Yves Engler and Canadian empire
Check him out on Monday
by: ed kapp – arts and culture writer
As a part of Yves Engler’s cross-country tour to promote and discuss his newest book, Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation, the Vancouver-born author and activist is set to speak at the University of Regina on Monday. Before his appearance — slated for 3:30 pm in Classroom Building room 312 — the 36 year-old spoke from Montreal about his newest work.
Is travelling for speaking engagements part of your career that you really enjoy?
I don’t enjoy the overnight bus from Regina to Winnipeg (laughs) – that’s not what I look forward to the most. But I certainly enjoy getting out and sharing the research that I do… I’m the kind of person who’s happy to spend large amounts of time reading obscure sources. But the reality is that’s not how most people hear about political ideas. It’s more likely through coming to a talk, or even maybe seeing a Facebook post with a few hundred words about the book. That has a political value. Hopefully, a couple thousand people either hear the talk or read the book, and hopefully tens of thousands of people see a Facebook post or listen to a bit of an interview or read an article. It’s all a part of the process of getting the information out there.
Why haven’t people been educated effectively on Canadian foreign policy with respect to Africa, in your opinion?
There’s a multiple-century-long history of this idea of ‘Dark Africa’ and [that it’s a] ‘crazy land,’ and all this kind of stuff. This has been used to do everything from justify enslavement to justify the colonial conquering process, and that’s made everything very obscure for people. That could make people intimidated or scared to look into it. I think that’s one big-picture element. The other element is the dominant media doesn’t do a very good job of explaining how Canadian corporations and policies contribute to different injustices. If there’s no real political reason to pay attention – if it doesn’t seem like we’re a part of what’s going on – then people think, “Why bother paying attention to something we seemingly have so little control over?” If you look at the history more seriously, or if you go beyond the superficial layer, often you find that we have more influence, and sometimes we’re directly contributing to different injustices and conflicts. And then, I think, people are more likely to pay attention to something they think they can have some influence over.
What was the inspiration behind this project?
It’s my sixth book on Canadian foreign policy, and it’s been a part of my process of being personally surprised and troubled at what Canada was doing in overthrowing Haiti’s elected government in 2004. That’s where I sort of came to consciousness about Canadian foreign policy, and I was very troubled about what had happened. After co-authoring a short little book about that situation, I basically said, “Well, if Canada has done this in Haiti, I wonder what else has gone on elsewhere.” I had the same kind of ideas that are widely held about benevolent Canadian foreign policy, peacekeeping, all that kind of stuff. And the Haiti example was a shock to the system, if you like, on that front. So I went to look at other places and historical questions, which led to The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, which led to a book about Canadian and Israel, and it was a whole process of looking at Canadian foreign policy and becoming knowledgeable on the subject and being angry, quite frankly, about the lies and distortion of what we’re told about what Canada does around the world.
In 2015, is there any reason to be optimistic about Canadian foreign policy as it pertains to Africa?
In 1960, Canadian troops were a part of a UN mission in the Congo right after independence that helped undermine Patrice Lumumba, who was the independence leader. Canadian military men in the Congo helped Joseph Mobutu’s forces capture Lumumba, and he was assassinated not that long after. According to a book by Kevin Spooner, a prof at University of Waterloo on Canadian foreign policy in Africa, the internal files suggest, out of the top ten concerns of Canadian decision-makers at the time during this UN mission in the Congo, which dealt a terrible blow to the Congolese… public opinion didn’t even make the list. They were concerned about allies, they were concerned about Belgium, they were concerned about certain dynamics on the ground in Congo. But what the Canadian public had to say about the matter wasn’t even a part of the equation. That speaks to how much foreign policy is not democratic. It’s not being debated and, for the most part, there aren’t differing perspectives put forward – basically the population is excluded from the decision-making. That’s still the case today, but over the past half-century there has been a breaking down of the racism that allowed politicians to pursue some of the most egregious policies. There has been a growth of internationalism. Canadians are a little bit more historically knowledgeable and a little bit more concerned and interested in African politics. There have been a series of social movements against Canadian complicity… More recently there have been diaspora communities that have challenged Canada’s support for US invasion of Somalia in 2006, and there have been diaspora communities that have opposed Canada’s complicity in Rwanda. Canadian foreign policy in Africa is still very much on the margins of the political discussion. But less so than it was fifty years ago. We’re not in a good position right now, but it has improved, there are some signs of having greater consciousness. The flipside of that is Stephen Harper represents a regression — a step in the direction of ‘let’s just help our Canadian mining companies; we don’t care about the impact of climate disturbances on Africans.’ It’s coming from both ends. There are some signs of improvements and the current government clearly represents a step in the wrong direction. There are some reasons to be hopeful, but there are certainly lots of reasons to be angry.