Canada’s Cold, Hard Face to the World

Backing ‘terminator seeds’ painted us, again, as the bad guy.

By Murray Dobbin 8 Mar 2005 |

Murray Dobbin is an author, commentator and journalist. He is the author of five books and is a former columnist with Financial Post and Winnipeg Free Press. He is a board member of Canadians for Tax Fairness and on the advisory council of the Rideau Institute. He lives in Powell River, BC.

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The recent talk about the foreign policy review in this country takes place in the context of a false assumption: that our foreign policy is confused and adrift. In fact there is nothing confusing about our foreign policy and very few inconsistencies that can’t be explained as one-off aberrations. It is assumed that our foreign policy is exclusively a matter of whether or not we attach ourselves to the U.S. or march to our own drummer. This is an enormously important part of foreign policy and is caught up in a struggle between the popular will and elite consensus. But is isn’t the whole picture and in terms of how we are seen in the world (and not just in Washington) it may not be the most important.

If the bureaucrats at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade -- the department the government is trying to split in two -- are at all unsure of where they are going they are doing an excellent job of covering it up. A recent Canadian plan to do the bidding of huge transnational companies pushing bio-tech seeds -- thereby cynically abandoning millions of peasant farmers around the world -- is a case in point. The seeds in question are called terminator seeds and Canadian effort to get them approved by a UN committee has been described as sleazy, and underhanded.

Unfortunately this behaviour and blatant disregard for multilateralism is nothing new. It is part of a fifteen year pattern and in fact now constitutes one of the core principles of our foreign policy: Trade and commercial liberalization trumps everything else. Its effect on Canada’s reputation around the world has been profound. The deep pool of good will Canada built up with third world countries in the post-war period has very nearly dried up.

Terminators’ best friends

Terminator or “suicide” seeds are genetically engineered so that seeds from the resulting crop are dead -- they cannot be planted. They threaten bio-diversity through contamination and they threaten the livelihood of tens of millions of poor peasant farmers who traditionally save seed to plant their next crop. The only beneficiaries from this perverse technology are the large transnational corporations who develop them. Their only new feature is the requirement that new seeds be purchased for every crop. The international Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group) called terminator technology “the most controversial and immoral agricultural application of genetic engineering so far.”

Canada’s effort to overturn a moratorium on the terminator seeds was successfully blocked by Norway, Sweden, Austria, the European Community, Cuba, Peru and Liberia. The body dealing with the issue is the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. While it is primarily U.S. companies that would benefit from commercialization, the U.S. is not part of the bio-diversity treaty and had only observer status.

A good deal of the anger directed at Canada was directed at the secretive and underhanded way in which the resolution it helped draft was presented. There was no warning; Canada had given no indication beforehand that it had changed its position and the resolution was put forward late in the day in the hope that not all delegates would still be at the meeting. The ETC leaked a Canadian government document that directed the Canadian delegation to support a regime to evaluate the seeds “for field testing and commercial use.”

This is not the first time the Canadian government, in concert with the corporate sector (and the U.S.), has tried to unleash GE seeds on the world. When the biodiversity protocol was first established Canada was among six nations who tried to stop it -- distinguishing itself as the last holdout until the early hours of the morning. According to Michelle Swenarchuk of the Canadian Environmental Law Association, an Asian delegate said to her: “Canada used to be such a positive influence. What has happened?”

Trade trumps all

What has happened is that Canadian government delegations on a whole range of issues -- poverty, the environment, health, education, human rights, economic development, water, food safety, education -- are now dominated by officials who, in effect, act as gatekeepers against any policy position that conflicts with Canadian trade and commercial liberalization. Canada, once a moderating influence on first world predation on developing countries, is now seen as amongst the worst for its aggressive advocacy of corporate objectives. And it’s not just NGOs complaining. In 1998 the Canadian government delegates to a UN committee examining poverty were so arrogant and unresponsive, UN committee members accused them of “stonewalling,” “waffling,” and “avoiding the glaring facts.”     While Canadians are rightly concerned about the big issues of foreign policy -- and specifically our stance on the policies of our imperial neighbour -- they should be just as concerned about the other dimensions of how we engage the world. The face Canada presents to other countries is now corporate: cold, hard, and ruthless. I doubt Canadians wish to be represented in this way.

Murray Dobbin's 'State of the Nation' column appears twice monthly on The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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