Foreign policy tends to get short shrift at key moments — like during election campaigns — in spite of having a profound effect on us in ways we are not even aware. I looked forward to this book by Montreal writer and political activist Yves Engler, who has earned a reputation as an intrepid researcher. The Ugly Canadian could not have come at a better time. Stephen Harper must be taken to task for tarnishing Canada’s international reputation.
Engler succeeds in marshalling a massive body of facts in specific policy areas, beginning with Harper’s radical anti-environmentalism and his acceptance of abuses by Canadian mining companies abroad. He continues with the PM’s malevolent opposition to the Arab spring, his unwavering obedience to some of the most reactionary figures ever to grace the Israeli political stage, and his undermining of Canada’s respected diplomatic tradition in favour of building a strong military.
Engler casts his net wide and comes up with some gems, including a quote from then-International Development Minister Bev Oda. In addressing a group of mining executives, Oda stated, “The mining industry is a huge contributor to a nation’s wealth and is one of the main building blocks of civilization.” There was also this pearl of wisdom from Conservative Senator Pamela Wallin: “We have also built some 44 schools where nearly eight million young Afghans are finally able to learn the basics.” If this were true, what would it say about the average class size?
In this book, however, one of several Engler has written on Canadian foreign policy, the author offers little in the way of original reporting, in spite of an impressive amount of information taken from a wide variety of sources. The result, therefore, fails to equal the sum of its parts.
For instance, many readers may have forgotten Canada’s once respected position in the world and the leading role (though Engler may disagree) the country once played in international affairs in the half-century preceding Harper’s election as Prime Minister in 2006. Canada’s presence in international affairs began with Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. In 1957, Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize for building what would become the United Nations peacekeeping forces. It marked the beginning of a creative period in Canadian foreign policy, which continued through to the Mulroney years, with a solid Anti-Apartheid push in the Commonwealth, and extended into the sleepwalking era of Chrétien, who nonetheless provided key backing for the International Criminal Court and a landmines treaty.
Not a word of this appears in The Ugly Canadian, leaving readers without a context to judge Harper’s systematic alienation of one group of countries after another, culminating with Canada’s pathetic failure to win a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2010. In previous years, Canada would have been a shoo-in.
Some of Engler’s conclusions are accurate, while others are questionable, such as his smear of Daniel Bellemare, the Canadian Chief Prosecutor in a UN investigation into the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Bellemare had the courage to point a finger at Hezbollah, a powerful militia-cum-political party. Hezbollah has won admiration for standing up to Israeli’s bullying of Lebanon, but it is far from an innocent player. Engler also refers repeatedly to Haitian President Michel Martelly as a right-wing extremist. Yes, in his youth, Martelly had a brief association with the Duvalier regime, and true, he supported the 1991 coup against the democratically elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide, but there has been little in recent years to label him an extremist.
The Ugly Canadian, which lacks an index or notes on sources, at times uses quotes from interest groups and little-known publications that do little more than bolster the author’s position. Readers’ patience is further tried with a plodding, mechanical style of prose. Junior ministers, or ministers of state, are repeatedly misidentified as deputy ministers, a civil service rank. For instance, Harper’s ultra-partisan environment minister, Peter Kent, who earlier carried the title of Minister of State of Foreign Affairs (Americas), is labelled several times in the book as deputy foreign minister. The author ought surely to be aware of the distinction.
Despite these shortcomings, Engler’s book fills an important gap. Although someone else could have done a better job, Engler has nevertheless produced something tangible.
Eric Hamovitch is a Montreal writer and translator who can remember a time when Canadian foreign policy was less embarrassing.