Volume 52, Issue 4: Winter 2019

No golden era in Canada’s foreign policy

Photo by Presidencia de la República Mexicana

Some people on the left seem keen to perpetuate Canadian foreign policy mythology.

In a December Ricochet article headlined “Trudeau lags behind allies in taking action on Saudi Arabia’s grisly crimes,” Brian McLaughlin claims that former prime minister Brian Mulroney “is still revered in South Africa for Canada’s leading role in fighting against an immoral system.”

Despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary, such as Linda Freedman’s book The Ambiguous Champion, many on the Left claim Canada led the charge against apartheid in South Africa. When Nelson Mandela died in 2013, former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis was widely quoted as saying that South Africa’s first democratically elected president was struck by “ the intensity of our opposition to apartheid” and “the extraordinary role that Canada had played in fighting apartheid.”

Say what?

Was the “intensity of our opposition to apartheid” greater than that of Angola? Ghana? Tanzania? Mozambique? Uganda? Mali? Cameroon? Kenya? Nigeria? Senegal? Somalia? Sudan? Haiti? Jamaica? Cuba? India? How about dozens of other mostly “black” and “brown” nations? Or, for that matter, the “white” Communist bloc?

African countries began calling for the isolation of and sanctions against apartheid South Africa in the late 1950s, with many ordinary Canadians adding their voice to these calls through the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s.

It was only after decades of Canadian support for apartheid that the Mulroney government responded to domestic and international solidarity movements by adopting (partial) economic sanctions against South Africa in 1986. From October 1986 to September 1993, the period in which economic sanctions were in effect, Canada’s two-way trade with South Africa totaled $1.6 billion – 44 percent of the comparable period before sanctions (1979-1985). Ottawa never cut off diplomatic relations as did Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, and many other countries. To the only extent the federal government deserves praise is that it took a more principled position towards the apartheid regime than erstwhile allies London, Israel and Washington. Or, to put it truthfully, it was the best of a bad lot.

The recent commentary in Ricochet is not the first time that leftists have gone out of their way to reinforce Canadian exceptionalism when challenging a specific unjust foreign policy. Researching The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy a decade ago, I discovered numerous articles that started off by stating that Canada usually does good internationally except for whatever the subject that particular article was criticizing. Obviously when repeated over and over again, the “usually good but not this time” formulation is incorrect.

Linking criticism of current policy to a mythical “golden era” is motivated by ideology and tactical considerations. Many leftists simply can’t think outside the benevolent foreign policy box. At the tactical level, it isolates the issue and is supposed to elicit a “this isn’t the Canada I know” reaction. But, structuring criticism in this way downplays the structural character of the problem and distorts the past.

As I detail in Left, Right: Marching to the Beat of Imperial Canada, the Left’s promotion of nationalist myths and imperialist policies is one reason why Canadians overwhelmingly think this country is a force for good in the world despite Canada’s long history of supporting the American empire and Canadian corporate interests abroad. Rather than mythologize history, we need voices that question the history of Canada’s foreign policy. We need voices that cut through the propaganda and mythology and tell the truth about what has been done in our name.

Perhaps some people have the best of intentions when they portray a fairy-tale past of Canadian benevolence. Perhaps they believe contrasting an alleged “golden era” with the current rotten state of affairs somehow strengthens their argument for change. But you can’t build a solid house on a rotten foundation, nor can you build a just foreign policy on lies.

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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