Montreal writer Yves Engler is on a mission to explode some enduring myths about Canadian foreign policy. In his view, one of them is that former Liberal prime minister Lester Pearson represented what’s best about Canada’s international conduct. Another myth, he says, is that Canada has had a positive influence on Haiti. A third is that Canada was not complicit in the Vietnam War. A fourth is that Canada opposed the United States–sponsored coup against the democratically elected Chilean government in 1973; a fifth, that Canada was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle.
“The myths serve power well,” Engler says during an interview at the Georgia Straight office.
He has written four books in his campaign to shatter these perceptions. Over the past year, the former junior hockey player has crisscrossed the country in a Greyhound bus, appearing at more than 70 public events. Engler, who was raised in East Vancouver, says that audiences often pass around a hat to help cover his travel expenses.
Even though his fact-heavy books have attracted praise from Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Vancouver physician and author Gabor Maté, Engler has often been ignored by the mainstream Canadian media. He laughs as he tells the story of how his best-known work, The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy (Fernwood Publishing, 2009), got some coverage in the corporate press. “The Montreal Gazette shortlisted it for the Quebec Writers’ Federation nonfiction prize,” he says. “After that was shortlisted, they reviewed it. It was totally right-wing—[the writer] called it a Marxist-Leninist review [of history].”
In his latest book, Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid (Fernwood Publishing, 2010), Engler challenges the conventional wisdom that this country was an evenhanded player in the Middle East until the Harper government abruptly changed course and adopted a radically pro-Israel stance.
“With the media in this country”¦there is no space for discussing the Israel-Palestine issue in anything approaching a sensible kind of way,” Engler maintains. He adds that this is especially true when it comes to addressing Canada’s 100-year record of supporting “dispossession of the Palestinians”.
In Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid, he points out that in the 18th and 19th centuries, Christians, not Jews, were the foremost proponents of creating a Jewish state in the Middle East. Engler recounts that the leading 19th-century Christian Zionist in Canada was Henry Wentworth Monk, who in 1881 supported the establishment of a fund to buy land in Palestine for European Jews. Eighteen years later, an Austrian Jew, Theodor Herzl, assembled the first Zionist conference, and Zionist organizations sprang up the following year in several Canadian cities.
Engler’s book shows how Canada’s representative on the 1947 UN Special Committee on Palestine, former Supreme Court justice Ivan C. Rand, pushed for Israel to receive a greater share of the land in Palestine. Rand vigorously opposed the creation of a binational state. Engler’s book also describes how then-diplomat Lester Pearson “worked feverishly to broker a partition plan acceptable to Moscow and Washington”.
“If you look at Pearson’s record on Israel, he didn’t care about what the indigenous population had to say in 1947,” Engler says. “He cared about what Washington had to say or what London had to say, what Moscow had to say, and maybe a little bit about what the Jewish Zionist lobby in this country had to say.”
He notes that Pierre Elliott Trudeau adopted more progressive policies in the Middle East than those of his predecessors, but Engler attributes this to Trudeau’s wish to advance the business interests of Canadian corporations. The same motivation, he says, explains Trudeau’s reluctance to criticize apartheid and the Indonesian government’s repression in East Timor.
Engler’s book focuses some attention on Canada’s cooperation with the Mossad, Israel’s spy service, as well as on how Canadian registered charities generate money to finance Jewish settlements in territory seized by Israel. He dismisses media reports that the Harper government’s strong support for Israel is rooted in a desire to attract Jewish votes, noting that there aren’t enough Canadian Jews—whether wholeheartedly pro-Israel or not—to make a significant difference in federal elections. Instead, he links Canada’s steadfast support for Israel to its desire to help prop up the American empire, which benefits enormously from having a strong ally in the Middle East.
Engler knows that including the word apartheid in the title of his new book will reduce the amount of attention it receives in the mainstream media. He also claims that some Canadian politicians, including Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler, want any comparison of Israeli policy to apartheid to be labelled as hate speech.
“In a statement bordering on Holocaust denial, Kenney said ”˜the new anti-Semitism’ is ”˜even more dangerous than the old European anti-Semitism’, ” Engler writes in his book. “In a similar vein, Harper compared opposition parties’ mild criticism of Israel to Hitlerism.”
Engler says his next book is tentatively titled Canadian Aid, NGOs, and Imperialism. He’s also planning a book called Pearson: Peacekeeper or War Criminal?, followed by another examining Canada’s role in perpetuating poverty in Africa. He claims Pearson and Trudeau convinced the public they were benevolent actors on the world stage, when the facts suggest otherwise. “There are so few people in Canada coming at this from a critical angle,” he says, “including much of the self-described progressive-left world.” -
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.