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Rights + Justice

The Ugly Canadian

Nine ways we are ruining our once enviable reputation in the world.

Murray Dobbin 17 Dec

Murray Dobbins' State of the Nation column runs on The Tyee every other Thursday.

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Canadian delegates at 2007 Bali climate conference tried to warn Harper government.

It was really just a matter of time. The deep well of affection and respect around the world that Canada has drawn on for decades has been slowly poisoned by the Harper government (and the Liberals immediately before it) and the world is now taking serious notice. In the words of the famous Yes Men (who pulled off the brilliant hoax in Copenhagen): "We've always kind of grown up looking up to Canada... We've always thought that Canadians were such nice people and had much better policies than we did -- national health care and all that. And this is just a real disappointment for us, energy policy and learning that Canadians' carbon footprint per capita is higher than us." The Copenhagen conference may just be the final burden that brings us to critical mass, that qualitative leap where Canada is suddenly seen as a mean-spirited, disingenuous, and reactionary force in the family of nations.

Here are some of the most important image-busters in Canada's foreign policy bag of nasty tricks.

Climate change. This is obviously the biggie. More than any other issue, it is truly global and the Harper government's staggering arrogance makes Canada a rogue nation. No other country is so contemptuous of the interests of the planet. Not only does Stephen Harper think he is smarter than anyone in Canada, he thinks he is smarter than anyone, period. Harper's message: the rest of you are a pack of idiots. As a result, even the U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu refused to agree to a photo op with Environment Minister Jim Prentice.

Asbestos. It is the deadliest workplace substance in history, killing more workers in Canada than any other cause. And the deaths are increasing every year. Stephen Harper has explicitly declared himself the champion of Quebec asbestos and has dedicated himself to ensuring that asbestos is not declared a dangerous substance under the Rotterdam Convention. Thousands of workers in developing countries will die as a result. Canada challenged France's ban on asbestos through the WTO and lost, making the French environmental law one of the few to survive such a challenge and reinforcing the science declaring asbestos a class one carcinogen.

Terminator seeds. Terminator technology refers to seed genetically modified to produce sterile seeds that cannot be planted, forcing peasants around the world to purchase seeds every season. Globally, farmers would lose hundreds of millions of dollars in income. At the last meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Curitiba, Brazil, Canada joined Australia and New Zealand in trying to undermine the protocol, calling for a "case by case risk assessment" of terminator seeds, with the intention of allowing the technology to be approved through existing legislation for genetically modified crops. Canada and its partners failed in their efforts but not for lack of trying. Not a single company in Canada has expressed an interest in pursuing this technology -- so Mr. Harper casually trashed Canada's reputation for purely ideological reasons.

GMO food. Canada is on the front line of forcing people around the world to eat genetically modified food. It is using a big stick against Europeans. A November 2006 World Trade Organization ruling found in favour of a complaint brought by the U.S., Canada and Argentina that the EU had violated WTO rules through "undue delays" in approving genetically modified organisms. This in spite of the fact that Europeans' rejection of such foods has been growing over the 15 years that polls have been conducted. Even previously supportive leaders like President Sarkozy of France and the EU's environment commissioner have changed their mind citing new science.

The Afghan occupation and renewed militarism. While Canada is not alone in the endless and brutal occupation of Afghanistan, it is seen around the world as one of the most aggressive supporters of U.S. policy in that country and the region. Canada's long reputation as an "honest broker" in global geo-politics, while never entirely accurate, has been severely damaged. We are now seen not as a peacekeeper or peacemaker but as a killer of "scumbags" and a warrior state fighting the absurd American "war on terror." While there are more peacekeepers active in the world than ever before, we have a government that ridicules the very thing that gave Canada its humanitarian reputation.

Israel. Related to the Afghan conflict, but also distinct from it, is Canada's policy of providing Israel with a complete carte blanche to do literally anything it wants, including committing war crimes against the people of Gaza. When Hamas was elected as the government of Gaza, Canada was the first to indicate it would not recognize it -- a travesty of our alleged support for democracy. The invasion of Lebanon, over the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, witnessed the deliberate and massive destruction of infrastructure and attacks on civilian targets -- a strategy intended to turn Lebanese civilians against Hezbollah. The ferocious bombing assault against a defenceless nation was described by Prime Minister Harper as a "measured response."

The betrayal of Africa. After decades of Canadian government commitment to African aid, the Harper government, virtually overnight and without even a pretense of an explanation, simply wrote Africa out of the picture. Dropped from the list of recipient countries were eight African nations, including Rwanda, still recovering from genocide. While conventional wisdom suggests that African aid has been ineffective, it was generally not true of Canadian programs, which really worked at helping lift people out of disease and poverty.

The Harper government has reconfigured aid to match Canada's "interests" -- a quintessentially American approach -- and has shifted aid to Latin America (Peru and Columbia, already the recipient of billions in aid from the U.S.) and the Caribbean.

Latin America. Just as many of the countries of Latin America are struggling successfully to overcome the dark period of neo-liberalism and IMF/World Bank restrictions on their national policies, Stephen Harper has expressed a "renewed" interest in the region. The problem is that renewed interest is as a junior partner in American "manifest destiny."

With the U.S. busy in Iraq and Afghanistan, Canada is offering a helping hand in re-establishing American and corporate dominance in the region. Hostile to Cuba and Venezuela, and friendly to the right-wing regime in Columbia, the Canadian government has also gone along with the U.S. as the only other member of the OAS to recognize the fraudulently elected government of Honduras despite that country's military coup, widespread human rights violations, media closures and its refusal to implement an agreement to reinstate (even briefly) the legitimate government of Manuel Zelaya. Thus Canada eagerly aligns itself against Latin American nationalism, the most powerful force on the continent, as its first real engagement in the region.

China and human rights. As a sop to his large anti-abortion constituency, Harper not only ignored China for the first four years of his government but openly snubbed the fastest growing world power. To suggest that this was because Harper objected to China's human rights record is laughable. If so, it was the most ineffective intervention ever made. While unstated, Harper was in reality giving a sign to his anti-abortion supporters that he would not cozy up to a country that performs more abortions than the rest of the world combined. His phony concern about human rights in China just underlines his embarrassing absence on the issue literally everywhere else: Gaza, Lebanon, Burma, Honduras, Afghan detainees, the Sudan, etc.

There is hardly a region in the world where Canada has not exchanged its previous moderate, middle power role for one of aggressive, "interests-based" policies, joined at the hip with the terminally unpopular U.S. One way or the other the Harper regime, in just four short years, has damaged Canada's relationships with the EU, the Muslim world, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and China.

Canada's ugly new face

It is difficult to assess the international impact of each of these examples. Canada rarely gets covered in the news and most people in Europe or other countries, developed and developing, may know little about these issues. But eventually foreign policy reaches down to ordinary people around the world -- those moved by Israel's occupation of the West Bank, those who want safe food for their kids, those aware of the appalling working conditions of workers in developing nations like India, the millions who are opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the hundreds of millions watching the climate change conference in Copenhagen.

We have been able for a long time to rest on our laurels because these issues don't often overlap for most people. But eventually it starts to break through the long-standing positive image of Canada. And it breaks through with precisely the people who play a major role in determining the political culture and government policies of their respective countries. These are the people who are the most engaged in their democracies, who influence their governments, who engage with civil society organizations and the media.

In short, the people who know are those who are in positions to spread the word about a new global phenomenon: the ugly Canadian.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Politics

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