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Understanding Canadian imperialism

Imperialism today is a world system in which Canada, as a Western capitalist power, plays a notable role

Canadian PoliticsUSA Politics

Canadian postage stamp celebrating the vastness of the British empire, December 25, 1898.

Imperialism is not only instantiated in military force and unilateral sanctions deployed to influence the sovereign political and economic affairs of a state for the benefit of an external one (usually the United States). Imperialism, far from being the exclusive remit of US militarism, is manifest in the everyday organizing principles of the entire global economy, of which states in the Global North (including Canada) have inaugurated themselves as the rulers.

Political economist Jerome Klassen offers this compelling definition of imperialism: “a state is imperialist to the extent that its leading corporations command and appropriate value on a global scale. By way of contrast, a state is dependent to the extent that it is dominated by, or drained of, global value flows.” The appropriation of value by imperialist powers and the loss of value by dependent states is called unequal exchange, which Max Ajl defines thusly: “people in the periphery [the dependent states] could produce the same widget at the same speed as someone in the core [the imperialist states] and be paid radically less for it…even when we account for differences in productivity, wages in the South are far lower than they are in the North.”

Unequal exchange is the defining feature of modern imperialism, and it is not only maintained through military force and coercion, although these measures remain central to the imperialist playbook. In many cases, imperialism is maintained through a much more quotidian system of North-South value appropriation of the sort epitomized by the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment programs (SAPs), of which Canada is a stolid champion.

Neocolonial debt traps ensnare decolonizing states that attempt to create a strong domestic industrial base, and the high priests of “responsible” economic policy at the IMF and the World Bank (Canada was a founding member of both) respond by offering debt relief only if these countries open their resource wealth and infrastructure to Western investment. Gunships are replaced by economic advisory teams, and the quest for imperial domination perpetuates itself.

Imperialism is no longer a system in which warring empires carve up individual territories for their own private use, occasionally clashing when economic interests overlap; as David McNally writes, modern imperialism is not “simply about policing an identifiable territory or region…now it entails securing the entirety of the world markets.” Attempts to secure the world markets have entrenched “a system of global inequalities and domination—embodied in regimes of property, military power and global institutions—through which wealth is drained from the labour and resources of people in the Global South to the systematic advantage of capital in the North.” Like other Western countries, Canada has benefitted immensely from this process.

After the Second World War, Canada supported the European empires in their wars against liberation movements in the colonies. Through NATO, Canada sent millions in weaponry and military support to France (which was attempting to savagely repress independence movements in North Africa and “Indochina”), Britain (Malay), the Netherlands (Indonesia and West Papua New Guineau), Belgium (the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi), and Portugal (Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau).

During decolonization, Canada consistently aligned itself with the most brutal capitalist states in the Global South—including apartheid South Africa and the Guatemalan military dictatorship—while criticizing figures who attempted to remove their peoples from a state of neocolonial dependency, such as Jacobo Árbenz (described by the Ottawa trade commissioner in Guatemala as “unscrupulous, daring and ruthless, and not one to be allayed in his aims by bloodshed or killing”), Patrice Lumumba (whom Prime Minister John Diefenbaker considered “a major threat to Western interests”) and Kwame Nkrumah (whose overthrow in 1966 was described as “a wonderful thing…for the West” by Canadian High Commissioner in Accra C.E. McGaughey).

The reason for Canada’s condemnation of left-of-centre of solidly left-wing independence leaders, and closeness with states that violently enforce the primacy of the market, is simple: non-dependent postcolonial states in the Global South not only erect barricades to foreign investment, but they can also serve as examples to other postcolonial states which seek to follow a similar developmental path. For the sake of the imperialist world system, they must be destroyed, and almost all of them were destroyed with Canada’s gleeful approval if not material support. The returns on their destruction have been enormous.

According to Todd Gordon, Canada’s investment in Global South markets in 1980 reaped profits of $3.7 billion. In 2007, by which point most left-wing independence movements had been disempowered and SAPs implemented throughout the Global South, Canadian investments made $23.6 billion in profit, “an increase of 535 percent, which is greater than the increase in profits earned at home over the same period of time.”

Of particular note is that extractive investments in the Global South have grown exponentially over the past few decades, to the extent that Canada is now home to 75 percent of the world’s mining companies and acts as an unscrupulous defender of extractive industry on the world stage. The Canadian government offers tax incentives to transnational mining companies, refuses to establish authoritative supervisory organs, and staunchly rejects the idea of joining the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative or following United Nations recommendations concerning responsible private sector regulation.

Additionally, the Canadian state frequently intervenes in the domestic affairs of sovereign states in order to create a more favorable investment climate for Canadian companies, as evidenced by the Canadian International Development Agency’s (CIDA) financing of a new (and extremely liberalized) Colombian mining code in 2001 and the Canadian embassy’s interference in the Ecuadorian mining review of 2008. Similarly, when the Congolese government of Joseph Kabila nationalized a mine belonging to Vancouver-based First Quantum Minerals in 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper raised the issue with the G8, the IMF, the World Bank, and other investors in the Congo, threatening to prevent a much-needed debt rescheduling until Kabila relented.

The Canadian state’s aggressive approach to value appropriation has born fruit: in 2012, the combined profits of Canadian mining companies in Latin America and Africa totalled $32.2 billion. By contrast, the 2012-2013 budget for CIDA, Canada’s much-praised “international development” agency, was $3.4 billion. Government of Canada statistics show that almost half of the minerals exported through Canada in 2020 were mined outside the country (a value of $90.2 billion), while the latest Energy and Mines’ Ministers Conference revealed that Canada spends more on mineral exploration than any other country, with its budgets representing 14 percent of all global exploration. This data alone reveals the unequal exchange that undergirds the Canadian economy.

Imperialism today is a world system in which Canada, as a Western capitalist power (and itself a creation of British imperialism), plays a notable role. As Canada continues to support diplomatic and material assaults on states which strive to regain a degree of economic sovereignty (Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, to name a few) it must be remembered that Canada is an imperialist nation in an imperialist world system, and that its foreign policy is designed to enforce the dependency of Global South nations while appropriating their value for its own capitalist class.

Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. His areas of interest include post-colonialism and the human impact of the global neoliberal economy. Visit his website at


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