Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Challenging the Empire on our Own Turf

(This article was originally written in 2003)

Many who fought against Brian Mulroney’s free trade initiative in the 1980s believed that the deal with Washington would vastly diminish Canada’s ability to make its own economic policies and would lead to the Americanization of Canada, socially and culturally. While their forecast about economic policy making was bang on, their prediction about the rapid social and cultural Americanization of Canada was spectacularly wrong. The cultural and social division between Canada and its superpower neighbour is wider than at any time in the decades since the Second World War.

While the United States aligns itself with the most retrograde of states on the issues of capital punishment, gun control, and arms control, Canada has consolidated its positions in opposition to executions, the uncontrolled spread of firearms and the deployment of land mines. While Americans wander in the desert of private health care systems that leave millions with inadequate care, Canadians have shown that even health care cutbacks by right wing governments cannot drive them from their conviction that a public health care system is best. While most Americans (with honourable exceptions) have followed their jingoistic president down the road to the new imperialism, Canadians fought and won their battle to stay out of the Iraq War. While a reactionary, patriarchal administration in Washington assaults the rights of women and gays, Canadians are winning the battle for reproductive rights and for same sex marriage. While American jails are overcrowded with people jailed for drug possession, Canada is moving to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. While the American trade union movement is weak and full of those who collaborate with capital, the Canadian trade union movement has kept up its numbers and has clung to its progressive ground.

This is no time to contemplate abandoning the struggle for a sovereign Canada, a country now flowering with humane impulses that are dramatically absent in the America of George W. Bush and John Ashcroft. While the gains of Canadians I have listed are real enough, they are also fragile and subject to reversal, as anyone who has observed the first weeks of the Martin government will recognize. A great struggle has taken shape in this country and the left will be measured by whether it enters the struggle or stands to one side. The struggle is for the survival of the country. At stake is whether Canadians will create a more vital democracy as they fight to govern themselves or whether they will end up in fractured sub nations living on the northern edge of manifest destiny.

Taking the initiative are the ideological voices of the multinationals and their Canadian capitalist allies who are resolved to drain Canadian nationhood of its meaning. The same forces that brought us free trade in the1980s have set out to finish the job. The C.D. Howe and Fraser Institutes, the Canadian Alliance, and much of the federal Liberal Party, including large portions of Paul Martin’s cortex, are determined to make a Grand Bargain to achieve Deep Integration with the United States. The Deep Integrationists want to convert the free trade area into a customs union. They want a single North American currency----let’s call it the U.S. dollar. To gain unfettered access to the American market for Canadian exports, they would redefine Canadian resources, including water, as continental resources, making them ripe for the plucking by U.S. multinationals. To get inside Fortress America, they would abandon Canada’s right to its own immigration and refugee policies and they would sign on to George W. Bush’s missile defence and his future wars.

Over the past decade, the focus of the left in Canada has been on matters local and global, while there has been little focus on questions national. Over the next decade, this must change. It will be the national struggles that will be decisive. Lose on this front and it will not much matter how well this or that committee or NGO fares at a conference in some far away place. Our battle is right here.

Among the nations of the advanced world, Canada’s situation is unique. Canadian capitalists, large and small, have gone over almost completely to the Deep Integration agenda. That leaves wage and salary earners, the vast majority of Canadians, as the bulwark on which Canadian nationhood rests. The consequence of this is that the battle for Canadian sovereignty, for Canadian democracy, is of necessity a social battle as well. It necessarily takes on the character of a struggle to advance the interests of wage and salary earners. Whether a country whose capitalists have opted for national self immolation can survive is something we will discover in the years to come. No one has traveled this terrain before. In this period of open history in Canada, the possible outcomes vary tremendously. We need to take as our starting point the plain fact that

Canadians are in no mood to abandon their nation.

Those on the left who begin from the premise that Canada is finished and that we are now involved in a continental struggle for social justice will end up as exotic allies of the powerful forces in the Canadian business community who are plotting the nation’s demise. Those who are enamoured of the idea of forging ties for a common struggle with progressive Americans, need to consider the reality that for the most part imperialism puts Americans and Canadians on opposite sides of the fence. Most Americans, it is a plain fact, identify with the American imperial project. That does not mean that the political struggle in the U.S. is hopeless, but it is very different. Why the mass of the people who live in great imperial nations take sides with the empire and not with the struggles to resist it is a complex question that is beyond the scope of this short article. What is clear though is that the majority of Americans embrace the unilateralism and the militarism that are the hallmarks of their country’s role in the world. They are full of the idea that theirs is the greatest country on earth, the world’s natural leader. Even many American progressives suffer from their own variation of this delusion.

In their attitude to the American Empire, Canadians are much closer to Europeans and Latin Americans than they are to Americans. We should march to the beat of our own drummer on this side of the border. The drummer on the other side, even the progressive drummer, is playing a different tune and it is one that is not much use to us.

Empires since the dawn of history, and this is no less true of the American Empire today, are affairs of blood first, last and always. They are about conquest and domination and the use of force to extinguish the rights of others. Canadians were the first people in the world to come up against an expansionist America, the first to resist it. This is not the time to close the page on this chapter in our history.

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