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Sunday Book Club: Yves Engler's The Ugly Canadian

Canada's foreign policy expert unveils ugly truths about our actions abroad. Interview with author follows.

by Robert Devet

Yves Engler's The Ugly Canadian
Yves Engler's The Ugly Canadian

K'jipuktuk (Halifax) - Yves Engler's latest book, The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper's Foreign Policy, deals with a broad swath of Canadian foreign policy topics.

Chapter by chapter, Engler methodically and in detail documents the state of Canadian foreign policy as it has unfolded over roughly the last 10 years. There are chapters on Canada's foreign policy as it relates to Libya, Israel, Lebanon, Iran, Haiti, Afghanistan, arms sales and militarism. Not always immediately associated with foreign policy, but no less relevant to Canada's global agenda, is Engler's chapter on Canadian efforts to influence US and European public opinion on the tar sands. To build his case, Engler frequently relies on information found in mainstream media and public domain government sources.

Reading the book, a couple of things become clear. First of all, Canada's foreign policy is an ugly thing indeed, catering to an interplay of corporate greed (mining, arms trade, tar sands oil exports), born-again Christian ideologies (Israel), and an eagerness to align with US interests (Libya, Syria, and the list goes on and on). Engler argues that getting people to see this ugliness is difficult, but absolutely crucial. And Engler is optimistic that it can be done.

Three weeks into a book tour that will find him in Nova Scotia by the middle of next week, the Halifax Media Co-op caught up with Yves Engler in Nanaimo, BC, and spoke of a variety of topics.

On the failure of traditional Canadian political parties to effectuate positive change in Canada's foreign policy:

“The tendency of the NDP is by and large to go along with the government's foreign policy. Only when grassroots are organizing and pressuring the party will you see a more effective opposition in parliament.

“The abduction of Jim Manley and 30 others in international waters by by the Israeli military and the absolute silence from the NDP really illustrate this. Think about it. The NDP does not even speak up when a former NDP parliamentarian is affected.”

On the failure of mainstream media:

“It is true that I find a lot of my information at CBC.ca or the Ottawa Citizen, whatever. And once in a while there will be a critical article buried somewhere, but mostly what is missing is the proper context.

“For instance, mainstream media will provide an article on carbon emission, but what you typically don't hear is that people are already dying as a result of climate change. Climate change is contributing to the death of 400,000 people annually. You don't hear about this because these are the very poorest people, far away in developing countries.”

On Canadians' lackadaisical attitude towards foreign policy:

“It is true that most people don't see foreign policy as important. It is also understandable, people focus on what is immediate, their day-to-day life. But the situation isn't portrayed correctly in that consequences aren't fully exposed. Harper's tar sand lobby feels like something happening far away but will directly affect us as it results in accelerated global warning. We need to break through that barrier. Talk, rallies, demonstrations, whatever it takes.

“And then you will find that you can make a difference. When Pierre Pettigrew, Minister of Foreign Affairs, ran for re-election in 2006 we very aggressively pursued him, constantly reminding the public of his role in Haiti. He lost, and most agree that our actions contributed to his electoral loss.”

On Ships Start Here, and the emphasis placed on good jobs in Nova Scotia, rather than the reality of building warships and their intended purpose:

"First of all, it is understandable that this is how people react. People need to live, and they need the sense of purpose work often provides. But there is no reason why that kind of money couldn't buy jobs that are much more productive. Canadian combat ships have been used to perform provocative manoeuvres along the Iranian coast, have been doing questionable patrols along Libya's coast in the past. Is that what we really want?”

On the need for foreign policy activists to take a different approach to get their message heard:

“We really need to get to something like a foreign policy network. Right now we see many different groups with a focus on different aspects of foreign policy. Anti-war groups, supporters of the Palestinian cause, critics of Canadian mining corporations, Haiti activists, environmentalists, they need to see their commonalities. We can have a real impact and our voice can be amplified if united.”

“There are lots of reasons why it is difficult to become more like a network. There is the specialized expertise that people have build up, there are structural obstacles, funding ... For some it is difficult to even see what it is that we have in common. But this is the point of the book tour. Hopefully there will be traction. People certainly get it at the book events, but that is the abstract part, that is easy. I am hoping.”

Yves Engler will be in Halifax on Nov. 15 and 16, and in Tatamagouche on Nov. 16. Visit his website for details.

The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper's Foreign Policy is published by Fernwood Publishing, co-published with Red Publishing. Paperback price $19.95 CAD.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


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