Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Review: The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy

[Yves Engler. The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy Vancouver: RED Publishing and Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2009.]

This is an important and very useful book, but one that is best approached with a clear understanding of what it isn't and what it does not try to do.

The book's project is to confront the myth of Canadian benevolence on the world stage by a region-by-region and country-by-country examination of the unsavoury histories of Canadian foreign policy. In so doing, Engler amply illustrates the tendency of Canada's foreign policy elite to devoutly serve the dominant Anglo-Saxon empire of the day (British or U.S. American), the hypocrisy of pious Canadian proclamations about human rights, and the central attention given to promoting the interests of Canadian capital in the activities of Canadian state functionaries, from exerting pressure to rewrite regulations in developing countries along neoliberal lines to direct subsidies to complicity in destabilization of governments that are insufficiently friendly to big business to a foreign aid regime that has often been more about aiding Canadian companies than about aiding ordinary people in other countries. As a resident of one of Canada's premier mining towns, I was particularly interested in how frequently the dirty deeds of the Canadian government abroad have had to do with supporting the interests of Canadian mining companies at the expense of human and environmental health and the rights of workers and indigenous peoples in areas across the globe.

Engler's approach in addressing these questions is at the same time both useful and frustrating. He is not an academic, nor has he served as a foreign affairs correspondent for a major newspaper or anything like that -- he, much like me, is an independent media producer and activist who has devoted a lot of time to learning about some things he thinks are politically important, and then has written about what he has learned. He has read very widely among material already published about Canadian foreign policy, and in this book he brings together what he has harvested from all sorts of obscure, hard-to-find, and out-of-print sources. He references thoroughly, and tends to focus on providing clearly documentable "facts" and direct quotes from central participants in Canadian foreign policy and from other analysts. This approach, in combination with the breadth of the book's focus, produces a very useful reference. If a story were to appear in the news that talked about Canadian involvement in country X today but provided little history or context, it would be easy to turn to this book and learn about Canada sending gunships to X in the '20s in support of a Canadian bank, providing diplomatic cover for U.S. aggression against X in the '70s, and aggressively pushing neoliberal reforms in X in the '90s. However, the combination of breadth plus devotion to clearly documentable facts which get presented in some detail means that in other ways there is not as much depth as one might wish. In particular, certain kinds of context tends to be somewhat thin -- very thin in terms of the context within country X in which Canada has intervened in various ways, and better but still relatively thin in terms of a coherent picture of how the particular set of state practices grouped under "Canadian foreign policy" have actually come to be.

Note that I'm not saying this in the way that a right-wing critic of the book might say it -- that because there isn't as much context as there could be in how the facts in the book are presented, it means that we are not getting a full picture and therefore lots of these things are not nearly as nefarious as they seem. I think that is a completely disingenuous and deceptive argument, and there would be no way whatsoever to contextualize most of the actions by the Canadian state that are described in this book that would make them any less than awful. Just because this book does not present a complete or cohesive pictures of how devotion to empire and devotion to capital wind together and shape Canadian state practices in practical ways, that doesn't mean it is not convincing in showing that those two orientations are indeed central. That kind of investigation is clearly a different project for a different book -- one that I would like to read -- and that doesn't make what this book does do any less useful.

My only other major criticism of the book might appear to be nit-picky, but given the ways in which this book is likely to be used by activists, I think it is worth mentioning. That is, I have some problems with how the referencing is done. Like I said, there is very detailed and meticulous referencing, which I think is important -- if a reader wants to learn more about Canada's involvement in country X, there are pointers to the sources with which to do so. I just wish that Engler was a little more careful about saying in the text where particular direct quotations come from, and I wish the ways that references were presented in endnotes were not quite so minimalist. Because of these things, though it is certainly possible to build a picture of the chain of sources from which the knowledge in this book is built, it is harder than it has to be. I like to have a sense from the text plus one page flip at most, and with this book I wasn't always able to get that.

Anyway, this book isn't what it isn't, but it is what it is. And what it is is a very useful reference for activists and concerned citizens about a great many aspects of the history of Canadian foreign policy that contemporary mythologies and contemporary elite myth-makers would have us forget.

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

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