Canada's real role in the world is covered under a lot of mythology. Canada is seen as an 'honest broker', a moderating influence on the United States. Canada doesn't have the power or will to have imperial aspirations, and if there is a division between the US and the rest of the world, Canada stands with the world. These are myths a lot of people subscribe to.

Canada for anti-imperialists

by Justin Podur, courtesy of Znet

Based on a talk given to the ‘Nageh’ community group on June 11, 2004, in Toronto.

The United States is engaging in a bloody occupation in Iraq; it overthrew the democratically-elected regime in Haiti and posted Marines in that country; it sowed already devastated Afghanistan with cluster bombs and replaced the Taliban with warlords; it is engaging in ongoing efforts to oust the Cuban regime and the Venezuelan; it is supporting repression in Colombia; it is constantly threatening Iran, Syria, and North Korea; it offers unconditional support to Israel’s bloody occupation of Palestine.

This is all part of a very deliberate agenda that denies self-determination to the peoples of the world, keeps the world ‘safe’ for the rights of investors, corporations, and militarists, and undermines democracy on behalf of elites in the rich countries (and their clients in the poor countries).

In most of these ventures, Canada has been openly supportive; in others, its support has been behind-the-scenes. What is the historical pattern of Canadian foreign policy? What is Canada up to today and why? Opposing imperial depredations is something everyone of conscience must do, but we can have more effect (can we?) over what Canada does, so it is important to know what that is: the record is mainly one of complicity, hypocrisy, and the occasional open crime.

Canada’s real role in the world is covered under a lot of mythology. There are a variety of narratives about Canada, what it is, how it works. There are a lot of myths. Canada is seen as an ‘honest broker’, a moderating influence on the United States. Canada doesn’t have the power or will to have imperial aspirations, and if there is a division between the US and the rest of the world, Canada stands with the world. These are myths a lot of people subscribe to.

There are, on the other hand, a lot of people who know better. The Council of Canadians held a series of events across the country called: “Canada: Country or Colony?” They point to free trade agreements, defense sharing agreements, US investment in Canada, the majority of Canadian trade going to the US, US encroachments into Canada’s public sector, and say – Canada is in a colonial relationship with the US. What the US says goes. Canada imports manufactured goods and exports natural resources. It’s colonialism.

I have a lot of respect for the Council of Canadians, and for that Canadian ‘nationalist’ sentiment. I recently read a book by David Orchard (1), who ran for the Conservative Party nomination. David Orchard is not an ordinary conservative. In his view, the Conservative Party is the party that built the railway, that built up the public sector, that defended Canadian sovereignty against US encroachment, and only recently betrayed its noble traditions with Mulroney and NAFTA. For Orchard, the entire history of Canada is one of resistance to US attempts to take it over: alliances of indigenous-French and indigenous-French-British repelled repeated military invasions. Visionary politicians realized that unity alone could create a state and economy that could be independent. Those visionaries passed and were replaced by venal men who don’t care for independence or sovereignty and want to sell the country to the US. Those colonial collaborators, Orchard points out, have always existed in Canadian history: for every invasion there were those in Canada eager to be absorbed. John Ralston Saul, the husband of Canada’s Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, not a conservative, someone who would probably call himself a ‘humanist’, does the same sort of thing in his book about Canada (2). To Ralston Saul, the defining characteristic is the intertwining of British, French, and indigenous that created something unique and worth preserving here in this Northern country. He always goes back to the alliance between Lower Canada (Quebec)’s LaFontaine and Upper Canada (Ontario)’s Baldwin, an alliance that enabled these politicians to outflank those who wanted union with the US and bring about ‘responsible government’ in Canada.

This, too, is an interesting story, but I’m not sure that it is true. Struggles between elites are rarely between men of vision and men who lack vision. They are, instead, based on different interpretations of how elite interests are best served. The men who built the railway (and it is interesting that when people talk about ‘the men who built the railway’ they are referring to the capitalists and government officials here, and not the actual people who actually built the railway, sweating and dying in terrible conditions for terrible wages) the men who sought tariff protections for Canadian manufactures, they had their own reasons for doing so. And in recent years, even the most ‘nationalist’ parts of the Canadian elite dared not assert too much independence.

Years ago in Mexico a friend lamented her country’s problem: “We are too far from heaven and too close to the US.” Canadian nationalists would say the same. But for Canada there is another question. On the one hand, there is a question about how independent Canada could be even if it wanted to be. On the other, there is a question about whether Canada wants to be. In other words, the Council of Canadians question: “Canada, Country or Colony?” should be expanded to: “Canada: country, colony, or colonizer?” And the answer isn’t pretty.

Gwynne Dyer, in his foreword to Victor Levant’s excellent history of Canadian involvement in the Vietnam war (3), puts this issue very clearly:

“The fact is that Canada did have choices about its behaviour in the Vietnam in the 1950s, and chose to behave badly. The same is true of the 1960s. We have choices in the 1980s too, although every choice involves a potential price.

“We cannot know how high the price would have been if we had… refused to serve US interests in Vietnam. Nobody in Ottawa even considered the question seriously until the very end… Nobody knows what the cost to Canada of serious dissent from US policy would be today, either, though the United States could clearly hurt us a lot if it chose to do so. But always behind the lines… looms the vast misery and suffering that Canada’s complicity helped to perpetuate in Vietnam, and that is a kind of cost too. In many cases Canada does have the ability to choose, and it has a duty to itself and to others to make the right choices. (in Levant, Foreword)” (3)

I want to look here at just a few of Canada’s choices. Just a few cases. Why does Canada make these choices? What are the effects of these choices? How could we change things?


Some of you might think of Paul Martin as a liar and a gangster. You would be unsurprised then to find out that it is a family tradition. Indeed, Paul Martin Sr.’s own words, and Lester B. Pearson’s, are some of the most eloquent on why Canada got involved in the US war on Vietnam. What follows comes mostly from Victor Levant’s fine book, ‘Quiet Complicity’.

We know Canada is an economic power of some consequence. There was just a G8 summit in Georgia, where protesters couldn’t get anywhere close. Canada was there, making decisions about the rest of the world as part of this elite club. Canada is a major exporter: of raw materials, and of various manufactured goods.

Subject to US Power?

But a lot of the manufacturing is automotive. Before Canada had NAFTA, it had the Auto Pact of 1965, which created a continental Auto industry and thus made the main part of Canada’s civilian manufacturing base subordinate to US capital. The alternative was to develop an indigenous auto industry: “insistence on high domestic content for vehicle assembly operations, high tariffs, quotas, and licences. Argentina, Brazil, Australia, Britain, and Europe had gone this route.” (Levant pg. 35) But Canada under Pearson opted for integration with the US.

Some of Canada’s manufacturing is military. The Defence Production Sharing Agreement of 1959 turned Canada into a major exporter of military goods – really, a subcontractor — to the United States. US procurement in Canada between 1959-1973 totalled $3.2 billion. (Levant pg. 34) Today, quoting Stephen Kerr, “Canadian Defence Industries Association figures show that Canadian ‘defence’ industry revenues grew 35% between 1998 and 2000, far outpacing growth of the rest of the economy, which grew at approximately 3%. Canada’s ‘defence’ market grew from $3.7 billion in 1998 to $4.08 billion in 2000, up 22.6%. Exports to the USA grew by 17% from just under a billion to $1.25 billion. And our arms exports to the rest of the world grew a staggering 75% in the same period from $798 million to $1.5 billion.” (11) Canada’s arms industry does $5 billion in business annually, with 650 firms and 57,000 direct jobs. The business is handled through the Crown Commercial Corporation.

Most of the Canadian manufacturing economy is owned by the US, and the final destination of the manufactures – and most of the resources – is the US. This was true during the US war on Vietnam and it is true today. During that period US interests controlled 47% of the manufacturing, 61% in petroleum and natural gas, 59% in mining and smelting (figures cited by Levant pg. 9). After NAFTA, US control is even greater.

Lester B. Pearson, who the mythology treats as a peacekeeping hero (and who we will be hearing more from), said at the time: “no country in the world has less chance of isolating itself from the effect of American policies and decisions than Canada. If Washington ‘went alone’ where would Ottawa go?”

The Prime Minister who preceded Pearson, Diefenbaker, himself no anti-imperialist (he established his ‘anti-communist’ credentials by saying he had “no ear for the lullabies of the neutralist”), showed a slight inclination for an independent foreign policy for Canada. He criticized US tactics in Laos. He didn’t have Canada join the Organization of American States, which the US used to isolate Cuba’s revolution and which Che Guevara called the ‘Department of Colonies’. He was unenthusiastic about posting US nuclear missiles in Canada. He tried to establish greater trade ties with Britain.

How did the US react? With regime change, of course! According to Levant, “In the 1962 Canadian election, US action played a role in the Conservatives’ decline from a 208 seat majority to a 116 seat minority. President Kennedy received Opposition Leader Pearson for a forty-minute conversation three days after the election was called, and the Kennedys lent their polling expert, Louis Harris, to the Liberals. One billion dollars in US funds left Canada in the first quarter of the year.” The next election saw even more blatant US intervention. Levant cites a US columnist who commented on the event: “Adroit statecraft by the American State Department brought down the bumbling crypto-anti-Yankee government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, and replaced it with a regime which promises to be faithful to the concept of Canadian-American interdependence.”

“The lesson,” Levant notes, “was not lost on succeeding governments in Ottawa.”

Canada’s own imperialist ideas

But be careful. David McNally points out that “Canadian capitalists are also major players in the world of foreign investment and global takeovers… Between 1994 and 2001, for example, 384 more US businesses were bought up by Canadian corporations than the number of Canadian businesses that US companies managed to purchase. Judged in dollar amounts, Canadian capitalists spent $46 billion more purchasing US businesses than did the latter buying firms in this country.” (McNally, “Canadian Imperialism”, in New Socialist Magazine May/June 2003)

Levant notes that during the war on Vietnam, Canada exported $21.3 billion to Asia and imported $14.6 billion – a big surplus. Canadian business didn’t want to ‘lose’ Southeast Asia to what they called ‘communist aggression’ and what we might call ‘self-determination’ any more than the US did. Canadian elites wanted to make sure Asia was ‘safe’ for their investments just as US elites did.

Lester B. Pearson himself stood up in the House of Commons in the 1950s and told the Parliament that “aggression” by the Vietnamese against France, in Vietnam, was only one element of worldwide communist aggression and that “Soviet colonial authority in Indochina” was stronger than French control! (The source is James Eayrs, In Defence of Canada: Indochina Roots of Complicity, 1983. It is cited in Chomsky’s ‘Hegemony or Survival’).

Now we are ready to meet Paul Martin Sr., who was capable of wielding Eisenhower’s ‘domino’ theory with the rest of them. Remember that the ‘domino’ theory is a justification for intervention anywhere, any time, because any place is a ‘domino’ that, if it is allowed to ‘fall’, will lead to the collapse of the entire world. Martin said to the House of Commons in 1965, as External Affairs Secretary:

“Vietnam is a test case. I suggest that if the North Vietnamese aggression with Chinese connivance succeeds, it will only be a matter of time before the next victim is selected… If the US were to leave Vietnam at the present time, what would happen to that country? What would happen to Burma? What would happen to India, a commonwealth country?” (Levant pg. 30)

Martin helped the US aggression by calling the Vietnamese national liberation movement “Viet Cong aggression”. Martin even compared the Vietnamese to Hitler: “If North Vietnam succeeds in taking over the whole of Vietnam by force, if the rest of the world is prepared to sit back and see this happen… we would in my judgement, be guilty of an error of the same nature as the mistakes at Munich… Aggression is agression, whether it takes place in Europe, Ethiopia, or Vietnam.” (pg. 49).

But not, according to Martin and Lester B. Pearson, if the United States is the aggressor.

The point here is this: the US is certainly capable of bullying Canada and has certainly done so. But it is also the case that Canada’s elite has its own corporate interests in plundering the poor countries. It is also the case that Canada’s elite has the same contempt for self-determination, once called ‘communism’, as the United States does. Canada jumps to help imperialism. If it didn’t, the US has demonstrated that it can push.


Now, what did Canada jump to do, in Vietnam? A number of things. In Levant’s words:

“Canadian food and beverages fed US troops, Canadian war material was used on the battlefields of South Vietnam and flown in sorties over Hanoi and Haiphong, auto parts fabricated in Canada were installed in US army vehicles, and many Canadian raw resources stoked the fires of the US military-industrial complex.” (Levant 53., with much documentation). Everything from napalm components to green berets, from gunsights to whiskey, from radio relays to rocket warheads, were provisioned. The Toronto Star’s weekly magazine tracked TNT from a plant in Quebec to Crane Indiana where it was poured into bombs. The May 27, 1967 supplement commented that “With luck, the explosive that left (Quebec) could be hailing down on a Vietnamese village six weeks later.” (Levant pg. 58) These were boom years for the whole Canadian economy, a boom the Vietnamese paid for with their lives, by the million.

To be fair to Canada, the government compensated Vietnam by providing ‘humanitarian’ aid – but only to the South Vietnamese regime, the US client, whose principal victims were the South Vietnamese people. Canadian aid escalated with American bombing – the more the Americans bombed, the more the Canadians ‘aided’. The main purpose of these few millions of dollars though, was to ‘demonstrate publicly that they were on the same side of the war as the US’ (External Aid Office Advisor Michael Hall, in 1965, cited in Levant pg. 71).

Claire Culhane went to Vietnam as a nurse with one of these “aid projects” and became one of the most outspoken activists against the war. She presented the real face of these Canadian aid projects in her book, “Why is Canada in Vietnam”, in 1972 (New Canada Press, Montreal). She describes a tour of a hospital ward she conducted with a supervisor.

“Dr. Mosely was keeping a careful check of the time as she had to meet a friend to play tennis at 12:30, and was getting ready to leave. When I straightened the patient’s bedsheets, I found a ghastly condition of disembowelment and shattered limbs, lying in a mixture of crushed bone and blood – altogether an unbearable sight, in need of much more work. When I called this to [Dr. Mosely]’s attention, she stopped long enough to laugh and say: ‘Don’t be silly, why bother, she’ll be dead by morning anyway, she will just smell a little sweeter when she dies.'” (pg. 83)

Back in Canada, she wondered about a Canadian project to fund artificial limbs.

“I sought out Dr. Claude Gingras of the Montreal Rehabilitation Institute, who had initiated the Qui Nhon Rehabilitation Hospital (he was later decorated by President Thieu) to enquire why he was making no attempt to provide trained surgeons who could save limbs, instead of fitting artificial ones. His reply consisted of a ten minute dissertation on the other-worldliness of the oriental mind and how its attitudes towards death differed from our own!” (pg. 109)

The medical teams that went over as part of the aid program also helped out the US war effort by denying that US chemical warfare was harmful and that napalm was bad for you. (Levant pg. 86)

On the subject of chemical warfare, Canada allowed testing of defoliants at New Brunswick in 1966. “In March 1965, the Canadian Ministry of Defence offered Crops Division large areas of densely forested land for experimental tests of defoliant chemicals… the test site selected contained a mixture of conifers and deciduous broadleaf species in a dense undisturbed forest cover that would provide similar vegetation densities to those of… Southeast Asia.” (US Army technical memorandum, quoted in Levant pg. 205). B-52s practiced bombing runs over Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1968 and 1970 (Levant pg. 205).

Canada participated in what was called the International Control Commission (ICC), along with Poland and India. ICC teams traveled in Vietnam and determined whether ceasefires were being violated. Canada used its presence on the ICC not only to help whitewash what the US was doing and deny the facts, but also to spy on the Vietnamese, providing intelligence to the US on what the effects of its weapons were on the population and more. (Levant)

There is no way of teasing out the damage inflicted by Canada’s role specifically, in Vietnam or anywhere else. But one can summarize what the effect of the war was as a whole on the Vietnamese, and I happen to like David Orchard’s (pg. 135-136) summary:

“… on April 30, 1975, the last of the US military fled in helicopters from the roof of the US embassy in Saigon, abandoning millions of dollars of weapons, helicopters, tanks and other equipment, hundreds of thousands of CIA operatives, more than five hundred thousand prostitutes and drug addicts in Saigon alone, over eight million refugees and orphans, hundreds of thousands of wounded, deformed and chemically damaged Vietnamese, the world’s greatest demand for artificial limbs, and 150,000 tons unexploded bombs in the fields and forests. More than 10,000 Vietnamese, mostly farmers and their families, died in the years following 1975, when their ploughs inadvertently hit these hidden bombs containing delayed-action fuses.

“Approximately six million died in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and countless others were maimed and wounded as the result of American military aggression. For its war crimes in Southeast Asia, the United States has never paid.”

And neither has Canada.

The use of sanctions

I spent a lot of time on Vietnam because it is a good demonstration of the myths about and the real patterns of Canada’s behaviour in the world. Canada came out of that war smelling like a rose, in spite of everything, and there are still legends that Pearson challenged Johnson over bombing North Vietnam. Pearson actually, according to the Pentagon Papers, made a tactical suggestion to Johnson not to use nuclear weapons on Vietnam, but “iron bombs” were just fine (4). That in 1965, while Martin and Pearson were engaging in all manner of apologetics for the US assault.

Kim Richard Nossal, a mainstream Canadian foreign policy academic, compiled a brief list of the use of economic sanctions by Canada (5, pg. 74). Sanctions were used against – guess who? — Vietnam in 1979 for its invasion of Cambodia (one of the only interventions that actually had a humanitarian effect, stopping Pol Pot’s murderous regime). Against the USSR for invading Afghanistan in 1979 (though not against the US for doing the same in 2002). Against Iran after seizing the US embassy in 1979. In 1981 against the USSR and Poland after the latter declared martial law. In 1982 against Argentina for the Falklands war with the UK. In 1983 against the USSR after shooting down a Korean airlines plane. In 1984 against South Africa. In 1989 against China after the Tiananmen Square massacre. In 1990 against Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait. In 1991-2 against Yugoslavia. In 1991 against Haiti after the coup against Aristide. Aid was suspended against Afghanistan, Cuba, El Salvador, Fiji, Guatemala, Indonesia, Libya, Suriname, Sri Lanka, and Uganda, at various times.

But Canada, Nossal himself notes, never considered sanctions against the US for its invasion of Grenada in 1983, or its bombing of Libya in 1986, or its shooting down of an Iranian airliner in 1988, or its invasion of Panama in 1989, or its ignoring of the World Court ruling and Security Council condemnations while it escalated the terrorist war against Nicaragua through the 1980s.

And rather than sanctioning the US for its 1990/91 Iraq slaughter, Canada joined in.

The War on Iraq in 1990/1

Canada sent warplanes and ships to participate in the US attack on Iraq in 1990/1. In an unusual role for Canada, the Canadian military was used directly against Iraq, and thus Canada shares responsibility for the horrors that the Iraqis suffered then and since.

Again, quoting David Orchard (pg. 230):

“This was a war to give the United States control of Arab oil, from where much of the wealth of the seven major British and American oil companies has come, and which is also the energy source of its major industrial competitors, Europe and Japan.

“The price tag… was between 150,000 and 300,000 dead in Iraq – 90% civilian. Since the end of the war, more than 100,000 infants have died from malnutrition, dysentery, and other effects of the bombing and ongoing blockade of Iraq…” [Orchard wrote that well before Madeleine Albright acknowledged on television that the toll of children was 500,000, and that was in 1996. The sanctions regime hasn’t really even ended despite the re-destruction of Iraq and its occupation by the US and company.]

“Canada’s minister of external affairs, Joe Clark, said early in the war that the reason Canadian forces were in the Gulf was that Canada would not stand for the invasion of small countries by powerful ones. In the last 200 years, the United States has invaded smaller countries more than 300 times.”

From local ‘threats’ to global ‘threats’

Desmond Morton, another completely mainstream and conventional historian, nevertheless makes a good point about the implications of Canada’s military relationship with the US. The only plausible military threat Canada has ever faced has been the United states, and in Morton’s words: “Canadians found that one good way to keep the peace is not to prepare for a hopeless war. Imagine if Canadians had dutifully assumed the old British defence burden… hundreds of thousands of Canadians would have spent their youth drilling and maneouvring for a war they could never win. Ottawa would have spent millions of dollars on defence, but it could never be enough. Alarmed at military threats on their border, Americans would have mobilized armies and matched cannon for cannon.” (6, pg. 10)

What does a military do when it is not focusing on plausible external threats? Too often, they become instruments for suppressing the local population. Many of the major Canadian military mobilizations in recent history have been against the population, especially the indigenous. In 1990 in Mohawk communities at Oka, Quebec and Akwesasne Ontario, 5,000 soldiers were mobilized. Again in 1993, the RCMP, CSIS, and the military coordinated another mission against these same communities. 800 RCMP were mobilized, backed by “several thousand soldiers”, to “take control of the reserves.” The Second Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment “requested seven M113 armoured personnel carriers, 13 heavy machineguns, and large stocks o riot gear… the 5e Groupe Mecanise du Canada… asked for an extra $4.2 million worth of ammunition.” (7, pg. 35)

Luckily for everyone involved, that operation was called off before massive violence ensued. But the Canadian authorities are confronting these same communities again today.

Not too long afterwards, 400 RCMP officers mobilized in British Columbia against a small group of Secwempec indigenous at Gustafson Lake who were claiming a part of ranch as an ancestral burial site. The RCMP fired thousands of rounds into the forest. This operation, too, was called off, thankfully, before bloodshed.

These kinds of mobilizations against indigenous people were ‘practice’ runs for Canadian units to work in other countries. “Joint Task Force Two”, a secret ‘elite’ commando unit, which may or may not have been present at these indigenous assaults, helped train the Haitian police in the mid-1990s: “JTF2’s job was to train Haitian police officers in the art of ‘door kicking’ and building takedowns… SWAT team would be used to hunt down and seize arms caches held by extremists and former army officers intent on overthrowing the Preval government.” (Pugliese pg. 60) JTF2 went off to Zaire in the period between the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the genocidal war in the Congo of 1998-2001. JTF2 helped train the Royal Nepalese Army in counterinsurgency techniques, advising that institution on “tactics and the best use of its forces against the guerrillas.” (Pugliese pg. 66)

A long tradition of profiteering

War profiteering in Canada went on before the war on Vietnam (WWI and WWII have their own shining examples). The Vietnam war took it to new heights, and Canada has stayed at those heights since, providing arms and other services for human rights violations all over the world. These are just three examples in a very long list.


Chile is an interesting historical example. On the University of Toronto campus there is a building called the Munk Centre. Peter Munk had this to say about Chilean dictator, Pinochet, in 1996:

‘At a shareholders’ meeting in Toronto on May 9, 1996, Peter Munk, Chairman of Barrick Gold corporation, praised General Augusto Pinochet for “transforming Chile from a wealth-destroying socialist state to a capital-friendly model that is being copied around the world.” Regarding Pinochet’s human rights record Munk said, “they can put people in jail, I have no comment on that, I think that may be true…I think [the end justifies the means] because it brought wealth to an enormous number of people. If you ask somebody who is in jail, he’ll say no. But that’s the wonderful thing about our world; we can have the freedom to disagree.”(8)

Pinochet’s protection of the “freedom to disagree” went as follows, in Asad Ismi’s words:

“In the year after the coup, the armed forces and police murdered 5,000-30,000 Chileans for their beliefs and associations. A quarter of the organized work force were dismissed for political reasons. Every labor right was suspended and most labor federations were dissolved. The regime’s opponents were tortured, kidnapped, exiled, jailed and sent to concentration camps. During 1975-79, between 1,600 and 2,500 Chileans disappeared after detention by Pinochet’s secret police.

“With his opponents killed, jailed, or in exile and the union movement crushed, the General reversed 35 years of economic development. Pinochet’s monetarist model was supervised by Chilean economists trained at the University of Chicago. Starting in 1975, the “Chicago Boys” reduced import duties, deregulated industry, eliminated limits on foreign investment, sold public enterprises at low prices, freed the prices of basic necessities and privatized such government services as parks, prisons, utilities, schools, health care, and pensions.” (8)

Despite Munk’s admiration, Pinochet did not help Chile’s economy by doing all this killing and deregulation, instead bringing about the worst economic crisis in Chile’s history. By 1982, after all the ‘privatization’, the state controlled more of the economy than it had under Allende, after bailing out investors and Chile’s own elite. Even today, Chile’s economy relies on the nationalized copper company, CODELCO.

Pinochet did, however, help set the stage for Canadian mining to make handsome profits. Canadian investment in Chile was $4 billion in 1997, making Canada the biggest foreign investor there. At Barrick Gold’s mines, workers are paid $500-1000 a month, while Canadians at the same mines make $5000. Gold mining company Placer Dome and gas company Nova Corporation also cleaned up in Chile.

Indonesia and East Timor

Indonesia was taken over by brutal dictator Suharto in 1967. Suharto’s first act was to kill several hundred thousand people: communists, independent nationalists, and any other people who might have been rivals to his dictatorship. The United States helped Suharto out because of his anti-communist credentials. So did Canada. Prime Minister Trudeau visited Suharto in 1971 and announced a $4 million interest free loan.

Suharto visited Canada in July of 1975, while Indonesia was planning the invasion of East Timor. Canada offered him a $200 million line of credit. Sharon Scharfe’s book on Canadian ‘Complicity’ in the occupation and mass murder in East Timor (Black Rose Books, Montreal, 1996) quotes a Prime Minister’s office memorandum sayin: “a successful Canadian aid program in Indonesia… will contribute to a range of Canadian… interests including economic growth and quality of life… the commercial spinoff is proving to be a not insignificant benefit.” (pg. 131)

East Timor was set to become an independent country when it was invaded by Indonesia in 1975. The Indonesian military killed some 200,000 people in the conquest, one of the worst slaughters relative to population (the population was about 600,000) and occupied the country for 24 years until it was forced out in 1999.

In August of 1976 , Allan McEachen, Secretary of State for External Affairs, visited Indonesia. By that time, Indonesia had already admitted to killing 60,000 Timorese in the course of the invasion. Two UN Security Council and one General Assembly resolutions had condemned Indonesia (Canada abstained from the General Assembly resolution). McEachen signed for the $200 million line of credit promised the year before. (Scharfe pg. 134)

Glen Shortliffe, Canadian Ambassador to Indonesia, visited occupied East Timor in September of 1978, and provided useful propaganda service to the Indonesian occupation in the process. His insights included that “East Timor is not self-sufficient in food” (he was unable to figure out that the invasion’s mass destruction of crops and animals might have something to do with it); that “it is impossible to consider that the bulk of the population is even capable of being politicized in any sophisticated sense”; that “many, if not a majority of Timorese, live in rugged mountain areas connected only by footpaths” (he was unable to figure out that these people might be living in the mountains because they were escaping the Indonesian military). He also provided figures on displacement and hinted that perhaps no one had been killed in the invasion. (Scharfe pg. 139-140). The Ambassador in 1987, Jack Whittleton, went even further, helping the government party candidate, Golkar, during his campaign tour for the sham elections of that year, during which some districts had voter turnouts of 327.6% and more than 100% of registered voters elected Golkar with 93.7% of the vote. (Scharfe pg. 143).

Prime Minister Chretien visited Indonesia in 1994, announcing $1 billion in new trade deals and pledging $30 million in new aid projects (Scharfe pg. 136). Between 1988-1994, Canada’s total exports to Indonesia amounted to $2.66 billion. Military exports were at least $22.26 million. When the Canadian government was asked why at least these military exports couldn’t be cut off, an anonymous foreign affairs official said: “If Canada decided unilaterally not to sell to Indonesia, it could be removing market opportunities for Canadian companies and creating a gap which other countries would run to fill.” (Scharfe pg. 202)

Again, quoting Asad Ismi:

“As the Indonesian army and its militias set fire to Dili and killed thousands of East Timorese in September 1999, the Canadian government refused to stop the export of military goods to Indonesia. This at a time when even the United States, Jakarta’s main backer, had suspended military sales to Indonesia, as had the European Union and Australia.

“According to documents obtained from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) through the Access to Information Act, six military export permits for the Indonesian Air Force and Ministry of Defence, worth a total of $119.3 million, were granted by the Canadian government during 1998-1999 to unidentified companies. The permits were for aircraft engines, navigation systems and training simulators or parts.” (9)


The Canadian Highways Infrastructure Corporation calls itself a “world renowned, full service, toll highway development company specializing in public-private partnerships with capabilities in finance, design and engineering, operation and maintenance of large-scale toll highway projects” (10) CHIC helped build the infamous 407 toll highway in Ontario, courtesy of the neoconservative government there.

Now they are building settler-only highways in Israel/Palestine: “The Derech Eretz Consortium (DEC), led by CHIC, is the State of Israel’s private sector partner in the development of the all-electronic Cross Israel Highway… DEC won a two-year international competition to finance, design, build and operate the 86km toll road, which will run north south through the heart of Israel near Tel Aviv.” You would think that this $1.2 billion road was just an innocuous road. The only hint that something might be amiss is this little line: “Instead of adding roads and interchanges in already densely populated areas, the Cross Israel Highway is diverting traffic to the central region of the country, thus reducing vehicle density and pollution in the greater Tel Aviv region.”

Israel’s network of bypass roads is designed very deliberately to reach from the core areas of Israel itself into settlements in the West Bank, without allowing traffic or communication between West Bank towns. These bypass roads are an integral component of what Israeli activist Jeff Halper calls the ‘matrix of control’, by which Palestinians are isolated, surrounded, and disconnected from each other, made wholly dependent on the whims of the Israeli regime. It is an appalling program of imprisoning an entire population. It is also good business for Canadian Highways Infrastructure Corporation.

Canada’s place today


A good researcher on Canada today is Stephen Kerr, who does a weekly radio show called “Newspeak” as well as writing. Last year, he wrote a piece on Canada’s role in the current Iraq war that was very valuable. He noted that three Canadian warships escorted the US fleet in ‘Operation Apollo’. The US fleet was firing Tomahawk missiles at Iraqi targets at the time. Canadian soldiers manned AWACS aircraft to direct missiles at their targets. Canadian officers worked at CENTCOM in Qatar, helping with logistics. US troop transport planes used over-flight and refueling privileges in Canadian aerospace. Quoting Kerr, “US military doctrine describes refueling as the “key” to us global airpower. This reporter’s request for a full accounting of these over-flights was refused by the Canadian Department of National Defence.” US troops were relieved by Canadian troops in Afghanistan and Canada took command of the Afghan occupation. 35 Canadian soldiers served on ‘exchange’ with the Iraq invasion forces. (11)


Despite Canada’s rather extensive assistance to the US’s aggression in Iraq, there was a widespread line in Canadian media that Canada had to “mend a fence” for its defiance of the US on Iraq. Canada’s politicians duly complied, “mending the fence” on the bones of Haitians, acquiescing in the coup against democratically elected President Aristide, and sending troops to occupy that country.

Relying on Stephen Kerr (12) again,

“Prime Minister Paul Martin first committed approximately 180 troops from the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment, as well as the Joint Operations Group from Kingston to provide “security” for the criminal Haitian thugs. When on Thursday it became apparent that the political façade created for the coup was crumbling, Martin scaled back Canada’s commitment to 60 soldiers. Martin claims he is keen to get Haiti “on the right track.”

Aristide, Kerr notes, “had Haiti on the wrong track”, “feebly trying to deliver what Haitians have been demanding for years,” an agenda made almost impossible by the embargo against Haiti by the US, an embargo Canada joined in. Kerr quotes from Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), which provides various services to corporations doing business in countries like Haiti: “some Canadian companies are looking to shift garment production to Haiti.” Kerr notes that “Montreal based Gildan Activewear is already subcontracting work to Haitian owned sweatshops, and they have opened a new factory in Port au Prince which employs 400 to 500 people.” Gildan is one of the largest T shirt makers in the world. It pays its Montreal workers 10 times the wages it pays Haitians, who get less than they need to live on and not enough to keep up with inflation. (12)

The above, from Kerr, does not come close to describing Canada’s full role in the coup. Aristide’s attempts at changing Haiti’s pattern of poverty were so “feeble” because Haiti was denied development loans by the InterAmerican Development Bank. Those loans were vetoed by the US (no one in Haiti even knew the US could veto IADB loans) after the US decided to oust Aristide some time around 2000. There was an election that year, in which some senate results were contested – all international observers concluded that all irregularities aside, Aristide would have won the election handily. But this was ‘contested’, and so the US cut off aid to the starving country. So did Canada.

After the coup, Canada led the way in repressing Aristide’s supporters. The RCMP picked up Oriel Jean, Aristide’s security chief, at the Toronto airport, and handed him over to the US, who gave him some bogus drug charges, and sent him off to a Miami jail, where he now sits. This, while real drug traffickers and paramilitaries were released from prisons all over Haiti and are terrorizing the population – while US and Canadian soldiers watch. (Similarly, Canadian security services probably handed bogus information on Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar over to the US immigration authorities who sent him off to Syria for 10 months of torture. No one twisted Canada’s arm to do this either.)

The details of a meeting in Ottawa a year before the coup, called the “Ottawa Initiative”, at which the future of Haiti was discussed by countries all over the Americas except for Haiti, have yet to be revealed. But a special representative of the OAS secretary-general, Luigi Einaudi, told a crowd at Hotel Oloffson on New Year’s Eve 2003, “The real problem with Haiti is that the international community is so screwed up that they’re actually letting Haitians run the place.” And that contempt for self-determination, going back through Pearson and Martin Sr.’s ‘anti-communism’, and further back to the 19th Century and Canada’s Indian Act, which was a model for the South African apartheid regime, and continuously throughout Canada’s history, is something Canada’s elites share with the British and French imperialists who founded colonies here, and with the US imperialists who are colonizing the world today.

Even Diefenbaker, who got ‘regime-changed’, shared this contempt for the people of the third world. This contempt, this racism, coupled with the many corporate and capitalist interests, would be enough to make Canada a little imperialist even if it wasn’t so vulnerable to US power. The integration of the economies, the integration of the elites, and the innumerable opportunities the US has to retaliate against a show of independence only make Canada’s elites even more eager to do the wrong thing.


I’ve tried to present some of the realities behind the various myths about Canada and its role in the world. First, there was the myth about Canada’s benevolence. That one is pretty handily shattered by the evidence. The other one is the myth about Canada’s helplessness before US power. That’s almost like a Nuremberg defense: Canada was only following orders – there was no scope for a moral decision. Well it’s worth remembering that defense didn’t work at Nuremberg. There are always choices. Some are costly. But how could Canadians morally argue against choosing not to profit from murderous policies because such choices were too costly?

If we don’t opt for such a sleazy way out, what’s left? A country like Venezuela, much weaker, much less powerful, more subject to US power if less interdependent, is paying the costs of an independent course. That isn’t the Chavez regime that is doing that – it is a result of movements, and of class struggle, in that country. Because of those pressures from below, Venezuela was able to condemn the war in Afghanistan while Canada participated. Venezuela condemned the war in Iraq while Canada applauded. Venezuela refused to recognize the paramilitary criminals who replaced Aristide in Haiti, while Canada joined the forces guaranteeing their power. The Venezuelan regime puts the Canadian regime to shame, and is facing regime change, violence, and coups because of it.

Borrowing a page from Paul Martin Sr. or Lester Pearson’s book, Venezuela’s elite, along with various US political authorities, accuse Chavez of wanting to implement ‘communism’ in Venezuela. But all Venezuelans want is self-determination, a chance to develop their own way, according to their own choices. Instead they are getting a well-funded and orchestrated destabilization campaign. That’s all Iraqis want, and they are getting an occupation. It’s all Haitians want, and they got a coup. If Canadians decided they wanted that, instead of a thin slice of imperial profits and power and all the nightmares and hatred that come with it, there would be a price to pay as well. But, as Dyer noted, empire has a price, too.


1) David Orchard, “The Fight for Canada: Four centuries of resistance to American expansionism.” Robert Davies Multimedia Publishing, Westmount, 1998.
2) John Ralston Saul, “Reflections of a Siamese Twin”. Penguin Books, Canada, 1997.
3) Victor Levant, “Quiet Complicity: Canadian Involvement in the Vietnam War”. Between the Lines, Kitchener, 1986.
4) Cited in James Eayrs, “In Defence of Canada: Indochina Roots of Complicity.”
5) Kim Richard Nossal, “The Politics of Canadian Foreign Policy”. Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 1997.
6) Desmond Morton, “Understanding Canadian Defence.” Penguin/McGill, 2003. Morton is apparently incapable of understanding certain basic principles. He devotes an entire chapter of his book to peace movements, and a good part of that chapter to excoriating peace movements in Canada for being insufficiently critical of the Soviet Union’s violence and atrocities. He seems to think that peace movements should be ‘even-handed’. But perhaps he should follow his own logic and be more ‘even-handed’ himself: why doesn’t he excoriate Soviet dissidents for being insufficiently critical of US violence? Perhaps he would recognize that denouncing the West in the Soviet Union wouldn’t be a great act of moral courage. But he can’t recognize that denouncing the Soviet Union in the West isn’t a great act of courage either – and such activity could besides be left to reliable liberal commentators like himself in any case. Still the book has some interesting history.
7) David Pugliese, “Canada’s Secret Commandos: The Unauthorized Story of Joint Task Force Two”, Esprit de Corps Books 2002. Pugliese is a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen and quite enthusiastic about Canadian militarism. His book contains much of interest, however, even if you don’t share his enthusiasm.
8) Quoted in Asad Ismi, “Pinochet’s Profiteers: Canadian Business in Chile”, Peace Magazine, 1997.
9) Asad Ismi, “Arming a Genocidal Force: Canadian Military Exports to Indonesia 1979-1999”. Briarpatch, 2000.
10) See their website
11) Stephen Kerr, “Meet Canada, the Global Arms Dealer” June 3, 2003. En Camino.
12) Stephen Kerr, “Paul Martin’s Haitan Adventure”, March 5, 2004. En Camino

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