Canada a settler state helping pull imperial strings, not a colony

Colony or settler state?

Recently foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland dismissed concerns that Canada was seeking “regime change” in Venezuela by saying “Canada has never been an imperialist power. It’s even almost funny to say that phrase: we’ve been the colony.”

As I detailed in an initial response, Ottawa has passively or actively supported numerous U.S.-backed military coups against progressive elected governments. But, the conclusion to Freeland’s statement above is equally absurd, even if it is a common refrain among liberals and leftists.

Despite its popularity, the idea that Canada was or is a “colony” obscures Canada’s place near the top of a hierarchical world economy and polity. In probably its most famous iteration, prominent historian Harold Innis remarked that Canada had gone “from colony to nation to colony.”

Between 1867 and 1931, Canadian foreign policy was officially determined by London. But, describing this as a “colonial” relationship ignores the Canadian elite’s access to British capital, universities, armaments, etc., as well as Canada’s role in extending British power westward and, to a lesser extent, in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

While technically accurate, employing the term “colony” to describe both Canada and Kenya makes little sense. British, French and other settlers in Canada were not dispossessed of their land, but rather dispossessed First Nations. Additionally, they faced no repression comparable to that experienced by the Maasai or Kikuyu. Calling Canada a “colony” is akin to describing the European settlers in Kenya as “colonized”. While tensions existed between the whites in Kenya and the Colonial Office in London, the settlers also had privileged access to British arms, technology and capital.

At first, Canada was an arm of the British Empire, conquering the northern part of the Western hemisphere by dispossessing First Nations. After 1867, Ottawa regularly argued it “was looking after British imperial interests in North America and that the country’s material growth reinforced the British Empire,” writes Norman Penlington in Canada and Imperialism: 1896-1899. “The construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway was especially justified as a British military route to the East.”

A number of Canadian military institutions were established in large part to expand the British Empire’s military capacity. Opened in Kingston, Ontario, in 1876, the Royal Military College (RMC) was largely designed to train soldiers to fight on behalf of British colonialism. Usually trained at the RMC, Canadians helped conquer Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana. Four hundred Canadians traveled halfway across the world to beat back anti-colonial resistance in the Sudan in 1885 while a decade and a half later thousands more fought to advance British imperial interests in the southern part of the continent.

While Freeland wasn’t clear about whether she was referring to British or U.S. influence over Canada, the second part of the “colony to nation to colony” parable is also misleading. Has Canada been colonized by Washington in a similar way to Haiti? Among innumerable examples of its domination, on December 17, 1914, U.S. Marines marched to the country’s treasury and took the nation’s entire gold reserve — valued at U.S. $12 million — and between 1915 and 1934 Washington formally occupied Haiti (they retained control of the country’s finances until 1947.)

Facilitated by racial, linguistic and cultural affinity, Canada has long had privileged access to the U.S. business and political elite. Longtime speaker of the House of Representatives and Democratic Party nominee for President in 1912, Champ Clark, highlighted Canada’s prized place within U.S. ruling circles. “They are people of our blood,” Champ expounded. “They speak our language. Their institutions are much like ours. They are trained in the difficult art of self-government.”

During the 1898-1902 occupation of Cuba the Royal Bank was the preferred banker of U.S. officials. (National U.S. banks were forbidden from establishing foreign branches until 1914.) Canadian capitalists worked with their U.S. counterparts in Central America as well. In the early 1900s, Canadian Pacific Railway President Sir William Van Horne helped the Boston-based United Fruit Company, infamous for its later role in overthrowing elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz, build the railway required to export bananas from the country. In the political realm there were also extensive ties. For instance, Canada’s longest serving Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, worked for the Rockefeller family while the mother of long-time U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson was from a wealthy Canadian family.

Today, the ties are closer than ever. In a post U.S. election exposé titled “A look inside Palm Beach, where wealthy Canadians are one degree of separation from Donald Trump,” The Globe and Mail detailed a slew of prominent Canadians (Brian Mulroney, Charles Bronfman, George Cohon, Gerry Schwartz and Heather Reisman, Paul Desmarais’s family, etc.) with winter homes near the U.S. president’s exclusive property. A number of these individuals, the Globe reported, could get “Trump’s ear” if he turned on Canada.

While there is a power imbalance between the two countries and differing interests at times, the Canadian elite sees the world and profits from it in a similar way to their U.S. counterparts.

Rather than looking at Canadian foreign policy through the lens of a “colony,” a more apt framework to understand this country’s place in the world is the Canadian elite has had a privileged position with the two great powers of the past two centuries. Or, Canada progressed from an appendage of the Imperial Centre to appendage of the Imperial Centre.

The term “settler state” is a better description than “colony” of what Canada was and is. It acknowledges the primary colonizer (us) and does not obscure the power relations in the imperial order — our ruling elite is closely tied into the world ruling elite.

Canada’s opposition to Venezuela’s elected government reflects this status.

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