The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper's Foreign Policy
By Yves Engler. RED Publishing/Fernwood Publishing, 246 pp., softcover
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is far more repulsive than many of us probably realize. That's the inescapable conclusion from anyone who reads Montreal writer Yves Engler's seventh book, a devastating indictment of the Conservative government's foreign policy.
In The Ugly Canadian, Engler embarks on a Noam Chomsky-style dissection of Harper's hard right-wing shift in dealing with the rest of the world.
Throughout this fact-packed book, Engler repeatedly demonstrates how Canada almost always favours business interests over human rights, and how that is endangering human lives.
This was most evident in the Conservatives' support for the export of cancer-causing chrystolite asbestos. But it's also on display in numerous other ways, such as when government MPs thwarted a private member's bill encourage mining companies to meet basic human-rights requirements.
“The Conservatives simply don't care what the rest of the world thinks,” Engler writes in the introduction.
The title is a playful twist on The Ugly American, a 1963 film starring Marlon Brando as an anticommunist U.S. ambassador in Southeast Asia. And within the pages, there's a litany of embarrassing case studies. For example, during the Arab Spring, the Harper government endorsed the brutal dictatorships of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine El Abadine Ben Ali until the very end. Yet Harper was willing to go to war to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi.
Engler, who was raised in East Vancouver, also details how the Conservatives seriously scaled back action on landmines and undermined an international convention dealing with cluster bombs.
In addition, The Ugly Canadian outlines Harper's support for coups against elected presidents in Paraguay and Honduras—and how these events benefited two Montreal-based companies, Rio Tinto Alcan and Gildan.
Every chapter provides more stomach-churning stories. Engler reports that after a massive earthquake in Haiti, Canada callously refused to dispatch Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Teams, which could have dug people out of the rubble.
Instead, Harper sent military personnel to the distressed Caribbean country. It was in keeping with Canada's history of subjugating the poverty-stricken nation since helping to engineer the ouster of the democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 2004.
“Strategic thinking, not compassion, almost always motivates policy,” Engler writes. “One is hard-pressed to find an instance where compassion was more warranted than post-earthquake Haiti.”
The author also provides a detailed exposé of Canada's diplomatic efforts to advance the tar-sands industry and derail international action on climate change. Another chapter shows how Harper continues to sharply increase Canadian military spending while promoting the arms trade.
There's also a great deal about Harper's hypocritical approach to the Middle East, including how his government offers tax breaks to a Canadian charity that funds illegal Israeli settlements.
At times, it's a bit much to absorb in one sitting. Like one of Chomsky's books, it's best read over two or three weeks so the details will really sink in.
The serious Harper haters will no doubt praise Engler for the thoroughness of his arguments. But in his eagerness to highlight the prime minister's many shortcomings, he sometimes gives tyrants in other parts of the world a free pass. While the author rightly points out that the nuclear capability of the U.S. and Israel can easily overwhelm Iran, he paints an overly benign picture of the Islamic republic.
“Even though Iran is more democratic and less repressive than a number of its neighbours, the Conservatives have incessantly attacked Iran's human rights record,” he writes.
In a sense, this is true. Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Afghanistan have probably treated their citizens in a more wretched manner than Iran's rulers. But it also leaves the impression that Iran—which has executed children, repeatedly tortured citizens, and shot protesters in the street following the stolen 2009 election—is somehow democratic. In reality, the constitution has created a theocracy, enabling the supreme religious leader, Ayotollah Ali Khamenei, and his corrupt cronies to control the judiciary and armed forces, and to veto candidates from seeking political office.
Gadhafi also comes across remarkably well in The Ugly Canadian, which ably chronicles the miserable human-rights record of the NATO-backed National Transitional Council. Engler notes that life expectancy rose dramatically during Gadhafi's 42-year reign, along with women's rights and per-capita incomes.
And the Saudi-backed religious fanatics in Somalia, Al Shabaab, also get off lightly, even though they've set back women's rights to an unprecedented degree.
But in the end, this isn't a book about Gadhafi or Al Shabaab; it's a review of Canada's disgusting foreign-policy record under Harper. Engler reveals how this has led to an “unprecedented international backlash” not only with diplomats and world leaders, but also among average people living in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Latin America.
The author ends his book with a call for action.
“One proposal could be that a multi-issue network be established with a countrywide popular education campaign to 'Stop Harper's Crimes Against Humanity',” Engler advises. “As part of that campaign stickers could be produced with the above slogan and bullet points on climate change, mining, Palestinian rights and militarism. T-shirts with a picture of Harper and the slogan 'Wanted: for crimes against humanity' could be sold to raise money for the stickers. The stickers and t-shirts could direct people to a website with information on the issues.”
Engler suggests that activists should focus their efforts on a half-dozen federal ridings where Conservative MPs are vulnerable. And a “tribunal with high-profile judges” could be created to investigate Harper's foreign-policy crimes.
“We should be clear that foreign military interventions kill and that the Conservatives' climate policy is devastating many of the world's most vulnerable,” he concludes. “Let the opposition parties soften the language or package the information in a politically palatable way. Our goal should be to force open the narrow parameters of the foreign-policy debate.”
Engler has done an admirable job in unmasking Harper as our Ugly Canadian. Now, it's up to the rest of us to stop him from raining more death and destruction on people living in other countries.