Engler, Courtemanche, and the Diminishment of Canada – Reflections on Reading Yves Engler’s The Ugly Canadian


Canada – Deformed at home, diminished abroad

Activist, journalist, and researcher Yves Engler has just produced an important handbook of our national recessional – The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy (RED Publishing, Fernwood Publishing, 2012).

In this small book of essential facts Engler shows how the government in Ottawa has done radical damage to two vital elements of political life.

Inside this country, our federal leaders have deformed the idea that Canadians have held of themselves, as the quietly decent international citizens.

Externally, our representatives have diminished the once respected status of Canada as a plausible Middle Power in the eyes of other nations.

For the “ugly” truth is that in the realm of realpolitik the Harper government has dramatically reduced Canadian influence in the world.  And experienced observers in Washington, Europe, and elsewhere now see Canada as a nation that has ceased to be recognizable for what it once seemed to be.

The editor of the Canadian military affairs magazine Esprit de Corps, Scott Taylor, (see Montreal Serai https://montrealserai.com/2009/03/30/unembedded-two-decades-of-maverick-war-reporting/) has praised Engler’s “powerful indictment of the Harper government’s radical shift to the right in foreign policy” which means, says Taylor, that “Canada can no longer be considered a peace loving middle power.”

Engler’s book supplies the concerned reader with a plenitude of figures and names, as part of its wake up call, but all the data he presents are set within a longer and deeper context.
For me, reading Engler made me think of a profound unease which many people have felt over the last few years. And Engler’s moral outrage made me think of another writer and journalist, Gil Courtemanche, who has written about the same uglification of Canada, but in the French language. For many of us in Quebec, Courtemanche crystallised a new sense of revulsion toward Canadian foreign policy. Engler and Courtemanche — two voices of conscience in an age of deception.


Canada, part of a new world – the Predators

The pattern that Engler documents began in the first decade of the 21st century, and the journalist who described it most vividly then was the late Gil Courtemanche, the foreign affairs columnist for Montreal’s Le Devoir. Courtemanche had a deep knowledge of countries outside North America and Europe, and is best known outside of Canada as the author of the novel about Rwanda – Sunday at the Pool in Kigali.

On Sept. 15, 2007, Courtemanche wrote a powerful column for Le Devoir – “The Betrayal of Harper.” Two days before, the U.N. General Assembly had adopted The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Canada’s Louise Arbour, former Supreme Court judge and then U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, was deeply satisfied that long work on the document, promoted by many Canadian officials of the pre-Harper era, had “borne fruit in the most comprehensive statement to date of indigenous people’s rights.” The vote in the Assembly was: 144 for; 11 abstentions; 4 against. The abstainers included Ukraine, the Russian Federation, Bhutan, Nigeria and others.

But who were the only four nations in the world clearly against this document supporting native rights? Answer – the United States, New Zealand, Australia…and Canada.

What was not so commonly reported was that the oil and mining lobbies in these four countries had their national governments in an iron grip.

And the real enemy for these private interest groups was, and is,  Article 26 of the Declaration that states: “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired” (Declaration, Art. 26.1). And the following clause in the Declaration was also offensive to lobbyists: “Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired” (Declaration, Art. 26.2).

Courtemanche in 2007 wrote about the Canadians who contributed to the tradition of jurisprudence behind the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples– John Peters Humphreys; Lester Pearson, the initiator of the UN Peackeepers; Louise Arbour herself.

“And so it was she [Louise Arbour] who was the first one,” Courtemanche wrote,”who saw at the beginning this Canadian betrayal.” And he added: “This betrayal is even greater and more significant since Canada was among the main promoters of this very Declaration in the past.” Courtemanche also stressed that hidden documents, obtained through access to information by Amnesty International, indicated that the Canadian Departments of Aboriginal Affairs, Foreign Affairs, and of National Defence had all recommended that Canada sign this Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples.

The negative vote at the U.N. was a prime example of a government working against its better self.

National Defence, for example, recommended signing. Why? Because the long-term interests of Canada lie in asserting, maintaining, and developing sovereignty in the North. Military specialists know that part of that security depends on native peoples feeling that they truly stand on their land and that they will be ready to defend it in various ways, if need be. Companies come and go – but indigenous groups in the far North will be here for as long as a country called Canada may exist, so maintaining reasonable, stable relations with them is clearly in Canada’s long-term interest.

Mining and oil companies exist only for the short-term of the balance sheet – that is why their ephemeral appetites must never dictate policy. Good technocrats know this: that policy driven exclusively by blind private interest eventually falls apart.

Courtemanche was deeply angry in his September ’07 column about Canada dismissing aboriginal rights, and he invoked the idea that Canadians are best served by “a consensual approach to the great world issues, whether they are economic, social, political, or economic.” With the Harper government – then in a minority position – we were changing “not only our friends,” Courtemanche wrote, “we are putting Canada into a new world, the one of predators.”

Shortly before he died, Courtemanche wrote one of his last columns for Le Devoir on Oct. 16, 2010, following Canada’s failed attempt to gain a seat on the U.N. Security Council. Courtemanche’s piece was titled – ironically – “A Seat at Tim Horton’s.”

The writer was referring to the year before when Stephen Harper appeared to stage a photo-op at a Tim Horton’s in Canada rather than addressing the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

The irony was deeply situational: 2009–we give short shrift to the U.N…. 2010–we ask for a permanent seat in the very organization our government has appeared to belittle.

Courtemanche in 2010 ruminated about the new hostility to Canada reflected in the vote against this country sitting on the Security Council. He reviewed all the mistakes, as he saw them, of Canadian foreign policy.

Failure to register any criticism of aggressive violence directed against Lebanese citizens, or the Palestinians on the West Bank, or the people of Gaza. Failure to solidify our strong position among many African nations. Failure to give priority to those most in need – countries such as Burkina Faso, Niger, Benin. Failure to assure that African women get the birth control information and help they require for their health. Failure to help in the G8 and the IMF to regulate financial markets and to discuss some form of the Tobin tax on international financial transactions.

These were some of Courtemanche’s last, elegiac words. He talked about the vanishing credibility of Canada on the world stage – “It is all this credibility, this respect that the Harper government has succeeded in destroying in only a few years.”


Waking A Complacent Land

The present government in Ottawa is shaped by a particular, discernible ideology, a variety of 19th -century essentialism adapted to the corporate age. Two currents come together quite coherently in this thinking: laissez-faire economics and religious fundamentalism.

Here are the branches of this tree. The market is the essence of freedom. Furthermore, the market is divinely inspired. This idea comes from something called Dominion Theology that places great emphasis on Genesis I. 28, the biblical text in which God says he has made human beings “ ‘to have dominion over the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, all wild animals on land, and everything that creeps on the earth.’ “ The modern market is the divinely chosen instrument of stewardship because it is the most effective way to allocate resources.

This is the thinking of the Religious Right, that in terms of Christian religious creed – both Protestant and Catholic – fundamental beliefs, such as the Bible or the teachings of the Church, are inerrant.  Therefore, the market, as a creature of divinity, a work of God, is also without error. State intervention, on the other hand, is the “road to serfdom” in the words of economist Friedrich Hayek, and the antithesis of freedom. Providence works not through the state but private corporations, and Scripture will be fulfilled, first through business, then by the Second Coming. There will indeed be a final battle between Good and Evil in the valley of Armageddon; hence the mystical importance of the Holy Land.

The crucial element here is that in order for reason to work in Canadian history, according to this world-view, the state must be subordinate to private corporations, and their will and desires must be immanent in the state. This credo is a complete inversion of the traditional Canadian proclivity to use the state, in part, for the achievement of social rather than private goals.


The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy uses a Noam Chomsky approach to information gathering in order to present the case that the Harper government has been shaping policy in an extraordinary fashion, in a way that the majority of Canadians would not support – if they knew the full details.

Yves Engler writes a number of  analytical chapters,  but there are four general areas that stand out: resource businesses and the environment; the promotion of militarism; anti-Palestinian politics; indifference to  human rights. Here is an over-view of the Engler tableau with page references included.

Resource Businesses and the Environment:

Engler points the reader to a government that has put itself at the services of the resource industries. He cites researcher Martin Lukacs’ observation that Canada overseas “has become the foreign branch of the tar sands industry” (Engler 28).

Globalisation, and especially the growth of China, has enormously expanded world demand for resources. And in Canada that has meant an international mining boom. Engler draws our attention to this fact: “Over the past two decades Canadian mining investment has exploded. Canadian mining assets in Africa grew 80 fold between 1989 and 2001 from $250 million to over $20 billion” (240).

In the decade between 1999 and 2009, according to a leaked report of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, Canadian companies were responsible for one third of the 171 instances observed of “high profile Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) violations” (44).

In 2009, the conservative government scotched the pan-Canadian round-table recommendation “making support for resource companies contingent on socially responsible government” (44). In October 2010, a Liberal MP’s bill to ensure some responsibility, An Act Respecting Corporate Accountability for the Activities of Mining (Bill C-300), was defeated in the House by 14 votes – but 13 Liberals, four members from the NDP, and six from the Bloc failed to show up! (44-45).

In November 2010, “Harper got conservative senators to kibosh the Climate Change Accountability Act” (20). And at the end of 2011 Canada became the “first country to withdraw from the Kyoto protocol” (15).

Engler describes how aid has been channeled in a highly ideological way with Canadian bureaucrats and aid-workers acting almost as agents of private interests. This activity has gone on in some of the poorest and most tragic countries in the Americas.

The Promotion of Militarism:

Canada has always been far more involved in the arms business than many people are aware of. In recent years, however, the pace of this business has accelerated. Engler points out: “Of the four G8 nations that are not permanent UN Security Council members – Canada, Germany, Italy and Japan – this country devoted the largest percentage of its GDP to the military at 1.6 percent versus 1.3 percent for the other three countries” (153). The Canadian Association of Defence  and Security Industries  claims members exported “some $15 billion” of products from 2007-2009 (166), or approximately $8 billion per year. However, Engler indicates that the federal government has kept a very poor public record of these sales (166). In 2011 “the Conservatives approved arms export licenses worth a whopping $4 billion to Saudi Arabia. Yet, by Ottawa’s rules Canadian companies shouldn’t sell weapons to the Saudis” (80). Engler cites the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade and their point that Canada’s export control procedures are supposed to inhibit exports to countries “whose governments have a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens” (80).

Canada has also given up its previous leadership on the land mine issue, and the conservative government has “ended both the special fund on landmines and the position of Landmines Ambassador while CIDA stopped including mine action as a core part of its development agenda” (167).  Engler tellingly draws attention to a June 2011 report in Embassy magazine: “The Canadian Commercial Corporation has been transformed from a low-profile intermediary agency to a major player in promoting Canadian global arms sales” (167).


Anti-Palestinian Politics:

Over the last four years, the federal government of Canada has demonstrated a consistent hostility to the affirmation of the Palestinians. In 2008, at the UN Human Rights Council , Canada was the only country to vote against a UN resolution that called for “urgent international action to put an immediate end to the siege of the occupied Gaza strip” (123). In 2011, Canada blocked consensus at the G8 in “reference to the internationally recognized borders as the basis for renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations” (116). Also, the symbolic bid in 2011 for the UN to recognize Palestinian statehood was opposed by Canada, and by the end of 2011, Canada had voted “against a half dozen UN resolutions supporting Palestinian rights.”

In November 2012, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to accord the Palestinian state non-member observer status. Israel and the United Sates voted against, and, as the BBC reported, “the Czech Republic, Canada, the Marshall Islands and Panama were among the nations voting with the US and Israel” (BBC News Middle East, 30 November 2012).

Indifference to Human Rights

Much of The Ugly Canadian deals with situations all over the world in which individuals are abused. Part of the story also concerns actual Canadian citizens who, in the last decade, have not received the kind of support that citizenship is supposed to confer.

One tragic figure stands out from all the rest in this book. His name is Pierre-Antoine Lovinsky of Haiti. He is someone, says Engler, “whom I met and worked with on a number of occasions” (227). An intelligent and brave man, Lovinsky stood up for the poor people of Haiti, and was going to be a candidate for the Haitian Senate.  On August 12, 2007, Lovinsky was kidnapped shortly after having talked to American and Canadian human rights investigators. He has not been seen since.

Roger Annis , a Vancouver-based participant in the discussions with Lovinsky, has said that members of the human rights delegation in Haiti, after Lovinsky’s disappearance,  “visited the Canadian embassy to urge Canadian ambassador Claude Boucher to make a public statement of concern about Lovinsky’s disappearance. That request was refused by the embassy, and it has made no such statement to date” (237).

Why was Lovinsky not of concern? Perhaps because he spoke truth to power, perhaps because of a statement he made to the Gazette in Montreal when he came to the city in 2005: “Canada is financing the oppression of Haiti, there’s no other way to put it…The carnage has to stop” (227).

What I feel reading The Ugly Canadian is how deeply the federal government has actually destabilized the Canadian State. Limiting and directing state activity to the service of only certain sectors obviously debilitates the government functions and long-term policy.  Gearing Canada’s policies to an ally of the day or a now powerful business group creates an impossible situation for the future. Government must deal with enduring realities. The Palestinian people are here to stay. The environmental crisis is ongoing and will crash in upon us. Income inequality, domestically and internationally, must be addressed.

Engler ends his book by saying that his purpose is “to shake Canadians from their complacency.” He is helping that effort, and one day the end of complacency will come, either through a kind of political due process or via more dramatic tensions in what is now a complacent land.

Cover from THE UGLY CANADIAN Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy

Patrick Barnard is an editor of Montreal Serai, Board member of The Green Coalition, and editor of The Pimento Report. He has worked for CBC Radio, Radio Canada International, Radio Netherlands, and WBAI in New York City.