Canada As Colonial Power

Not quite the way we like to think of ourselves.


We also have no history of colonialism. So we have all of the things that many people admire about the great powers but none of the things that threaten or bother them.

—Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Pittsburgh, September 2009

After Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper made this off-the-cuff remark at a news conference in Pittsburgh in 2009, he was given a quick history lesson by Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Not only does Canada have a history of colonialism in its dealings with the original inhabitants of what is now Canadian territory, said Atleo in a public statement, but its effects are still being felt today. He had a point. How else could you describe the theft of Indian lands and forced relocations, the suppression of language and cultural practices, the chronic underfunding of communities and the denial of treaty and aboriginal rights even though they are recognized in the constitution?

That Harper, whose government had publicly apologized to aboriginal Canadians for their mistreatment and abuse at state-sponsored residential schools, could make such a statement in an unguarded moment seemed odd. Yet perhaps it is not too surprising. The skewed version of history in which Canada sprang fully formed as an international good guy, without any tawdry colonial past, is firmly embedded in the minds of many non-aboriginal Canadians today. They do not see themselves as the descendants or beneficiaries of European colonizers who used the same tactics to accumulate wealth and power in North America as they had successfully used in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Nor would they recognize the remnants of that inequitable system that remain in place today.

Todd Gordon does not include Harper’s quote in Imperialist Canada, yet the book is essentially a long rebuttal of the idea of Canada as a global Boy Scout, a small good guy in a world dominated by larger, greedier powers. His central premise is that Canada’s ruling political and business classes have taken the lessons learned at the knees of European colonial masters, refined them through continued application on indigenous people at home and then exported them abroad. The result, according to Gordon, is Canadian economic imperialism, which differs in scale but not intent from that of other countries, notably the United States.

This is certainly not a conventional look at Canada’s economic history or where it fits in the world today. That makes this book refreshing. If the author had spent more time exploring the link between Canada’s treatment of its aboriginal population at home and the behaviour of Canadian corporations abroad, Imperialist Canada would be a better book. Unfortunately the core argument is enveloped in what feels at times like a rant against capitalism in all its forms. This obscures the interesting points the author has to make and will deter any reader who might think that capitalism could be improved but is not quite ready to trash the whole system.

Let’s look first at what is good. In “Empire and Home,” the chapter on Canada’s relations with its indigenous population both before and after Confederation, Gordon builds a firm foundation for his argument that Canadian corporations are repeating abroad tactics that have been used at home. This and the chapters on Canadian corporations in the developing world are the strongest parts of the book because his arguments are illustrated with a wealth of examples. Thus when he states that “Canada’s existence is premised on the forceful subjugation of indigenous nations and their resources to its interests,” he backs it up with a review of the treaty process, the Indian Act and the numerous other methods used to force the original inhabitants off their lands and away from their traditional way of life.

While this is familiar territory to anyone with a passing interest in the affairs of aboriginal Canadians, it is a necessary building block to the foreign case studies that follow. Many of the elements are the same. Companies, aided and abetted by willing governments, use laws biased against indigenous people to stake claims and extract wealth from indigenous lands, frequently meeting protest with violence.

The story the author tells of the confrontation in Northern Ontario between Platinex Inc., a Toronto-based mining exploration company, and the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug Cree First Nation over the company’s plan to explore for minerals despite the community’s opposition is similar to events taking place today in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The Cree did not want development on their traditional lands (which are not part of an official reserve but are where the community would traditionally hunt, fish and trap). Yet the company had the backing of the Ontario government, which had issued the exploration permits, and the Ontario judicial system, which jailed six community members who ignored a court order to allow the company access. That action and a series of court battles—Platinex sued the Cree for $10 million; they countersued for the same amount and also launched a constitutional challenge—created enough bad publicity that the Ontario government decided to buy the exploration rights back from Platinex for $5 million.

The examples Gordon gives of confrontations between Canadian resource firms and indigenous groups in developing countries rarely end with a similar victory for the communities. Sometimes extrajudicial killings of protest leaders sap the energy of those opposing the development. Gordon gives the example of Kimy Pernía Domicó, who fought the building of the Urrá 1 hydroelectric dam project in Colombia on the grounds that it would destroy the fish stocks in the Upper Sinú River on which his Embera Katío nation depended. The consortium building the dam included two Canadian companies, BFC Construction and Agra-Monenco, and was partly funded by Export Development Canada. Pernía Domicó disappeared in 2001 and a paramilitary member later admitted he had killed him. Gordon does not specify who employed the paramilitary member. Regardless of the ultimate paymaster, the message to the Embera Katío community was clear enough: if you try to block the dam development you will die.

The murder of Pernía Domicó occurred almost a decade ago, but such threats are still being made today in Colombia and elsewhere. I attended a workshop in Bogota last summer organized in part by the North-South Institute (I sit on their board of directors) on the right of indigenous people to consultation before development takes place on their land. Security at the workshop was tight because a number of participants had received death threats. Some spoke tearfully and angrily about missing friends who had been killed after protesting a proposed mine in their area.

Some projects proceed with the backing of a powerful and corrupt leader, as was the case with the Placer Dome copper mine in the Philippines that Gordon says had the support of Ferdinand Marcos, the late president whose reign was marred by political repression and human rights abuses. Despite continued protest by local inhabitants, the company dumped hundreds of tonnes of toxic tailings from the mine into what was a rich fishing area.

Here again there is a Canadian parallel, although this one is too recent to be mentioned in the book. The proposed Prosperity Mine in British Columbia, strongly supported by the B.C. government but turned down by the federal government in November 2010 on environmental grounds, would have turned a nearby lake into a tailings dump. In this case, protests by the local indigenous community paid off at least initially. The company is planning to submit a new application.

And sometimes governments look the other way because even jobs that come with substandard wages and poor working conditions are welcome in countries with high unemployment and a weak economy.

Gordon does not restrict himself to the mining and oil companies, which are the usual suspects in books of this genre. He looks at clothing manufacturers, insurance companies, banks, engineering firms and telecom firms to flesh out his argument and then looks at government policies that support these commercial endeavours. His thesis is that Canada’s trade, aid and security policies support Canadian economic imperialism abroad.

Some of the examples he cites could be interpreted this way—for example, the Canadian government provided financial support to build the disputed hydroelectric project on the Upper Sinú River in Colombia. But others seem more of a stretch. The Canadian government has no real interest in humanitarian aid or missions, Gordon contends. In his opinion, the Responsibility to Protect, a doctrine Canada had a hand in shaping and that calls for military intervention as a last resort in the face of a humanitarian crisis in a failed or failing state, is a sham, an excuse for imperialist powers to perform the “parlour trick” of invading and imposing imperial solutions to problems caused by imperialism.

Which brings us to the essential weakness of this book. Gordon has a clearly articulated worldview in which capitalism itself is bad and is being used by the rich North to subjugate and dispossess the poorer countries of the South. His is a black and white world where “there is no bright side to Canadian investment in the south” and where “abuses of human rights and eco–devastation are in fact a normal part of doing business for Canadian capital.” I would be the first to agree that there are a lot of bad companies out there, some of them Canadian. I wrote a book about companies that used armed force to enforce what they saw as their right to resources in Africa in which a number of Canadian companies figured. But to assert, as Gordon does, that all companies are bad or that no one benefits from Canadian foreign investment undermines the force of his argument.

Constructing a mine or a dam does provide jobs, however temporary, and such projects hold the prospect of income for people and governments. The electricity generated by a dam also has the potential to improve many lives. What is important is that they are planned and constructed with the full consultation and consent of those most affected, usually indigenous people in the area, and that the benefits outweigh any negative impact on the community and the environment. If Gordon truly wants to correct abuses perpetrated by Canadian companies or Canadian policy, he should tone down the rhetoric and avoid generalizations that make his arguments easier to dismiss.

Even for those who believe as he does that capitalism is evil, or who have been persuaded by what they have read in the book, there is one more disappointment in store. After spending almost 400 pages outlining his case, often in great detail, against capitalism and the Canadian practice of it both at home and abroad, the author spends a mere seven pages on his conclusions. They are general to say the least. Rather than putting forth an alternate system to capitalism or even any intermediate steps necessary to get from where we are today to the “better world” he imagines but does not describe, Gordon summarizes what he has already told the reader. His one stab at a recommendation, other than getting rid of capitalism, comes much earlier in the book. “Simply allowing for self–determination, addressing land claims fairly, and proper financial compensation for all that has been taken from First Nations (such as the corporate profits that have been made off their resources) could go a long way to addressing poverty in their communities,” he writes in the second chapter.

On the whole, Imperialist Canada is a missed opportunity. Following the global financial crisis, which produced recession in many parts of the world, the current system of capitalism is in bad odour. Even dyed-in-the-wool capitalists are searching for answers on how the system might be improved. Gordon seems to want to replace it entirely, but with what he does not say. Instead, he urges those who share his distaste for capitalism to “build an anti-imperialist resistance.” And he suggests that this resistance should include force because “Canada’s ruling class understands no other language.” A reader who has stuck with Gordon thus far and who might actually want to read some suggestions on how to make the world a fairer place deserves more than this. Instructing his readers to rise up without telling them what he wants them to aim for is the ultimate letdown.