Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Review: The Caribbean Connection

[Robert Chodos. The Caribbean Connection. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1977.]

Canadian delusions of our country having a purely benign role in the world are incredibly difficult to dispel. As I have searched for a certain type of source in doing research to produce contextual material for my chapter focusing on a Trinidadian Canadian activist lawyer in Toronto, it has become clear to me that one of the reasons why it is difficult to dispel this myth of Canadian innocence, at least when it comes to the Caribbean, is that relatively little has actually been written on the subject.

Though this book is three decades old, it is a very effective introduction to some of the less positive roles that Canada has played with respect to the Caribbean. It contains lots of information to help me write the two or three related paragraphs that I need to write. Moreover, though it is not an easy book to find and has long been out of print, its age would not stop it from serving as a good introduction to the area for any early twenty-first century Canadians wishing to educate themselves on the subject. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this book being so old was that my copy is extremely fragile so I could not easily read it as one component of multi-tasking, as I so often do, and even so it literally fell apart as I read it.

(Before I go any farther in commenting on the book's content, I should probably issue a disclaimer: I have never met him myself, but the author lives in the same part of the country that I grew up in, and his wife is a good friend of my mother. Don't think that has affected my opinions any, but it's always best to be up front about such things!)

The book is written in a journalistic rather than an academic or otherwise excessively analytical style. Chodos has a good eye for detail and a good ear for anecdote, so the text moves along quite briskly, is filled with colourful characters, and is an easy and entertaining read. He begins with some general discussion of Caribbean history and politics, and then moves into an item-by-item consideration of Canadian involvement in the region. Much of that involvement (beyond the basics of being willing long-term participants in an imperial and colonial order run from London, largely to the benefit of white Canadians and the detriment of racialized Caribbean people) has been commercial in nature. At the time the book was written, three of the four largest banks in the Caribbean were Canadian banks. Canadian capital has also been involved in the bauxite extraction and aluminum production industry in the region and in tourism, as well as a number of smaller ventures. Canadians have also been religious missionaries and the Canadian state has been a source of aid for the region.

When presented unadorned, it would be easy for most Canadians to read the above list and consider themselves affirmed in their belief in Canada's positive role: It's all about investing in the region, helping it out, being supportive, that sort of thing, so what could be wrong? But in each case, though there are arguably positive impacts as well, Chodos explores the down side. The banks, for example, accepted deposits but did not provide loans in the region for many, many years, with the result that Caribbean money was loaned and invested elsewhere in the world. At the time the book was written they were giving loans, but mostly consumer loans to purchase imported goods rather than business or agriculture loans to stimulate local economic growth. In fact, that is one of the most consistent criticisms of all of the areas of Canadian economic investment in the Caribbean, from banking to tourism: It almost universally has supported a modern version of the traditional colonial relationship between metropole and periphery, with little support for independent economic development that might decrease dependency.

In the chapter on Canadian missionaries in the Caribbean -- and the Canadian Presbyterian mission, particularly in Guyana and Trinidad, was a powerful presence for decades -- Chodos quotes a passage from a novel by a Trinidadian who later lived in Toronto. In it, the author (Harold Sonny Ladoo) writes of hypotehtically turning the tables and setting up Hindu missionary schools in Canada. His stark descriptions of what they might be like are taken from his own experience of Canadian Presbyterian missionary schools growing up, and they sound eerily like things I have read about the hated residential schools to which indigenous peoples in Canada were subjected between 1898 and the 1980s.

Even Canadian aid programs to the region seem to have been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, at least when this book was written, the Caribbean continued to be a region of particular focus for Canadian government aid programs. From Chodos' descriptions, the Canadian aid programs do not seem to have been quite as deliberately nefarious as those of certain other industrialized states, but they have still usually come attached to all sorts of conditions and provisos that end up benefiting Canadian capital more than Caribbean people, or that are clearly about pushing North American ways of doing things onto other cultures.

Perhaps the most interesting part of reading this book was being immersed in its tone. It was a much different era. The global reaction later labelled "neoliberalism" had begun, but it seems clear from this book that the left was not yet aware of it. The efforts of Caribbean nations to foster national self-sufficiency and gain control of their economies by one means or another are presented as facing all sorts of obstacles but as making progress and as being fundamentally possible. This was still an era of nationalizations and capital export restrictions and import substitution and commodity producer cartels. It was a time of much greater optimism than the present.

For most people, this is not a book you are going to encounter without exerting some effort to find it. However, along with being interesting and entertaining in its own right, it appears to be a rare place to learn about one particular aspect of Canada's less than savoury participation in global social relations. If that is something you wish to learn about, perhaps it might be worth searching through used book stores or getting the gears of interlibrary loan churning to get your hands on this book.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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