On the few occasions where activists have directly restrained imperialist policies their partial victories have been twisted to reinforce benevolent Canadian mythology. Coverage of the 50th anniversary of Augusto Pinochet’s coup against Salvador Allende highlights the phenomenon.
In recent days there have been many stories about the Chileans who found refuge in Canada after the coup but only Carmen Rodriguez’s commentary and a Spanish language RCI story quoting her have explained the politics behind this. Basically, Ottawa backed the ouster of the elected Marxist president but was forced to accept thousands of those seeking asylum from Pinochet’s brutal repression to dissipate anger at its coup policy.
With little more explanation Latin America expert John Kirk’s critique of Pinochet’s coup in the Globe and Mail notes that “after the coup, scores of refugees arrived in Canada” while the Winnipeg Sun quoted a local Chilean organization expressing “appreciation of the governments of Canada, Manitoba and Winnipeg, as well as the churches and other groups, who helped the arriving Chileans.” Newly appointed tourism minister Soraya Martinez Ferrada, who fled the coup as a young child and represented Canada at the 50 anniversary commemorations in Santiago, vaunted this country’s openness in multiple interviews. In a tweet Global Affairs’ Canada in Chile account noted, “Minister Martínez and her family are one of the many examples of Chileans who came to Canada as exiles and contributed to the development of our country, strengthening multiculturalism and diversity in the process.” But initially Trudeau Pere’s government considered them “riffraff”.
Days after the coup, Canada’s ambassador to Chile Andrew Ross cabled External Affairs: “Reprisals and searches have created panic atmosphere affecting particularly expatriates including the riffraff of the Latin American Left to whom Allende gave asylum … the country has been on a prolonged political binge under the elected Allende government and the junta has assumed the probably thankless task of sobering Chile up.”
Canadian leftists were outraged at Ottawa’s support for the coup and unwillingness to accept refugees hunted by the military regime. When Ross’ cable was leaked a month later by young Canadian International Development Agency official Bob Thompson it spurred further outrage. Many denounced the federal government’s policy and some occupied various Chilean and Canadian government offices in protest.
The Trudeau government was surprised at the depth of the opposition. A 1974 cabinet document lamented that “the attention… focused on the Chilean Government’s use of repression against its opponents has led to an unfavourable reaction among the Canadian public — a reaction which will not permit any significant increase in Canadian aid to this country.”
While Canadian business relations grew and Ottawa continued to support pro-Pinochet policies directly responsible for the refugee problem, the Trudeau government tried to placate the protesters by accepting some of those hunted by the regime. As a result, 7,000 refugees from the Pinochet dictatorship gained asylum in Canada, leaving many with the impression that Canada opposed the coup or sympathized with the Chilean left. But, this view of Canada’s relationship to Chile is as far from the truth as Baffin Island is from Tierra del Fuego.
This is not the only time popular movements have forced the hand of foreign policy decision-makers only for the “official story” to ignore protesters role or for the myth makers to twist the truth to promote the notion of a benevolent Canadian foreign policy.
A similar discourse shapes the media’s portrayal of Canada’s ‘refusal’ to join the second Iraq war. As part of the twentieth anniversary of the US lead invasion in March, liberal media lauded Ottawa for staying out of the war. “On the 20th anniversary of Iraq’s invasion, Canada’s record on war and peace stands firm”, declared the headline of a Lawrence Martin Globe and Mail column that failed to mention some of the largest protests in Canadian history. In a CBC interview former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien also ignored the demonstrations, boasting that he never believed Iraq had amassed weapons of mass destruction and that his decision to stay out demonstrated Canada was a “great independent nation.”
But, it’s false to say Canada did not participate in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As Richard Sanders has detailed, Canada supported the US-led invasion of Iraq in many ways: Dozens of Canadian troops were integrated in US units fighting in Iraq; US warplanes enroute to that country refueled in Newfoundland; Canadian fighter pilots participated in “training” missions in Iraq; Three different Canadian generals oversaw tens of thousands of international troops there; Canadian aid flowed to the country in support of US policy; With Canadian naval vessels leading maritime interdiction efforts off the coast of Iraq, Ottawa had legal opinion suggesting it was technically at war with that country. As such, some have concluded that Canada was the fifth or sixth biggest contributor to the US-led war.
But the Chrétien government didn’t do what the Bush administration wanted above all else, which was to publicly endorse the invasion by joining the “coalition of the willing”. Notwithstanding Chrétien’s claims, this wasn’t because he distrusted Bush’s pre-war intelligence or because of any moral principle. Rather, the Liberal government refused to join the “coalition of the willing” because hundreds of thousands of Canadians took to the streets against the war, particularly in Quebec. With the biggest demonstrations taking place in Montréal and Quebecers strongly opposed to the war, the federal government feared that openly endorsing the invasion would boost the sovereignist Parti Québecois vote in the next provincial election.
So, the Chrétien Liberals found a middle ground between the massive anti-war mobilization and Canada’s long-standing support for US imperialism.
Stories marking the twentieth and tenth anniversary of the invasion mostly erased the role popular protest played in this important decision, focusing instead on an enlightened leader who simply chose to do the right thing.
Ottawa’s move to adopt sanctions against apartheid South Africa in 1986 is another example. While many now boast that Canada sanctioned South Africa, they rarely mention the two decades of international solidarity activism that exposed and opposed Canadian corporate and diplomatic support for the racist regime. (And as with the Liberals refusal to join the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq, Canadian sanctions against South Africa were half measures). Even though Ottawa prioritized corporate and geostrategic interests above the injustices taking place there for four decades, today much is made about Canada’s morally righteous position on apartheid South Africa.
Partial activist victories regarding South Africa, Iraq and Chile have been twisted to reinforce the idea that Canadian foreign policy is benevolent. And this myth, which obscures the corporate and geostrategic interests that overwhelmingly drive Canadian foreign policy, is an obstacle to building effective opposition to Ottawa’s destructive role in international affairs.
With politicians and establishment commentators refusing to credit activists, it’s important we write our own history. A better understanding of the power of solidarity and especially our victories will strengthen our movements.
But at the same time, it’s important to be conscious of current limitations. Canadian foreign policy so overwhelmingly prioritizes corporate and geostrategic interests that full-scale victories are nearly impossible in the short or medium term. We’ll achieve no lasting change without fundamentally changing Canada’s corporate dominated political and economic systems.
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