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Yves Engler: Harper’s right wing foreign policy protects interests of big oil and mining

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And we’re continuing our series of interviews with Yves Engler, author of the book The Ugly Canadian, all about Stephen Harper’s foreign policy. And Yves now joins us from Ottawa. Thanks for joining us, Yves.


JAY: When you look at Stephen Harper’s foreign policy in sort of big-picture terms, in terms of the political centers in the United States, the sort of neocons around the Republican Party, the sort of center, center-right neoliberals, if you want to call them, in the Democratic Party, I mean, both see America as—needs to be the dominant power. Both want to project American strength and so on and shape events in the globe as best they can through military strength. But there is a difference between that neocon strategy that led to the Iraq War and the sort of, you could say, more—some people call more rational or more pragmatic strategy, empire strategy of Obama. During the time of the Iraq War, Stephen Harper was against Jean Chrétien, the prime minister of Canada. Chrétien was—mostly kept Canada out of the Iraq War. But Stephen Harper was gung ho. He wanted Canada to join in with Iraq.


STEPHEN HARPER, MEMBER, CANADIAN HOUSE OF COMMONS: Mr. Speaker, the situation in Iraq is moving towards imminent crisis and military action. Canadian forces have been on the ground there for some time. In fact, 150 military personnel are involved in joint command arrangements with British and American troops on the ground. Is this deployment continuing? Will these personnel remain in the event of war with Iraq?


JAY: Does Harper come down more on the side of the neocons? And is he part of that both mindset and alliances?

ENGLER: Yeah, I think so. I mean, he called for Canada to join the Iraq War. I think it’s, like, 45 times in the House of Commons he criticized the Liberal government for not explicitly joining or demanding to join. So, yeah, I think he comes down more on the neocon side. I think part of what—and there is a sense of the Conservatives’ party, I think, wants—to a certain extent want to kind of replicate what the hard right of the Republican Party has created, in terms of a political party based upon, you know, big-business interests and a sort of base of the party that is very socially conservative kind of Christian fundamentalist. And I think that the Harper government wants to—would like to replicate that and sees that very positively.

And a lot of the Harper government foreign policy, you know, one element of understanding this is that foreign policy is the place where he really plays to the most right-wing sectors of the party—the Christian fundamentalists, the right-wing Jewish organizations, the Islamophobes, the mining sector, this military, mining and oil executives, military types. And foreign policy’s the place where Harper gets to be as right-wing as he would want to be. On a lot of—on domestic issues he hasn’t been as right-wing as a lot of the base would want him to be. And so he—foreign policy sort of—that’s how it fits with his sort of electoral strategy.

At the more kind of structural level, this rightward shift on Canadian foreign policy, I think, is largely explained by the incredible rise of Canadian mining investment abroad, going from $30 billion in 2002 to $210 billion today; in the case of Africa, going from about $250 million of Canadian investment in—mining investment in Africa in 1989 to $29 billion today. Canadian companies over the past 20, 25 years have just become huge players in international mining. And that’s very much tied into the rise of structural adjustment programs that the International Monetary Fund pushed in Latin America and Africa. This sort of opening up of a country’s national resource sector to foreign ownership has been very beneficial to Canadian companies. So I think that and the rise of Canadian mining investment’s a big explanation for the more rightward shift in Canadian foreign policy.

Another explanation is the rise of the tar sands and the oil there, the very highly—very dirty oil, heavy carbon emitting fuel that comes out of the tar sands. And basically, if you’re going to expand the tar sands like the Conservative government, like the oil companies would like to see, you’re basically telling the rest of the world to screw off when it comes to international climate negotiations. So they’ve sort of developed a sort of hostility towards the UN because of those oil interests in Latin America. So I think at a structural level the explanation for the more rightward shift in Harper’s foreign policy is the rise in mining investment abroad and the rise of the tar sands over the past ten, 20 years.

JAY: And in terms of Canadian public opinion, in the last federal election, foreign policy wasn’t that big an issue, and he doesn’t seem to be suffering consequences from a rightward shift in foreign policy. And even though, I guess, people can argue that the Harper government would not have been elected if there hadn’t been sort of a split between the Liberals and NDP of some of the vote, they still didn’t do very bad; they did pretty well, and many ridings won outright, in spite of the—they would have won anyway, even if there wasn’t a split vote. Has something shifted in terms of Canadians, more broadly speaking, about foreign policy?

ENGLER: No, I don’t think the public attitude has shifted in—very minimally. I think that the reality is foreign policy is very rarely a major issue when it comes to elections. And most of the time, the dominant media and the opposition parties just go along with whatever the foreign-policy establishment puts forward. That’s the general tendency. And so foreign policy’s—because there’s so little opposition, it is the place to really please the base of his party, right, because there’s so little opposition being put up among the official sort of, you know, established political parties and media institutions.

So there hasn’t—I don’t think that—if anything, in fact, Canadians are more internationalist today than they’ve ever been, I think, much more multicultural, people from many different countries around the world, you know, living in Canada and the population being more aware of global affairs. It’s just that foreign-policy issues don’t tend to be that high on people’s lists of concerns.

JAY: Let me ask you a question about Canadian media. What do you make of Canadian media coverage of foreign policy, and then particularly CBC, which one could say at least in the past was more willing to be critical of Canadian foreign policy, but I’m not so sure about these days?

ENGLER: Yeah. I mean, the Canadian media is—it’s owned by—vast majority of it’s owned by a handful of companies. It’s much more concentrated than U.S. media is, even. So, you know, it’s—the coverage is absolutely terrible from the standpoint of an internationalist, humanist perspective. It’s terrible coverage.

And the CBC is very much unwilling to forthrightly criticize the Conservative government. Just a couple of nights ago, there was a four-person panel on The National, 15, 20 minutes where they dealt with Canadian foreign policy. And there’s—you know, none of the four panelists are willing to—The National being the most important news show that is on the CBC, the nightly news, and there’s almost no—the four panelists, basically no substantive criticism, or, you know, very soft criticism of the Conservative government.

And, you know, there’s—the media’s not willing to stand up and say that, you know, Palestinians have been dispossessed for 100 years by Zionism in Israel and it’s, you know, morally indefensible to support Israel’s ongoing dispossession. You know, media’s not willing to say, you know, climate change is already causing hundreds of thousands of people’s deaths around the world, and, you know, it’s a crime against humanity to try to block all international climate negotiation meetings like the Conservative government has done.

Like, the media’s not—you know, I had a producer at The Current, one of the big radio programs on the CBC, where he told me about how he’d bring to higher-up producers a story of a Canadian mining company involved with a local community in sort of devastating the local community. And the producer was [incompr.] didn’t we cover that story last week? Well, yeah, you did, you covered that story last week from Guatemala. This story’s about a Canadian mining company in Mexico, and the story is precisely the fact that this is happening all over the world, that Canadian mining companies are involved in these abuses all over the world, and that there needs to be, you know, public policy change in Canada to rein in some of these practices. But, you know, the media, the producer, higher-up producers, you know, didn’t see it that way.

JAY: Don’t forget Canada’s involved in a war. You wouldn’t know it. Canada’s still fighting in Afghanistan, and next to no debate about why Canada’s there. I mean, I used to do a show on CBC called CounterSpin, and we had lots of debates, but we got canceled, and I don’t think there’s—even at that time, other than our show, there was debates about do Canadian jeeps have enough armor on them. There weren’t a heck of a lot of debate on CBC other than CounterSpin—and since, not much—about why Canada’s there anyway.

ENGLER: Exactly. The media, that’s one of the recent times they’ve just basically taken the government’s talking points that the 950 Canadian troops that are still in Afghanistan, that’s just training; we don’t need to discuss that anymore; that’s just training. Well, if you want to train Afghan troops, there’s a very easy way of doing it: bring Afghan troops to Canada and train them here. It would be cheaper to do it than to maintain 950 Canadian troops there. It’s about supporting the ongoing U.S.-led military mission in Afghanistan. That’s the point. It’s—you know, we—very clearly. But the media just basically, you know, does the government’s talking points. And that’s—unfortunately, that’s been mostly the nature of the dominant media. They basically follow the government’s perspective.

JAY: I should throw in there are exceptions that are notable. And on CBC you do find, you know, on certain shows, certain radio shows, you find individuals in some of the shows, like Fifth Estate, and on The Current, like you mentioned, you can find exceptions where there really is a critique, there’s a guest. But they really are the exceptions.

ENGLER: Of course. And I think those exceptions are becoming less and less. One of the things in the case of the CBC is the government has cut the CBC’s budget back and has made it very clear that, you know, it’s prepared to do, you know, further cutbacks if it is not pleased by what’s on the CBC. But the CBC’s just one example.

For myself personally, I’ve now written five books about Canadian foreign policy. I can submit op-eds to from The National Post to The Toronto Star, the most left-wing newspaper in the country, and none of papers in the country will publish the op-eds, right, on Canadian foreign policy. On domestic issues, I’ve been able to submit some op-eds and get those pieces in. When it comes to foreign policy, the room for debate, the narrowness of the spectrum is very tight.

JAY: Any mainstream media, CBC or otherwise, paying attention to your recent book about the ugly Canadian?

ENGLER: I got a nice review in The Halifax Chronicle Herald, which is the daily in Halifax—you know, smaller marketplace; a small mention in The Toronto Star by a columnist, paragraph mentioned in a larger column; and, you know, a few very community—during the tour, a few sort of community or smaller-center newspapers, a little bit of coverage. But no one at the CBC, both at TV or radio—are completely unwilling to cover it. You know, a producer—I’ve been in communication with a producer at The Current. You know, she says, oh, yeah, I got your book, but, you know, can’t do a story on this; maybe I’ll keep you in mind for the future.

JAY: It’s kind of outrageous.

ENGLER: I mean, the book is incredibly topical, right? There’s all these stories about what the Conservatives are doing in terms of foreign policy. But their willingness to go to the point of saying things, making criticisms of the Conservative policy to say, you know, these are tantamount to crimes against humanity or that, you know, the fundamental moral criticisms of what’s taking place, there’s very little room for that. You can say, yes, these are mistakes they’re making, these are—you know, this is weakening Canada’s influence in the world. Those types of criticisms are sort of acceptable. If you start talking about these being fundamentally immoral policies, there’s very little room for making those types of criticisms.

JAY: Well, Yves’s going to be a regular commentator on The Real News. So, Canadians, you’ll have to stick with us if you want to see more of Yves Engler.

Thanks for joining us, Yves.

ENGLER: Thanks for having me.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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