Speaking to an audience at New York University this past week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set off a tempest of argument in Parliament and online with a seemingly off-the-cuff statement that Canada doesn’t have “the baggage” of a “colonial past”.
The remark was a reply to a question about peacekeeping, and Trudeau’s handlers and defenders were quick to point out that the Prime Minister was referring to colonialism in a foreign context, and not denying the legacy of colonialism in (so-called) Canada.
In fact, as the CBC pointed out, Trudeau delved into that painful legacy during the same talk:
Trudeau also spoke critically of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people — and specifically mentioned “colonial behaviours” — in comments that were not in the National Observer article.
“We have consistently marginalized, engaged in colonial behaviours, in destructive behaviours, in assimilationist behaviours, that have left a legacy of challenges to a large portion of the people who live in Canada who are Indigenous peoples,” Trudeau said, in answering a question from a student.
Nevertheless, Trudeau has come under fire for the comments. Some see the distinction between foreign and domestic colonialism as meaningless, as Canada is a product of colonialist ideology. It is a nation which was literally built on the colonial dispossession of land and resources from Indigenous peoples, a genocidal process which continues to this day.
— Dave Beninger (@DaveBeninger) April 24, 2016
Less discussed is this debate, however, is Trudeau’s erroneous assertion that Canada doesn’t have “baggage” when it comes to colonialism in other parts of the world.
It’s certainly true that, historically, Canada didn’t have a colonial presence in Africa, Latin America, Asia, or other parts of the world that were conquered and exploited by European powers, for the simple reason that it was one of those parts of the world being conquered and exploited.
But in a more contemporary context, Canada is an enthusiastic participant in and proponent of neo-colonial military interventions. No matter how he spins it, Trudeau can’t credibly argue that Canada doesn’t have colonial baggage.
Consider Afghanistan, where Canada was a key member of a military coalition which imposed a government widely considered to be among the most corrupt in the world, at a cost of the lives of at least 26 000 civilians.
That coalition looked the other way while billions of dollars of reconstruction aid wound up the pockets of wealthy elites, and again while the sham democracy they had transplanted was openly hijacked by the candidate they favoured.
Canada’s presence in the coalition also helped to secure lucrative mining contracts for Canadian companies, part of a bonanza of neocolonial mineral and natural gas extraction primarily benefitting Western corporations at the expense of the Afghani people.
The sanctions, in place from the end of the first Gulf War until the beginning of the Second, were described as “genocidal” by a former U.N. official, and resulted in the needless deaths of at least half a million children due to a lack of access to routine medial supplies and chemicals necessary for basic water sanitation.
And while Canada sat out the 2003 neo-imperial invasion of Iraq by the United States and its allies, it has been a boastful presence in the latest bombing campaign in Iraq, first with CF-18s bombers and now, under the new government, with refuelling and surveillance aircraft. While the Canadian military still refuses to acknowledge its role in the bombing deaths of civilians, it continues to provide logistical support to the U.S. Air Force, which has recently been forced to acknowledge its own civilian casualty problem.
Consider Syria, a nation which Canada bombed illegally, in clear contravention of international law and the United Nations charter. This act, not incidentally, harkens back to Canada’s and NATO’s illegal bombing of Serbia some fifteen years before.
Or consider Libya. Canada was a leading proponent of the disastrously destabilizing 2011 military intervention in Libya, a conflict that, like the Iraq War, was built on a foundation of lies and distortions.
Despite rhetoric to the contrary, Canada and its allies never had any intention of promoting democracy, human rights and the “rule of law” in Libya, but were mostly interested in deposing a leader who threatened Western interests. Having accomplished that, the country was left to its own devices, while Western oil companies rushed to get their hands on Libya’s sizeable reserves.
Now, with the mess they made coming back to haunt them, NATO powers are once again discussing intervening militarily in Libya, as I wrote about in February. Britain is even floating the idea of putting troops on the ground.
NATO defence ministers have for months been saying that no action will be taken until Libya has a provisional unity government in place; as I detailed in February, Canada’s Minister of Defence, Harjit Sajjan, has been very cautious to stress this point. Now, however, with negotiations in increasing disarray and a leading Libyan faction resisting the unity government terms dictated by the UN (the speaker of Parliament “accused UN envoy Martin Kobler of acting like a “governor” in trying to impose the deal”), some Western nations are suggesting they may proceed without even this fig leaf of credibility.
In short, just as the Canadian state has been an active and enthusiastic participant in the colonization and genocide of First Nations, it has been willingly complicit in the neo-colonial wars of aggression committed by its NATO and coalition allies over the past several decades.
Given Canada’s record of invading nations, imposing governments, defying international law, using “democracy” and “human rights” as pretences for war, encouraging its corporations to loot the national resources of occupied nations, and participating in war crimes and crimes against humanity, how can Prime Minister Trudeau claim that it is a nation unencumbered by the baggage of colonialism?