Written by Robin Mathews
The Biggest Sell-Out. Brian Mulroney and the Move To Free Trade
In 1985 Brian Mulroney announced in the House of Commons the intention of his government to negotiate free trade with the U.S.A. The process was long. It took until October, 1988 to complete. The process was dirty. Extravagant and false claims were made for the effect it would have. In the last days of the “free trade election” a flood of money poured into the campaign as the key region of southern Ontario was flooded with advertising and propaganda which – it was said – bought the outcome for Mulroney. Still, in that election more Canadians voted for parties opposed to free trade than for the Conservative Party of Brian Mulroney.
The agreement reached and those which followed it are dense in fabrication, complex in structure. But the reason for the move to free trade and the effect it has on Canada are very, very simple. From 1981 until 1985 the U.S. ambassador to Canada was Paul H. Robinson, Jr. Like his government in Washington, he didn’t approve of the moves Canada made towards economic and political independence. Near the end of the Trudeau government (1983-84), Robinson attempted to loosen Canadian attitudes and, as he claims, gain from Canadians a willingness to consider sectoral free trade – which is not what we think of when we use the phrase free trade . It is, rather, agreement to end tariffs on certain mutually agreed goods.
In fact, with the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), Canada entered a trade, resource, and economic development strait-jacket. It does not now and has never had free trade with the U.S.A. Canada has a U.S. dominated trade, resource, and economic development arrangement which, for public relations reasons, is called free trade. Mel Hurtig in The Betrayal of Canada puts the matter slightly differently. He remarks that the FTA was sold as a trade agreement, but that it was really much more: “a comprehensive agreement for the economic integration of Canada and the United States.” That is an ominous way of putting the situation. But it is not quite correct – or, at least, it may be unintentionally misleading.
“Integration” suggests sharing of power, equality of treatment, the making into a whole. When the Canadian Armed Forces were “integrated”, for instance, they were brought together as – in effect – a single force with equality for members throughout. When – in the U.S. – there was a move to racial “integration”, it was to provide equal opportunity, equal citizenship, equal status before the law for white people and black people in that country. The Canada/U.S. Free Trade Agreement and the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] that followed did not intend or bring about the economic (or any other kind of) integration of Canada and the United States. The so-called free trade agreements were constructed – and every effect proves it – to colonize Canada, to annex its powers of independent action, to erase any equality Canadians possessed in negotiation with the U.S.A., to debase Canadian citizenship and democracy – and to provide a basis upon which the U.S. could loot Canadian wealth as if under the rule of law.
In 1983 when a Liberal government was in place, Paul H. Robinson Jr. didn’t only open the question with “members of the government” but he also opened it, as he wrote, with “other leading Canadians.” That second group was somewhat different than the first. The “other leading Canadians” were, for the most part, continentalists and neo-liberals. Chief among them was Thomas d’Aquino, president of the Business Council on National Issues who was pushing for free trade from every platform he could mount. At the time in Ottawa the Robinson meetings were described as semi-secret In fact, gossip around Ottawa was that Paul Robinson was having secret meetings with Canadians and others angry at the Liberal moves to increase Canada’s independence and its control over the Canadian economy.
Around Ottawa the purpose of the “secret meetings” was reportedly quite clear: to prevent Canada ever again from embarking on independence measures of the kind that the Trudeau government had engaged in. I remark earlier that the moves after 1980 by the Liberal government changed history. They did so by hardening the determination of neo-liberals to gain a throttle-hold on Canada and to destroy the possibility of any meaningful Canadian independence. The meetings were intended to find a way to provide unbroken U.S. dominance over the operation and development of the Canadian economy. What the group settled on as a solution was free trade.
David Langille, political economist, wrote about the BCNI and free trade. The Business Council on National Issues is made up of the heads of some 160 large corporations, including big oil, big auto companies, insurance and chemical corporations, and the big banks. Langille wrote: “What is shocking is that Canadian business leaders met with American businessmen, with the U.S. ambassador, and with Vice-President George Bush, to solicit their endorsement for the deal, long before the Canadian government was even ready to discuss it.”
The Canadian prime minister was Brian Mulroney, a florid personality given to fulsome statement. He opened the era of wholesale lying to the Canadian people (which continues) in order to advance the neo-liberal agenda. In fact, his pattern of untruthful statements led to his street name, “Lyin Brian”, and to his popularity plummeting to previously unheard of lows. When he left in 1993, the Conservative holding in the House of Commons dropped from a comfortable majority of 154 to two seats. He has remained a figure of ridicule in Canada. The matter of public personalities can be overblown in the consideration of historic events. But the personality of Brian Mulroney needs to be considered. His dishonesty has been accepted by most of the Canadian population who lived through his period in office. That combined with his adoration of the U.S.A. has proved dynamite for Canadian history. At the crisis point of the free trade negotiations even continentalist and (many believed) toady negotiator Simon Reisman drew back from U.S. demands. Brian Mulroney was happy to assure there would be a sell out of Canada.
Perhaps one of the most fitting (brief) comments on the morality of Brian Mulroney is supplied by William Kaplan, Conservative lawyer and writer. In 1998 he published a book, Presumed Guilty: Brian Mulroney, the Airbus Affair, And the Government of Canada. The reader must recall, briefly, the bases of the long, long period of accusations against the Mulroney government and, specifically, against Brian Mulroney, prime minister from 1984 to 1993. The story is of major importance because it carries over, its latest phase occurring during of Stephen Harper’s time as prime minister – who, as a Conservative, is usually agreed to have had on-going contact with Brian Mulroney for some years, and who announced an Inquiry into the relation of Brian Mulroney and Karlheinz Schreiber in 2007.
A key figure in the so-called “Airbus Affair” was Karlheinz Schreiber a German arms lobbyist connected to European corporations, and ultimately jailed in Germany (in 2010) for eight years, convicted of tax evasion. Schreiber also holds Canadian citizenship. In short, in a letter to the government of Switzerland requesting access to banking records, the RCMP, in 1995, alleged that Brian Mulroney was linked to illegal kickbacks from the sale of 34 Airbus aeroplanes to Air Canada. To put the matter as simply as possible, allegations were made (and never proved) that Karlheinz Schreiber (in the words of Wikipedia) “arranged secret commissions to be paid to Brian Mulroney” in relation to the purchase of Airbus planes for Air Canada.
Brian Mulroney began a defamation suit against the RCMP and the Canadian government for fifty million dollars. He won an out of court settlement covering his court costs. His testimony later came under strong criticism. Especially over his claim to have been hardly familiar with Karlheinz Schreiber…having, said Mulroney, had coffee with Schreiber a few times. Later, Schreiber claimed a much closer relation, going back to his help in 1983 to win the Conservative leadership for Mulroney from Joe Clark. The “German Connection” may have begun even earlier at the 1976 first try Mulroney made to win the Conservative Party leadership. Karlheinz Schreiber often ridiculed statements Brian Mulroney made about their relation, claiming he knew Mulroney for years, dined at the Prime Minister’s residence, and a good deal more.
On November 8, 2007, Schreiber filed an Affidavit in court, making further allegations about Brian Mulroney. In that Affidavit, he also said that he had communicated to Stephen Harper on the matter of his pending extradition and that he had asked Brian Mulroney to intervene with Stephen Harper on his behalf. Statements in the Affidavit plainly suggested a close relation between Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper … and the possibility that Mulroney would have influence with the prime minister.
The next day Stephen Harper, prime minister, announced there would be a third party, independent inquiry into the dealings of Mulroney and Karlheinz Schreiber. On November 13, 2007, (with remarkable speed!) Stephen Harper announced a Public Inquiry, the terms of which would be set out by David Lloyd Johnston, president of Waterloo University and a Conservative in politics. David Johnston set the terms which excluded the possibility of charges being laid, excluded the Airbus contract, and any relation to Airbus of payments (alleged to be $300,000.00) paid in cash in white envelopes over three payments) from Karlheinz Schreiber to Brian Mulroney. Not long after the close of the inquiry David Johnston was named Governor General of Canada.
The comments by and the Report of Mr. Justice Jeffrey J. Oliphant made clear he did not believe that Brian Mulroney’s testimony was credible, and Oliphant ruled the actions of Mulroney that he could review were “inappropriate.” Justice Jeffrey Oliphant reported in May of 2010, and in July of 2010 Stephen Harper announced that David Lloyd Johnston would be the next Governor General of Canada.
In his book Presumed Guilty: Brian Mulroney, the Airbus Affair, and the Government of Canada (1998) William Kaplan expressed the belief that Brian Mulroney had been unfairly defamed, that he was innocent in the Airbus Scandal, and that he deserved a fair examination of the issues. And Kaplan believed that Mulroney hardly knew the infamous Karlheinz Schreiber accused of being deeply involved in political corruption in Germany. Brian Mulroney cooperated transparently, Kaplan believed, telling him he hardly knew Schreiber. The book was well received and did something to exonerate the former prime minister.
Kaplan then discovered in his own words: “I had been duped.” Schreiber had been part of the Mulroney circle even before Mulroney’s entry into public life. In fact, Schreiber had played an important behind-the-scenes role in Mulroney’s road to power … as, it seems, money from far-Right Conservatives in Germany may also have done … with Schreiber’s help. My argument is that “Lyin Brian” set a pattern for Canadian politicians, which has been almost faithfully followed … bringing a newer and deeper cynicism and willingness to deceive the public on the part of elected rulers. That cynicism (blatantly in view among members of the federal cabinet in the twenty-first century) has sprung from their confidence in the power they hold in tight alliance with private corporate wealth.
When Stephen Harper (2007) could no longer ignore the accusations against Mulroney and Karlheinz Schreiber, for instance, he sought an independent expert to set the limits of a Public Inquiry into the relation between the two men. It may be no accident that the limits imposed prevented justice from being done. Stephen Harper was known to consult Brian Mulroney on political matters and so was tainted from the start. Harper should have removed himself. He didn’t. Some believe he wanted as little to come out of the inquiry as possible. He appointed as an independent expert a Conservative university president, David Johnston. Johnston had also reported directly to Mulroney during the latter’s time in office, and so he was believed by some to be quite unfit for the appointment. But he acted anyway, and just happened to come up with a strait jacket for the commissioner of the intended inquiry, limiting his investigations and findings.
Judge Oliphant, the commissioner, was forbidden to conclude or recommend anything regarding the civil or criminal liability of any person or organization. Nor could he examine the sale of 34 aircraft to Air Canada from Airbus – the focus of allegations and doubts about Mulroney’s honesty. The Oliphant Commission took from 2008 to 2010 to enter its final Report, said to have cost, in all, about fifteen million dollars. Nothing of any significance arose from the Report – except, perhaps, the appointment of David Johnston to the position of Canada’s Governor General as recognition of his exceptional ability to work with a demeanor of perfect integrity in difficult situations. As well, of course, the name of Stephen Harper was protected from being linked with those of Brian Mulroney and Karlheinz Schreiber.
The sell-out has continued unabated. When Jean Chrétien won the prime ministership in 1993, he had campaigned on a promise to renegotiate or abrogate the Free Trade Agreement. In December of 1993 he signed NAFTA without changes. He promised that if a truly effective dispute mechanism and a clear definition of dumping were not in place, as well as a clear and complete definition of subsidy – after further negotiation – he would withdraw Canada from the deal. Two years later he announced that he could not negotiate those changes – and that he would do nothing more.
The question of subsidy explains for ordinary people the whole fraud of the free trade agreements. Generally speaking a subsidy is some kind of grant given to an industry by government in one’s own country to help make production cheaper. The products made can then be sold cheaper abroad than competing products from other countries. Subsidies for research and development are especially important. They permit development of new products permitting a cutting-edge advantage in sales. Subsidies can be disguised in many ways, and so any international agreement on trade must have foolproof ways of “seeing” subsidies. The largest military budget in the world is the U.S. military budget. It provides for a huge amount of research and development in private corporations under government contract. Much of the work spills into the production of non-military, “peaceful” products. That means a great deal of U.S. research and development – followed by the production of military and non-military products – is heavily and consistently subsidized by the U.S. government.
The U.S. has a gigantic subsidy system in its military budget alone that makes it almost certain that Canada cannot develop products to compete fairly in the U.S.A. or in other markets where the U.S. wishes to sell. Jean Chrétien and his cabinet knew those things. Nevertheless, Chrétien signed the NAFTA agreement, and then pretended he couldn’t negotiate fairness for Canada. But he did something more – he negotiated two supplemental agreements, accepting the dangerous precedent that private corporations can sue governments over so-called breaches of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The assessment of the morality of Brian Mulroney reaches very much deeper than the matters mentioned above. It touches, as I have suggested, upon the dangerous shift to a dominant and pervasive neo-liberalism. That ideology, that world-view is contemptuous of human needs, is starkly criminal in its drive for power. It actively erodes the rule of law, shows contempt for conventions of fairness in government, and works to destroy the free, democratic expression of ideas. Neo-liberal corporate/government power not only enlists the full cooperation of what are called the mainstream press and media. It absorbs those forces into the neo-liberal structure. They become neo-liberal forces themselves in huge concentrations of ownership operated for profit before all else. In the drive for profit, they necessarily make alliances with what appear to be criminal organizations, open or covert. Media empires unite with communication or information departments in governments – increasingly staffed with large pools of personnel. Together they shape opinion and fabricate false information for public consumption. Together, they richly endow and take control of universities, leeching them of the power to prepare critical voices absolutely necessary to a working democracy. Together they also work to destroy unions and the power of unions to produce and maintain voices critical of unrestrained corporate power.
Together they involve “IT” operations, corporations which use information technology, computer/electronic invasion techniques, data storage, data fabrication – and more – in ways that strip the individual of any ability to meet a corporation, a police force, a court, or a government, on equal ground in any contest concerning rights, freedoms, law, or traditional usages.
A complex example of intended fraud upon democratic practice which burst on Canadian consciousness out of the blue [the Tory blue?] in 2012 was the wholesale collection of fraudulent practices called “Robocall” activity in the 2011 federal election – used to derail and destroy democratic processes.
Things connect. In 1979, a man believed by many to be a charming but rather stupid fellow, Ronald Reagan, president of the United States declared, from the beginning of his candidacy for president, that he wanted to see some kind of North American Agreement that would integrate the economies of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. In 1981 he proposed a common market for North America. And in 1984, the U.S. Congress passed a bill that had been fashioned to give the U.S. president new powers to enter into agreements such as the so-called free trade agreements that were in the offing, but not yet mentioned or given form. As if to suggest an inevitable shape to history, Pierre Trudeau set former Liberal Finance Minister Donald Macdonald and a team to work, in 1982, on the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada. Macdonald had left politics and was a board member of many U.S. Corporations as well as doing heavy work for Corporate clients in Canada.
The Commission reported in 1985, just in time to present recommendations and a huge supporting set of studies to the Mulroney government, contributing arguments on behalf of free trade. Its chief Commissioner and the Report argued openly for free trade. Macdonald joined with E. Peter Lougheed in 1987 to head up the corporate-supported, free trade pressure group misleadingly named The Canadian Alliance for Trade and Job Opportunities. The Macdonald Report has been described as a work that set the agenda for economic policy in Canada for many years. In 2005 the continentalist C.D. Howe Institute published a book of essays in celebration of the Macdonald Report … twenty years later.
One need only compare that Report to the efforts of people supporting Canadian independence. The Watkins Report group was set up grudgingly by Lester Pearson under pressure from Finance Minister Walter Gordon. Pearson did not think of expanding the study. The Wahn Report two years later was dismissed quickly. The Gray Report of 1972 was withheld from public eyes until it was leaked, and then the Trudeau government rejected it. In fact, the structure – especially of the economics portions of the Macdonald commission were lethally loaded. Gregory J. Inwood reports the single-mindedness of the appointees. He reports that “economic nationalists, neo-Marxists, left political economists, Innisian economic historians, and others were left almost completely out.” The Macdonald team made up of the Commissioner and twelve others travelled the country holding public hearings, produced seventy-two research volumes, a Report of 1,911 pages, and nearly 40,000 pages of testimony – all paid for by the taxpayers of Canada, all to put forward the conclusion that Canada should make a free trade agreement with the U.S.A.
It is tantalizing to think that Trudeau – tired of the economic nationalists who haunted his life – actively sought the Macdonald Commission and its trumpet-call to free trade. According to Gregory Inwood in Continentalizing Canada, the decision of Donald Macdonald and an inner group of the Commission to push for free trade (disregarding the research papers) could not have been predicted. Perhaps not. But in 1985 and until his death in September 2000, Trudeau didn’t intervene in the matter. He lashed out at the Meech Lake Accord in 1987-88, and after, because of his concern that Canada not be fragmented internally. But his championship of individual rights and (we are told repeatedly by Establishment historians) his efforts to assure Canada’s independence did not lead him at any time to express strong, public disapproval of free trade with the U.S.A. Those of us fighting the free trade agreements would have welcomed Pierre Trudeau into our ranks. Historians grant that he may very well have influenced Canadians to reject the Meech Lake Accord by his public attacks upon it. There is little doubt he could have had similar effect by taking up the cudgels against free trade, but he remained almost silent.
As did most of the Commissioners and the researchers for the Macdonald Report. Many now tell interviewers that the outcome of the Report and the outcome of free trade negotiations were not what they intended. But I don’t remember them making those statements during the free trade battle in this country. The move to free trade, as Gregory J. Inwood suggests has been the “continentalizing of Canada.” But the word “continentalizing”, like Mel Hurtig’s word “integration” is misleading. The move to free trade has had a colonizing effect upon Canada, an annexationist effect. It has destroyed much of Canadian independence, and it has – in a move that has been afoot across the Western World – acted as an instrument that undermines Canadian democracy. It has constructed modes by which the U.S.A. can dictate Canadian foreign policy, as well as economic health or sickness.
Free trade is simply another part of the active work of the U.S.A. to maintain world dominance – with increasing brutality and unilateralism. In his book on the War in Afghanistan, for instance, John W. Warnock makes a telling observation. “In the post-9/11 world it seems like the Canadian government has concluded that it can no longer take any position that is different from that of the U.S. government. Stephen Clarkson and Maria Banda argue that the major difference between the Vietnam War era and today is the North American Free Trade Agreement, which acts as a common external constitution.” Warnock remarks: “The Canadian government has yet to take a stand on any issue with regard to the war that challenges a U.S. government position.” (p. 171) Since the war may be declared an illegal one, the position of the Canadian government may make many Canadians sad.
I have hinted at the damage to Canada and the hidden assaults on Canadian independence since 1945. A consideration of the failures of the so-called free trade agreements must be prefaced by the adjustments the Mulroney government made before the first agreement was signed – adjustments to diminish Canadian power over the economy and culture of Canada. Without even any promise of balancing moves in the U.S., Canada weakened its generic drug laws to please the huge U.S. pharmaceutical companies and their government in Washington. It permitted the U.S. to declare Canadian stumpage fees too high in the Canadian forest industry. Before and after the entrance into free trade, the U.S. has insisted that it may determine the terms of production in the Canadian forest industry. Before the first Free Trade Agreement was passed, the Mulroney government, in effect, agreed with the U.S. on the matter.
In the battle for fair film legislation in Canada (a never-ending battle), then responsible minister, Flora MacDonald, in 1987, was determined to do something meaningful to aid Canadian film-makers by listening to them and moving on the key problem of distribution. She wrote legislation to assure that Canadian films would move up from being seen three percent or four percent of the time in Canadian theatres to fifteen percent. A battle was waged. Flora MacDonald and Canada lost. At the time CBC speculated that the endless delay had a lot to do with the fact that the Free Trade Agreement was in negotiation. The story behind the scenes was that president of the United States Ronald Reagan personally intervened with Brian Mulroney to kill any legislation. Chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America Jack Valenti fought against the legislation, and – according to some reports – went to Ottawa, as agreed by Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney he would do, where he oversaw the re-writing of Canadian film legislation to suit the Motion Picture Association of America.
With those surrenders even before the first Free Trade Agreement was signed, it is no surprise that the free trade agreements have stripped and are stripping Canada. Writing in relation to the recommendations of the Macdonald Commission, Gregory Inwood’s remarks are worth quoting at some length. He points out that “the fundamental goal articulated by the commission of eliminating all non-tariff barriers to trade has not been realized.” That is an understatement if the matter of subsidies alone – to which I refer above – is considered. Inwood goes on:
“American countervailing and other punitive measures against Canadian businesses still occur. No agreement has been reached on a subsidies code, notwithstanding the importance accorded to this both in the commission research and subsequent pronouncements by pro-free trade spokespersons. The Auto Pact was ostensibly exempted from the trade deals as per Macdonald’s recommendation, at least initially, yet a new North American content rule of 62.5 per cent and other provisions for autos and major components appear in NAFTA. Despite the recommendation by the commission that agriculture be exempted from any deal, the FTA and NAFTA both contained important conditions in this area. Moreover, the FTA and NAFTA went far beyond trade to incorporate a variety of measures designed to restrict the state from taking action in many non-trade related areas. They ensured, for instance that in the field of energy no government of Canada could enact any public policy resembling the National Energy Program. In the area of investment, barriers to foreign ownership were significantly reduced. And cultural industries of Canada were made the potential targets of countervailing actions by the United States Congress for perceived trade transgressions in other areas … ”
Inwood doesn’t record that Canada is now locked (as long as it is in the free trade agreements) into mandatory sharing of resources. It must supply the U.S., and is not free to negotiate terms more expensive in order to assist development in Canada. Inwood doesn’t record, either, that U.S. law governs most trade disputes. In the area of energy alone, Mel Hurtig lists ten ways in which Canada is prevented from using its oil and gas holdings for the benefit of Canadians. Commentators, in fact, get trapped in almost every discussion of the free trade agreements into listing – as I have just done – the punitive and oppressive aspects. That often prevents them from seeing the whole, larger process for what it was and is. Inwood, for instance, writes of the free trade agreements as if they have something to do with the Macdonald Report and its Commission researches. They don’t … or – if they do – they do so only incidentally.
Mulroney seized on the Macdonald Report and especially Macdonald’s recommendation that Canada take a “leap of faith” and enter free trade with the U.S.A. to claim he had solid backing for the action he and the U.S. government were shaping. But the action was only a part of the developing new face the U.S. was presenting to the world. We remember that the Paley Report of 1952 listed thirteen Canadian natural resources the U.S.A. needed to maintain its global dominance, and we remember Paley recommended free trade as the way to get the international access the U.S. needed. By 1980 issues had become sharper. The U.S. could see it would be challenged from a number of directions for resources outside the U.S.A. to which it wanted sole access. The rise of the Asian states was visibly on the horizon, and their hunger for resources equally visible. The U.S. increased its focus on military solutions and on diplomatic strong-arm tactics.
In order to have greater freedom to use military force, the U.S. has combined an attempt to undermine the fundamental principles of the United Nations with a move to co-opt the U.N. into voting in favour of U.S. military actions against sovereign states. In 1980 the Carter Doctrine was promulgated by the U.S. Named for president Jimmy Carter the “doctrine” states that U. S. access to oil in the Persian Gulf is a which it will do anything necessary to protect its vital interest.
Those are, partly, the reasons the U.S. has refused to recognize the International Criminal Court – unless it can urge that court to act upon crimes against humanity in a way that furthers U.S. policy. It declares that no U.S. person will ever appear before the ICC, and that the U.S. will intervene violently if a U.S. citizen is taken before the court. In fact, the U.S. works without rest to undermine international law. Its constant violations of the spirit and letter of the free trade agreements entered into with Canada are just a part of that policy which is more dramatically demonstrated in its rejection of the Geneva Conventions against torture and other kinds of mistreatment of prisoners as well as its rejection of the rules of war which exist to protect civilians and the infrastructure required to support human life.
In the Libyan war of 2011, NATO forces, with considerable Canadian participation, engaged in the destruction of civilian populations as well as infrastructure necessary for the support of life. Under present Canadian government, the U.S. War Against the Rule of Law is supported completely – at home and abroad. Canadians often are unaware that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded about 1949 to provide a shield against expansion by Soviet Russia. NATO lost its purpose with the collapse of the Soviet Empire at the end of the 1980s. Always dominated by the U.S., that country urged the partners in NATO to keep the organization afloat. It exists now as a parallel to the United Nations, dominated completely by the U.S.A. It works outside the U.N. organization and outside the rules and principles built with painstaking care to try to end (or limit) warfare and to protect (especially) civilian populations in the event of conflict.
Canada now takes part in or approves of any military adventure engaged in by the U.S.A., tied to that country by NATO policy. In almost every case NATO actions are declared subject to U.N. principles but – in almost every case – they are undertaken in violation of those principles. In 1995 and1999, the wars against Bosnia and Serbia were NATO wars with Canada’s full cooperation, violating Geneva Conventions – by policy not by accident. The wars in Afghanistan and Libya follow the same pattern. In fact, in 1996 the UN General Assembly named Depleted Uranium weapons to be weapons of mass destruction. In 2002, the Human Rights Convention of the U.N. pushed for a ban on them. NATO uses them, and has used them since – in Libya and in Afghanistan, wars in which Canada has taken full part.
The free trade agreements of 1988 and 1992/3 provided only a beginning to the movement intended to wipe out Canadian sovereignty and subordinate Canada to the U.S.A. and to the neo-liberal system dominant in that country. The use of NATO as a war machine to further U.S. policy is a demonstration of neo-liberal policy in action. NATO sets aside laws, rules, and conventions intended to govern war-making and the treatment of prisoners taken in war. It does so to expand the power of the U.S. and its most loyal allies. Since the announced War On Terror (2001) – a policy of permanent warfare against a non-existent entity – the U.S. can claim to be at war whenever it wishes to take action against a sovereign nation. As with the war in Libya, NATO can claim, as well, that it is waging war for humanitarian and democratic reasons.
Many Canadians are not aware of the huge defects of the free trade agreements or of the developments that have gone forward since. Those developments confirm the baldly imperialist policy of the U.S.A., supported in Canada by neo-liberals in the corporate sector and governments wanting to support U.S. criminal power on the globe
Globalizing Canada. Canadian Cultural Consciousness. Takeover of the Mind
Marshall McLuhan moved into increasing prominence from the early 1960s onward. He was a prophet of the shrinking world. Developments in electronic communication were reshaping human consciousness and making distances disappear. That fact has become so all-absorbing many people cannot remember a world in which it was not possible to have instant communication with almost any point on the globe. McLuhan referred to “the global village”, an apolitical place in which electronic reach became an extension of the human nervous system. But the electronic universe of the global village is not apolitical.
McLuhan was a part of the depoliticization of culture in Canada – but only a part. By avoiding the political (and imperialist) implications of the new communications, he taught the existence of a (non-existent) apolitical universe, blunting Canadian awareness. McLuhan’s most important influence – Harold Innis – himself a truly international scholar – understood that the form of dominant communication was essential to the kind of empire possible, and, usually, in existence. He recognized the U.S. as an imperial power in relation to Canada’s life and future. McLuhan chose to remove that awareness from every aspect of his work.
For Harold Innis, improved communications are inseparably connected to extended administrative areas – very often, that is, to empire. He argued that the expansion and extension of the new communication structures would make possible expansion of monopoly and authority – meaning an increasing anti-democratic restriction of knowledge and totalitarian repression of free expression and movement. Behind that sense is the reality we observe, that the farther the sphere of influence (the extension of imperial control) spreads the more lethal have to be the instruments of discipline, of containment. The U.S. develops (and other countries develop in response) increasingly complex, secret, and powerful unmanned weapons that can strike almost anywhere on the globe. They are guided by communication links almost without limit.
Donald Creighton suggests Innis saw a future similar to the future envisioned by George Grant – not only the end of Canada, but the end of Western civilization. Innis “did not openly predict the downfall of western civilization, as both Spengler and Toynbee had done,” wrote Creighton, “but from the angry despair with which he wrote of modern times, we can hardly doubt what he believed the inevitable end would be.” Innis was as secular a thinker as George Grant was a Christian one. From their different starting points they came to an almost common conclusion: that ordinary, decent human beings in our time have separated (or have been separated) from perceptions that can anchor them in a stable world. For Grant, the loss of a Christian inspired conservatism opened the gates to savages who would destroy all that is good in society. For Innis, the unleashing of means of communication that would permit almost unlimited empire on the globe nearly certainly assured a future of misery and pain.
That appears to be a contradiction in terms. How can people in the world have increasing access to information and to other people at the same time as they are increasingly kept from important knowledge and are increasingly repressed in their everyday lives? The studies Innis engaged in during his last years suggest to some of his readers that the larger the administrative area of an empire becomes the more repressive it becomes, and the more able it is to inflict punishment upon dissenters. That is a puzzle we have not yet been able to explain fully. But in our time we cannot deny that as electronic communication expands so does barbarous punishment inflicted upon whole countries and populations by empire engaged even in what is called humanitarian war.
That can only be possible because the political in our lives is being deliberately depoliticised. How can wars – like the war in Libya (2011) – that destroyed vast areas of civil space and killed numberless innocent people – be called a humanitarian war? To be seen as what it really was, the war in Libya conducted by NATO forces was intensely political. The nature of its politcs, clearly expressed, would be offensive to most Canadians. But as a humanitarian war it can be presented as something like a visit of street nurses protected by police to a rough and poverty-stricken part of a big city. Humanitarian. Depoliticization in Canada is a process that has remained largely unexamined. That makes the concept, and the fact, difficult to explain fully. Fundamentally, it is a process by which highly political events, ideas, and concepts are stripped of political implications, denatured. McLuhan attempted to remove political implications from imperialism (as did Northrop Frye). Neo-liberalism attempts to present the ambitions of large corporations to gain political power and to oppress democratic freedoms as an apolitical concern to maintain high employment and to secure a stable economy. Depoliticization can be seen at work on many levels. It is a key to the assault on democracy, the decreasing power of the rule of law, and Canada’s increasing absorption into the U.S.A.
We may say Marshall McLuhan depoliticized the work of Harold Innis. In effect, he was a visible part of the ideological and technological action that erased the border between truth and lies, making possible - first - the rudderless moral fantasy that was Brian Mulroney, a colonial satrap who believed he could sit as an equal with imperial despots. McLuhan made possible - secondly – the extension of that condition into the fascist and Orwellian world of Stephen Harper.
Even in McLuhan’s work, however, the political is just below the surface. He coined the expression “the medium is the message” in his 1964 book, Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man. Most people think of “the medium” as the technical carrier of communication: radio, television, cell phone, computer and all its elaborations. We speak of the media (plural of medium) when we mean those modes of communication that are intended to reach the general public. There is another meaning implicit in our use of the word media – especially in the phrase “the mainstream media.” We mean – at the same time – the technical carriers, the political power sources from which they spring, and the personnel who are most superficially the face of the media.
Thought of carefully, the medium, in the expression “the medium is the message” is the same kind of medium that takes key position in a séance (an attempt by living people to contact the dead or other spirits). In that case the medium is a trusted person, thought to have special powers, who relays messages from another level of being to the assembled people at the séance – messages which are intended to be taken as truth. As investigators in the past showed, much of what mediums did was fraudulent, manipulative, and intended to mislead. What better description can we have of the gigantic mainstream press and media corporations apparently presenting real events and speaking through well-known and popular commentators and news readers (as if they are independent and principled individuals)?
The spiritualist language helps even more. It speaks of channelling. That is a process in which the medium allows the use of his or her physical body to a spirit who may communicate with the people taking part in the séance. However apolitical its technology is – the mechanics of its construction, its breadth and range, its seemingly unimpeded opening to ideas and cultures, “the medium” (as McLuhan used the term) is much more than a mere opening to other experience. It is even more than an imposition of “message” as a function of its technical structure. For those who own its possibility of expression can channel the messages they want to a population which becomes indoctrinated without consciousness of the process – believing they are receiving truth. What must be seen is that we, as perceiving people, are active agents in our own depoliticization. We – accepting the truth from the medium – soak our environment in the “reality” of that “truth.” The fact we must face is that the intellectual being of every person has been taught by experience that his or her survival depends upon believing the evidence of the senses. A hot stove can burn. A too bright light can blind. What we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste gives us the key to living … to reality. “Seeing is believing.” We accept perception through the senses as real. The experience of electronic perception can be a manufactured real, making it all the more dangerous.
The senses have no way of knowing what is manufactured and what is real. That may be one reason why the expansion of communication by electronic means assures the enslavement of many, many ordinary, decent people. And so the apparent contradiction in terms referred to, above, may not be that at all. Increasing electronic access to information and to other people may be the guarantee of increasing ignorance and repression in increasingly totalitarian states where key information becomes disinformation, becomes prepared reality, becomes a consistent fantasy created in order to guarantee adherence to a false view of life and humankind.
The electronic reach is, of course, backed up by real events on the ground. Just for instance, the choice by the U.S.A. to attack Afghanistan (2001) was part of a global, non-specific, policy of aggression to assure U.S. dominance. To legitimate that aggression and others to follow anywhere, a suitable propaganda title was created: “the war on terror” into which the U.S. aggression in Afghanistan could fit. Repeated and repeated, the meaningless phrase has taken on a quality of reality in the minds of a huge population which has become willing to support any U.S. aggression undertaken in that name.
The Canadian government admitted the reality of the phrase when it joined the NATO force – the International Security Assistance Force – and set Canadian soldiers to fighting (2002) in Afghanistan under its imperial controller – the U.S.A. Nevertheless, many, many Canadians have always doubted the correctness of being in Afghanistan, revealing often more than half of polled numbers reject Canadian military presence there. The statistics of polling, in fact, appear to back the idea presented here. The huge surge of sympathy for the U.S. when the towers in New York fell with many accompanying deaths on September 11, 2001, was quickly translated into support of a battle for “the cause” in Afghanistan. In the first year, captured by the propaganda campaign for the aggressions – first called “Operation Infinite Justice” and then “Operation Enduring Freedom”, the Canadians polled supported to almost seventy-five percent.
But as time passed, the propaganda campaign met the reality Canadians saw day to day. In 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2010, for instance, polls revealed – that despite continuing Canadian and U.S. government propaganda – Canadians in a majority rejected Canada’s military role in Afghanistan. In 2011 sixty-three percent were against military participation and fifty-eight percent declared the whole operation a mistake. Those conclusions were made by Canadians who had spent ten years being bombarded by government and mainstream press and media to come to other conclusions. On the one hand efforts at depoliticization can be (and are) frequently dangerously effective. On the other hand, concerted opposition by word of mouth, through social and community media, and by other means can mitigate and/or erase major state and private corporation attempts at indoctrination. That fact is both reason for hope and an explanation for the present, increased attack on democratic forms of communication in Canada. The point needs to be underscored that though a majority of Canadians – over years – disapproved of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, nothing changed in government policy because Canadian policy was not – in effect – made in Canada. U.S. leaders manufactured the lie. Inside the U.S.A. the argument was whether the war in Afghanistan was right for the U.S.A. In Canada, the argument had to be whether joining a U.S. war in a foreign country almost without connection to Canada was right for Canada, was worth the huge expense and the lives of Canadian soldiers and members of the Afghanistan population. On that subject propaganda creations had to be on-going … and were.
In imperial/colonial relations particular events like the War in Afghanistan provide the possibility of seeing in sharp outline the way a country like Canada does the bidding of its master. It is probably true that Canada has spent something like $30 billion dollars to conduct its military operation in Afghanistan (to say nothing of the death and havoc created). The sum spent could have solved many Canadian problems of health care, education, seniors assistance, aboriginal standard of living – with some left over for increased real assistance to needy foreign nations. Estimates vary, but we need not worry. In 2008 the Rideau Institute suggested the cost would be $28 billion. But since the government of Stephen Harper has no intention of telling the full cost, $30 billion may be an underestimate when RCMP costs, Foreign Affairs costs, assistance costs, and more are figured in. Partly, the reason for Canadian subservience is the size of the propaganda effort on behalf of the imperial power. That is a way of saying it is part of the calculated use of the medium to convey a wholly false message. The false message is on-going. It is becoming a part of Canadian consciousness – and to question it sharply and clearly is to be described quickly as anti-American or inhumane, attitudes in Canada only slightly more awful than racisim, anti-semitism, and homophobia.
Indeed, in the Canadianization campaign (from 1968 well into the 1980s) to hire qualified Canadians in universities and other cultural institutions and to offer a reasonable range of Canadian materials for study almost all those attitudes were mixed. The U.S. government and U.S. embassies disliked the campaign because it interfered with their plans for Canada. Plainly, the more U.S. courses proliferated in Canadian colleges and universities, the more Canadians would be ready to accept U.S. reality. The more that U.S. academics were accepted in Canada as normal, the more their views of the world could predominate in Canada. As a result, in many of the meetings to discuss the issues across Canada (and in the mainstream press and media), the campaign was accused of being anti-American. And then it was accused of being a secret anti-semitic campaign – in order, I suggest, to turn the focus away from the fact that the most foreigners being hired were from the U.S.A.
To wish to limit hirings from outside Canada to a reasonable number that would allow Canadians of excellence to be hired was, first, called anti-American. Then it was called a secret anti-semitic campaign (to keep Jews from being hired). Then it was called racist. In more than one meeting I was involved with, a U.S. academic rose and asked if it was possible that what we really were after was the result of our racism. The largest influx was from the U.S.A., and supporting that influx regardless of the injustice done to young Canadians, the speakers tried to suggest that the people conducting the Canadianization campaign saw people from the U.S.A. as another race. Preventing them from taking positions in Canada was, therefore, racism. That claim didn’t go far … but it was tried. Every possible tactic was tried to slow the movement. Many tried to defuse the whole matter by alleging that in the great world of scholarship there are really no differences. That anarchist individualist ploy was common. “Don’t think of me as someone from the U.S., I’m just a human being.” Britons rarely said that, being very conscious of themselves as representatives of a beaten empire, feeling displaced perhaps – and holding some specific views about national differences.
At one large meeting at UBC, a U.S. sociologist rose in the meeting and said he was “just a human being”, that he was only interested in the personal identities of his students, the genealogies of his students – who were their grandmothers and grandfathers, how they settled on their musical tastes – and on he went with more of the same. When he finished I remarked that, in Canada, his (quite long) statement could only come from someone from the U.S.A., probably only from someone educated in a New York university, probably the City College of New York. He was, without doubt, a human being – but from a particular place that left highly visible evidences of its conditioning upon human beings raised and educated there. He could have said I was all wrong, but he didn’t say another word.
The process has many faces. There is the huge size and power of the U.S.A. that Canadians have to deal with. There is the endless flow of U.S.-originated and slanted information that has always poured across the border. There is the fact of U.S. expansionism from its beginning. There is the alliance formed by large Canadian corporations and banks and mainstream media – and by elected officials – with policy makers in the U.S.A.
Interestingly, the British connection is often used to recruit young Canadians to sympathy for the U.S.A. and relates to the tendency of young Canadians and Canadians in powerful corporate and governmental positions to ally with U.S. designs for Canada. In the 1880s, Charles G. D. Roberts, major poet and prose writer, was an independentist – and he spoke of his position. He was told by his father and others that Canada had to have Britain as a close ally to hold off the U.S.A. That fact is made clear in history. Through the nineteenth century the U.S. put pressure on Canadian legislators to get rid of the monarchy. What did the U.S. legislators and diplomats mean? They meant that a Canada without the protection of Britain would be a sitting duck for takeover. Charles G.D. Roberts’ father – and many others knew that. Their connection to Britain may have been sentimental – but it was much more than that. They advised Charles to drop the independence cry and work for a viable British empire in which Canada could have real power.
Through the years when Britain caved in to U.S. demands for Canadian territory in New Brunswick, in the Pacific Northwest, in Alaska and elsewhere, Canada was helpless. The population of Canada has always been one-tenth the population of the U.S.A. Growing rich by policies of Black Slavery, piracy on the Atlantic seas, the extermination of the Indians, and the use of huge tracts of arable land – more than seven times as much arable land as Canada possesses – the U.S.A. developed an expansionist policy, a propaganda of exceptionalism, and a belief in a divine role which it named Manifest Destiny.
As Britain weakened and became more and more unable to be the protector of Canada – and as the U.S. grew stronger – many Canadians felt betrayed by Britain and saw in the U.S.A. a saviour, or at least an ideal of classless, egalitarian, humanitarian society. Those Canadians chose to forget U.S. racism, the wars the U.S. has conducted to conquer Canada, the times the U.S. has grabbed chunks of territory that should be in Canada, and the less visible but on-going efforts by the U.S. to own and control Canadian wealth (and wealth elsewhere around the world). That whole struggle – which makes up a large part of Canadian history – points to another factor so obvious it can easily be passed by. The subjugation of Canada has been both sub-text and a part of the major text of U.S. history and policy – the removal of Britain as the dominating global imperial power and its replacement by the U.S.A.
Writing of the present, calamitous, offshore global financial system constructed to destroy the taxing power of states and the responsibility of banks, and (especially) of multi-national corporate entities to any legitimate national jurisdiction, Nicholas Shaxson points directly to the conflict as seen by a major player in it. In John Maynard Keynes’ most complete biography, Robert Skidelsky argues that for Britain the Second World War was in fact two wars, one pitting Britain under Winston Churchill against Nazi Germany, the other lying behind the façade of the Western alliance and pitting the British empire, led by Keynes, against the United States. America’s main war aim after the defeat of the Axis powers, he argued, was to destroy the British Empire.
Shaxson goes on that “Skidelsky’s account leaves no doubt that the two countries were quietly locked in a titanic struggle for financial dominance, as the thrusting new American superpower began to displace the old empire.” Any reader of Skidelsky’s three volume biography of Keynes cannot doubt Shaxson’s words.
But clear-eyed observers of Canadian history see that “the thrusting new American superpower” was moving in the direction Shaxson points to long, long before the Second World War. The U.S. expansionism that has become more and more visible since the Second World War has been an on-going part of Canada/U.S. relations from the beginning. The U.S. resented the foundation of Canada from the beginning and sought to undermine it – to end it as an independent political force and to annex its untold natural wealth. Britain in the formative years protected Canada, almost unaware that Canada, fully independent, could help hold back “the thrusting new superpower” from assuming dominant imperial status in the world.
The above statements are not made in defence of British Imperialism, obviously. They are made to point out (1) that the U.S. has always coveted Canadian wealth and territory; (2) that from 1776 onwards U.S. intentions towards Canada were stated – and in wars – acted upon. After wars failed, the U.S.A. set about to undermine the ideas of monarchy, of the British connection, of Canadian independence. The stated intention of U.S. interests in the 1880s and 1890s was to absorb the Canadian economy into the U.S. economy. In the two major wars of the twentieth century Canada, the U.S.A., and Britain were allies. At the same time the U.S. worked to undermine British power – at least partly to gain domination over Canadian wealth and policy.
Perhaps the historical meaning of the Canadian/British connection – for Canadians – has been stated as clearly as it need be by Norman Penlington. He uses the term “Imperial unity” to describe the relation sought at the time of the Commercial Union movement. But, in doing so, he describes what almost all pro-British attempts at national policy have intended.
“Imperial unity”, however described, was a matter of national survival for Canadians; neither Britain nor the other self-governing colonies had such a corresponding need. Canadian supporters of imperial unity were ardent Canadian nationalists, who had no intention of bartering away hard-won rights of responsible government. To them “Imperial federation” which was used indistinguishably from “Imperial unity” meant the orientation of Canadian policy towards Britain for the attainment of specific political and economic purposes. The desired end was the strengthening of Canada, not to aid Britain, but the better to defend the Dominion against the United States.”
The huge machine that pumps propaganda out of the U.S.A. has always influenced many Canadians who don’t belong to big corporations, major banks, or elected legislatures. For most of the twentieth century many Canadians believed the U.S. had flaws – yes – but it intended well, and its founding documents created a country that genuinely wished good for the world. For many Canadians the realization of their hope for a good, just, and equal world order rested – they believed – with the U.S.A. There are still Canadians who believe that, and the U.S. machine still pumps out propaganda to that effect. But the role of the U.S.A. in the world makes the claim harder and harder to believe. Fewer and fewer Canadians believe it.
Surprisingly – or, perhaps, not surprisingly at all – among those who believed were (and still are) a very large number of the tastemakers – broadcasters, writers, poets, playwrights, critics, novelists, painters, and more. Why should they be less ensnared than others in the propaganda emanating from the huge U.S. machine? Why should they be less captivated by successful people travelling here from the U.S.A.? It could be argued they should be more easily ensnared because – for many of them – success in their work, they are told, is to achieve success in the U.S.A. And if success means making money, then what they are told is true. And – as we shall see further on – Canadian government has given, over and over, advantages in Canada to U.S. profit-making operations, always to the detriment of Canadian enterprise in those areas and to individual Canadians who want to make interesting, respectable lives at work in Canada.
Canada and Culture: Destructive Forces at Work
When we think of the University of Toronto and of Canadian culture and ideas, we think of Harold Innis, of Marshall McLuhan, of Northrop Frye and Margaret Atwood. We are rarely asked to think about one of Canada’s finest historians, Donald Creighton (1902-1979) – who fought openly against Canadian colonialism and U.S. dominance in Canada. For his articulate defence of the country he is all but erased from memory. Even more erased is one of the best minds on the Left in Canada, Stanley Brehaut Ryerson (1911-1998), who was for years a member of the Communist Party of Canada, its leading intellectual, and later a distinguished Left nationalist voice in Canada. He edited Left journals and wrote exhaustively about Canada and its political condition over many decades. Ryerson’s book on French Canada is almost completely neglected. And his two excellent volumes of Canadian history are hardly known. I refer to Ryerson to suggest there should have been another voice heard at the University of Toronto over the Frye, McLuhan years. That voice should have been Stanley Ryerson’s voice.
I am suggesting that Canada’s major university (a symbol for most of anglophone Canada) closed itself off from real and distinguished debate by silently rejecting one of our major thinkers. When Ryerson left the Communist Party of Canada in 1971, he had trouble earning a living. He had been granted teaching assistantships here and there, as a temporary employee. Then the University of Quebec at Montreal [UQAM] hired him as a full professor, acknowledged his contribution to ideas in Canada, and engaged him as a full academic colleague teaching graduate and undergraduate courses. By doing what it did, UQAM revealed the closed mind which ruled at the University of Toronto.
Had he been at the University of Toronto, able to engage in discussion and debate with Frye, McLuhan, Creighton and others of Liberal and Conservative views, the effect on the intellectual community would have been salutary. But the ideas of the Left in Canada and ideas emanating from a significant portion of the world were shut out. They were shut out because the U.S. was in a Cold War for global supremacy against the Communist world. And so all thought connected with it – thought that was Canadian and important to Canada – was almost completely closed off from the Canadian young.
Ryerson is a dramatic example. But he is not alone. In the 1970s a symposium was held at the University of Toronto on the work of Hugh MacLennan, major Canadian novelist, holder of a Ph.D., and five times winner of the Governor General’s award for literature. Claude Bissell, president of the University of Toronto, opened the event and lamented the fact that McGill had won MacLennan to its halls and the University of Toronto had been the loser. I spoke the next day, and I pointed out that the University of Toronto wouldn’t have hired Hugh MacLennan if he was starving and in distress. McGill only suffered him as a part-time teacher. MacLennan’s biographer rose in the audience at that point and quoted the miserable sum he was paid by McGill.
The University of Toronto thought of itself as a parallel institution with Harvard and Oxford. It really didn’t want the bother of a parochial Canadian novelist among its number. MacLennan wrote about Canada with passion and insight; and he was suspicious of the U.S.A. He offended the Toronto circle around the strong admirer of the U.S., Morley Callaghan, novelist and short story writer. That circle looked to the U.S.A. for models of excellence and for creative ideas. MacLennan was, surely, not suitable as a teacher at U. of T. If Hugh MacLennan was undesirable; and Donald Creighton was an embarrassment – how could any sane person think that Stanley Ryerson could make a useful contribution to the consideration of ideas there – or anywhere in English Canada? The oppressive narrowness of intellectual focus to which I have referred has continued and has hardened in Canada. Neo-liberalism has become Main Stream. But in literature and culture, neo-liberalism is distinctly uncomfortable, for it preaches that might is right, the private corporation is king, the poor are undeserving, the arts are a frivolous decoration, and artists are freaks best ignored unless they are openly propagandists for reactionary power.
Neo-liberalism moves through the cultural world in disguise. Its present disguise (in the cultural world) is often called postmodernism, and postmodernism’s chief Canadian advocate until June of 2011 was Robert Kroetsch, poet, novelist, critic, and literary theoretician. Like both Frye and Atwood, his following was large, and devoted. Like Frye and Atwood, he was admired by most and adored by many. Like Frye and Atwood, he was a depoliticizer. It may be fair to say that a necessary step in the development of neo-liberalism is apparent depoliticization. Kroetsch was – in many ways – very much stranger than either of the other two discussed above. Born in Heisler, Alberta, he took his first degree at the University of Alberta, worked for the U.S. Air Force in Labrador for three years and then went to Vermont for an M.A. and to Iowa for a Ph.D. After that he worked as a university teacher in Binghampton, New York until 1978. He may be said to have been employed by or working in the U.S.A. for something like twenty-seven of his first fifty years. When he returned to Canada in 1978, a large part of his life had been U.S.-centred and oriented.
Postmodernism, I have written above, is often neo-liberalism in disguise. It has dubious roots, and it has dubious effect. It cannot be characterized fully here (or, perhaps, anywhere). It has, however, to be briefly mentioned as a way of considering Robert Kroetsch and Canada. To begin, the French deconstructionists and postmodernists (post 1960) founded a part of their “philosophy” on work by the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger. That fact has endless implications for literary and social theory, and it opens endless argument. In addition, the huge flowering of French philosophy in the 1960s and after – involving Jacques Derrida and many others – placed language and meaning, as they had been known to that time, into question. It is a common statement arising from the philosophical work of the time that the “great metanarratives” previously accepted have all been called into question.
The “metanarratives” could extend from ideas of law and society to ideas of civil foundation, the genesis of nations, gender, communities in harmony, shared ideas of the good, and much more. Deconstructing language and meaning can lead to (and often wishes to lead to) open-ended statements intended to be unfixed in final meaning or intention. One of the effects – relating the activity to neo-liberalism – is, obviously, the subversion of what was traditionally believed to be the good, the decent – in behaviour, individually and at large. In a fragmented society – one in which touch with fundamental ideas of the good are lost – the way is open to decimate social structures in place and replace them with structures that are apparently more just and free but which support a small elite clique, a ruling junta, a dictatorship supported by military force.
In the case of Canada, considered as a “something”, postmodernism generally wishes to reject the possibility of a definition of Canada, of a meaningful intellectual history for the country, of a centre of decency in any of its foundational postulates or activities historically because to engage in such theorizing is considered repressively homogenizing.
Robert Kroetsch’s engagement with Canada is a mixture of hyper-autobiographical fantasy, regional fixation, postmodernist de-centration, and attack upon national myth. Postmodernism in Canada is, finally, an attack on the viability of the Canadian nation as anything but a colonial dependency existing in fragments available for exploitation by external forces. It is perhaps not without significance that Kroetsch, who focussed on his Alberta origins and concentrated his writing in Alberta locations and retired to Leduc at the end of his working career, has left us almost no serious critical comment on the Tar Sands of Alberta and the destruction of prime Alberta land and water by the (mostly foreign) private corporations wringing wealth from the abused environment.
An apparent peculiarity in his criticism, Kroetsch attacks Susannah Moodie with a viciousness that is hard to understand. But he is not alone. The attitude of writers in the last fifty years to Moodie, and to John Richardson (author of Wacousta), reveals their dissatisfaction with Canada. Frye uses the novel Wacousta to shape his idea of “garrison and wilderness.” White Canadians huddle in their garrisons (as they do in Wacousta, according to Frye) terrified of the wilderness outside the fortress. That depicts the attitude of all Canadians to the wilderness … according to Frye. Atwood picks up the argument in Survival.
Neither observes that the Native People in the novel, finally organizing resistance to the theft of their continent, are striking back, making life especially difficult for white people going into unknown territory. All are in an intense political situation, not born of life in nature. That is the situation across the large territory of forts and palisades. Frye does not say that in the novel itself the peculiar condition there, the Indian terror just outside the garrison is in fact led by a white man, probably mentally unbalanced, who is seeking revenge against the white senior officer of the garrison. The conflict, then, is political on the large scale, and personal (between two Europeans) on the small scale. It has nothing to do with the peculiar character of the Indian or the innate personality of wilderness. And so the situation is not one in which a huddling garrison of white people wholly unable to deal with the Canada of wilderness lives in terror of the indigenous people who are seen as brutal savages lurking in a dark and forbidding forest. On the contrary. At the end of Wacousta, a native person effects the death of Wacousta, the evil protagonist, and Frye’s “garrison” and “wilderness” populations work together to make a habitable world.
By the same token, Susannah Moodie is misunderstood and misrepresented by many contemporary writers who feel, it seems, a deep resentment of her. They do so – one has to speculate – because Moodie has a solid sense of the good and of justice, of a world in which organized decency is possible. Not only that, but she lives, often, isolated, often without her husband, often facing huge physical difficulties – without relinquishing her sense of the good. In that world, Mrs. Moodie entertains visiting Indians, her husband insisting they enter the house as other guests do. It is Susannah Moodie who says the Indian is nature’s gentleman who never does a rude or vulgar thing. Atwood sees Moodie as someone for whom Canada is alienating and destructive. In Survival Atwood writes that Roughing It in the Bush was “written for the express purpose of telling others not to come …" But that is only a small part of the story. Moodie wants gentlefolk who can’t bear the tough life of settlers to stay away. But she praises people who can manage, and she expresses admiration for strong people who come, do well, and – in a democracy she admires – have the opportunity, even, to take a place in the legislature.
For Robert Kroetsch, Moodie is unbearable. In his essay “Beyond Nationalism: A Prologue”, Kroetsch writes of “the whining and bitching figure of Susannah Moodie.” In his essay, “Carnival and Violence: A Meditation” , Kroetsch evokes Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness when he thinks of her. Kroetsch writes:
She is the closest thing we have in Canadian writing to Joseph Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz, and, like poor, dear hesitating Marlow, I feel the ‘fascination and the abomination’. We read her and wonder in horror – is this where Canadian literature comes from?
Some of the abomination Kroetsch feels rises from the unstated undercurrent of unease in Moodie’s work at the mood of U.S. expansionism around her. She arrived in Canada only about fifteen years after the War of 1812, an experience Canadians felt freshly in their minds. Kroetsch could only be offended, could only feel “abomination” at such a woman – at anyone feeling endangered by the U.S.A. Looking at Niagara Falls and seeing U.S. workers busy on the U.S. side, Susannah Moodie asks what those “gold worshippers” will do next.
Clearly Susannah Moodie had to be anathema to Robert Kroetsch – because she represents a vision of Canada that is not the U.S.A. And, in addition, she is probably anathema to him because she is a tough human being who is at ease in the company of her husband as well as courageous and tough when alone – and, as often as not, someone who uses her own powers to make the partnership more effective – without being under male supervision. When I write that Mrs. Moodie represents a vision of Canada that is not the U.S.A. – and is therefore offensive to Kroetsch – I move towards a vision of the two countries not usually called upon. In almost every case throughout this work where I have made reference to the failure to maintain Canadian independence of action and policy, the case has been one in which the power dominance of the U.S. is conceded. In almost every case physical might has proved to be “right.” In every case the U.S. has gained position and overseer rights that give it pleasure at the cost of Canadians.
In those terms, Canada, historically, has been forced to shape its identity almost as a function of U.S. identity. In those terms, one may see Canada/U.S. relations as not unlike those between a couple in which the dominant partner is too self-involved and stupid to see the real nature of the partnership. That seemed to be the condition of Robert Kroetsch’s human and writerly relations. He appears to have been offended by Mrs. Moodie’s femininity, her toughness, her self-reliance, her certainty of goodness in the world. The fact that he drew around him a very large number of people, both male and female, who made excuses for him and who lauded fictional texts that should have offended them should be surprising. But in Canada – to continue the comparison – every level of the relations of Canada and the United States produces the same reality (or unreality): docility before the bully, willingness to pretend, passiveness in the face of obvious injustice.
Dianne Tiefensee sums the matter up in terms of Kroetsch’s writerly and fictional output – steering clear of what we might call his life in “the real world.” So long as he dwells in his (essentially) blind, male dominant duality, and his reference to traditional ways of thinking that reinforce that structure, his thinking, she suggests, “will be dialectical and metaphysical, logo-, ethno-, and phallocentric, which is to say inescapably solipsistic, racist, and sexist. Or, to put it another way, it will be repressive of the irreducible difference that is the concern of Derridean deconstruction.”
This text has avoided psychological analysis of personality types that form around the neo-liberal drive for power. Robert Kroetsch provides the chance to glance in that direction, however briefly.
Very clearly, Frye, Atwood, Kroetsch (and their admirers – or what A.S.P. Woodhouse used to refer to as (“the small frye”) want to reinvent the history of Canada. One suspects they want to create a U.S. history for this country and twist major works of founding literature into what (consciously or unconsciously) they sense are U.S. shapes. In one of his essays Kroetsch writes about the “experience of feeling powerless”, but he carefully avoids relating it to imperial/colonial experience. Anything but that. If one threads a way through the works of Robert Kroetsch – Mr. postmodernism in Canada – to find an overall view of Canada, one finds a constant disparaging of the place, a constant refusal to accept it as a self-respecting community. That is often the U.S. view, for the imperial spokesperson does not easily see the colonized people as anything but a confused rabble, or, at best, a gathering of charming but unimportant “others”.
Almost none of Kroetsch’s assumptions about Canada are true. They are built up by using a misread imported methodology which leads to conclusions superimposed as the result of what appears to be a rampant, dissatisfied individualism. It is not at all surprising, if that is the case, that Kroetsch remarked he wanted to introduce into Canadian literature the Huck Finn mythos.
Canada’s beginnings, for Kroetsch, are unclear. (That is the U.S. canard that because we didn’t have a violent conflict to establish the nation, it cannot be legitimate.) The nation, for Kroetsch, doesn’t really come together, because we are a series of margins – a land mass in which cities are always bordered by wilderness. (That is a play on the Frye garrison/wilderness alienation.) Loyalties in Canada are to regions, he argued, which resist a national sense. (That has always been an argument of imperial powers about subjected territories anywhere, “divide and conquer”, and – in Canada – it is an argument of large private corporations resisting federal oversight and regulation.) As if blind to its huge natural wealth, Kroetsch argued that Canada was irrelevant to imperial powers – which may be a reason he was able to live in the Tar Sands Province (being torn apart for foreign profit) with hardly a murmur about the environmental desecration around him. Long away from them, he formed what is a colonial view of other Canadians. He saw them as often resentful, basing their identity on not being like other fine people (such as those in the United States). And, finally, like all those who have worked for Canada’s absorption into the United States or for Canada’s continuing role as a raw materials colony, Kroetsch rejected the idea of U.S. imperial domination of Canada.
Canadians may turn away from the pattern of sellout by large private corporations and their governments in Canada with a feeling of betrayal and sadness. They may turn to their artistic, cultural, and creative spokespeople to find relief, encouragement, and hope for a different vision. They will not find a different vision there, especially among the most celebrated of cultural spokespeople. For the culture of a colonial country – until real resistance begins – mirrors the economic and political condition; it cannot do otherwise. Cultural leaders do not hold pre-eminent place because they are the most brilliant actors – but because they accept and promulgate views necessary to keep the population docile. Those who refuse that role are persistently demeaned, pushed aside, denied platforms, silenced.
Moving outward from the position of a person like Robert Kroetsch, the less “intellectual” literary world (matched, too, in theatre and film) may be characterized by the remark made by Yann Martel upon winning the Booker prize for literature in 2002 for his novel The Life of Pi. Canada, said Yann Martel, is “the greatest hotel on earth.” Having spent his childhood in Costa Rica, France, Mexico, and Alaska, as well as Canada, Martel may see countries as brief stopping places with better or worse levels of room service. The statement was very likely made with the fullest intention to compliment the country. Martel’s statement mirrors a very large part of the condition of published literature in Canada in the last decades. Critics observe that “Canadian” novels that win prizes in Canada and elsewhere in the world frequently have nothing to do with Canada. They are “cosmopolitan” novels. Many commentators exult in our evident maturity. Writers find their subjects in a thousand places and must always do so. That is not the point. The point is that the state of literary publishing in Canada reveals the (wealthy) colonial cultural condition of the country. In poor colonies, writers don’t refer to their country as “the greatest hotel.” While it may not be true to say that Canada is being erased in its own literature, it is true to say that a kind of ground level alienation from Canada is present. One critic remarked that Canada is producing a kind of kitsch novel pasted together from Hollywood ideas. That may be an extreme statement.
Alienation from Canada may be seen in the closure of one of Canada’s last independent publishers of any size – Key Porter Books, in 2011. Most Canadians in the cultural field and certainly most other Canadians hardly noticed the closing of the operation. A literary agent in Toronto did notice. Chris Bucci said, “I think it’s terrible for Canadian writers. We don’t have enough publishers as it is, and I think it’s going to mean that the bigger U.S. multinationals will have even more control over what gets published here.” In the years when Canadians fought for the independence of the country – after 1967 – new publishers sprang up and flourished. Canadian materials were increasingly available. The death of Key Porter Books returns Canada to the position of a country in which foreign interests (read the U.S.A.) have major control “over what gets published here.” That comment is reinforced by the sale of Canada’s premier publisher of Canadian books, McClelland and Stewart, at the beginning of 2012. The M&S sale, of a Canadian publisher at work for 106 years, will be dealt with in the “Conclusion” of this text.
Take the matter one step further. Canada is in a critical time in its history. Huge Canadian corporations are being taken over. Working conditions for long-time (and especially new) employees are being savaged. Education costs are soaring for young Canadians. Government is cooperating with the assault on ordinary Canadians, and it is taking Canada into senseless and almost meaningless U.S. imperial wars. Canadian government is denying global warming and refusing to confront the matter seriously. In the Alberta Tar Sands a false and frenetic kind of life is being lived by the people employed in the insane operations there. Canada’s literary community, on the whole, ignores it all. There has not been a serious novel (or work by a recognized poet or playwright) published in the last thirty years that places Canadians at the core of the dilemma that arises out of living in a wealthy colony exploited and ravaged to enrich a global elite.
In a colony, one might say, the more people in the arts, letters, and sciences are honoured, bemedalled, titled, and awarded, the more one may assume that they have given themselves to being representatives of the colonial condition as an acceptable and even a desirable condition. Their position in the colony is proof that they are wholly pleasing to its masters.
Three chapters left, be prepared for fireworks and anger, as all the pieces are put together, we have already witnessed Canadians and Canadian values being sold out, the last chapters deal with Stephen Treason Harper, damn scary stuff, you too will see the crimes Stephen Harper has committed, and he ain`t done yet.......(Grant G)
The Straight Goods
Cheers Eyes Wide OPen