Canada and the pirates of the Caribbean

Volume 51, Issue 2: Spring 2017

1830 watercolour from Barbados

Perhaps a new rule is in order: Everyone must take
a history lesson before seeking some fun in the sun.

Recently, NDP Member of Parliament Erin Weir asked if Canada should try to expand into the former
British slave colonies. “The slush we’re getting in
Regina is no fun. Right about now, a lot of people are
wondering — would Canadians benefit from a tropical territory?” Former NDP MP Max Saltzman proposed welcoming the Turks and Caicos Islands into
Confederation if its people make a democratic decision to join Canada. Former Conservative MP Peter
Goldring recently endorsed this proposal.

But, Canadian imperialism in the Caribbean is no
joke and should not be ignored or taken lightly by
left-wing leaders.

In fact, moves to extend Ottawa’s dominion over
the region date back to when the Canada First Movement sought “a closer political connection” with the
British West Indies in the 1870s. By the early 1900s,
Canadian policy supported annexing the British Empire’s Caribbean possessions (the various islands
as well as today’s Belize and Guyana). At the end of
World War I, Ottawa asked the Imperial War Cabinet
if it could take possession of the British West Indies
as compensation for Canada’s defence of the Empire.
London balked.

Canada’s sizable financial sector drove these efforts. With their presence in the region dating to the 1830s, Canadian banks were major players by the late 1800s. In Towers of Gold, Feet of Clay: The
Canadian Banks
, Walter Stewart notes: “The business was so profitable that in 1919 Canada seriously
considered taking the Commonwealth Caribbean off
mother England’s hands….”

Organized labour backed Canadian influence in the region. During British rule, the Trades and Labour
Congress’ (Canadian Labour Congress’ predecessor)
journal pushed for a publicly owned steamship service to increase “contact” with the West Indies.
A 1929 editorial in the Canadian Congress Journal
claimed, “there is every reason to believe that a considerable trade of benefit to both countries will be
developed.” In a story the previous year titled
“Development of Trade with the West Indies,” the
Journal depicted ties to the former slave plantation
colonies glowingly. Referring to the great wealth generated trading with the Caribbean slave colonies, the article noted, “for well over 100 years, Nova
Scotia and New Brunswick traders and sailors established contact with the islands, bringing Canadian
fish and produce in exchange for fruits, sugar
and other products.” Unwilling to devote valuable sugar planting space to food crops, Caribbean plantation owners bought high-
protein, salty Canadian cod to keep hundreds of thousands of “enslaved people working 16
hours a day.”

Other writers have pointed out the Left’s indifference to Canadian imperialism in the region.

In Canada: A New Tax Haven: How the Country that Shaped Caribbean Tax Havens is Becoming One
, Alain Deneault discusses the Left’s blindness
to Canadian power in the region. Deneault notes:

How is it that Canadian intellectuals with a back-
ground in political economy and the critical tradition
have not noticed the troubling nature of Canadian
influence in the Caribbean as exerted by MPs, banks, development agencies and experts of all shades and
stripes? Even when they have information that ought to lead them in this direction, Canada’s ‘critical’ intellectuals do not feel that this is their responsibility…
The problem is not that they are blind to the involvement of foreign states in Caribbean development;
rather, they suffer from a specific form of blindness
to Canada’s agency. Canada’s political culture is the
issue here, including, first and foremost, the political culture of its left-wing academics….

Deneault highlights prominent Left nationalist
Kari Polanyi Levitt, author of Silent Surrender: The
Multinational Corporation in Canada
. An economics
professor in Jamaica and Trinidad for many years,
Levitt ignores Canada’s pernicious role there. Deneault writes: “While it is impossible for her not
to see the domination of Canadian financial institutions such as Scotia Bank or the Royal Bank of Can-
ada in cities in which she spends time such as Kingston or Port of Spain, Levitt manages to make them
arbitrarily into symbols of Canadian commitment to
the development of the Caribbean! The same denial
comes into play when she looks at the role of Alcan
in Jamaica. Of course, nothing in the behaviour of
this multinational sets it apart from its American
counterparts, but Levitt in 2012 stubbornly persists
in viewing it as a company that, had it not been
bought by Rio Tinto, would have been in the vanguard of a possible Canadian response to American
domination in the countries of the South.”

Why are many on the Left unable to understand
that opposition to imperialism needs to include the version closest to home?

Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the
most important voices on the Canadian Left
today” (Briarpatch),
“in the mould of
I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of
that rare but growing
group of social critics
unafraid to confront
Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire).
He has
published nine books.