been effective without reinforcing nationalist mythology or the idea that “the world needs more Canada.”

When the media has assessed actual policy—rather than engage in horse race journalism—during Canada’s campaign for a seat on the Security Council, two issues have received critical attention: Canada’s limited contribution to peacekeeping and its shortfalls in foreign aid.

Coverage of Canada’s withdrawal from UN peacekeeping operations presupposes that “peacekeeping” is a benevolent endeavor, which has often not been the case. In 2004 Canada was part of a UN mission that helped overthrow Haiti’s elected government. In the early 1960s Canadian peacekeepers enabled the assassination of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba. A decade before that, Canadian troops were part of a ghastly UN-led war in Korea.

Bemoaning Canada’s lack of participation in peacekeeping missions is a nonthreatening criticism because it aligns with nationalist mythology and evades directly confronting military power. After all, elements of the Canadian Armed Forces have long viewed “peacekeeping”, which demands a military force, as a way to maintain public support for its ever-increasing budget.

The media has also been willing to criticize Canada’s low levels of spending on foreign aid. In the abstract and often in practice, international aid sounds appealing. In a just world, wealthier regions should assist poorer ones; federal government transfer payments smooth out regional inequities in Canada and there is no reason this type of policy couldn’t be internationalized.

When looked at narrowly, most aid projects appear beneficial (though there are many examples which prove otherwise, from training killer cops in Haiti, to rewriting Colombia’s mining code to better serve multinationals). Schools financed by Canada in foreign nations usually benefit some children and the same can be said about funds put towards initiatives such as farmers’ cooperatives or micro-loan programs for impoverished women. Yet, as you broaden the lens of analysis, the picture changes. Aid takes on a different meaning in the hands of governments run by and for the economic elite.

Initially conceived as a way to blunt radical decolonization in India, Canadian aid is primarily about advancing Ottawa’s geopolitical objectives and, to a lesser degree, specific corporate interests. In the 1970s, for instance, Ottawa increased aid to African states as a way to mitigate their criticism of Canada’s economic and political relations with apartheid South Africa. More substantially, the ‘intervention equals aid principle’ has long seen money channeled into countries where US and Canadian troops are killing people. The $2 billion in aid Canada spent in Afghanistan was at least partially a public relations exercise to justify—to the Canadian public and Afghan elites—its military occupation. Similarly, the huge influx of Canadian aid to Haiti after the 2004 coup was tied to undermining democracy.

While wealthier regions should assist poorer ones, the aid discussion puts a humanitarian gloss on a foreign policy largely driven by support of empire and Canadian corporate interests. The #NoUNSC4Canada campaign challenges the nationalist prism by criticizing unambiguous foreign policy injustices.

Hopefully, #NoUNSC4Canada will go a small way towards creating the conditions in which progressives feel comfortable declaring “the world needs less Canada”—at least the corporate, colonialist kind.

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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