Book Review – Imperialist Canada

Below is a book review I submitted to Canadian Mennonite.

Todd Gordon. (2010) Imperialist Canada. Arbeiter Ring Publishing.

Todd Gordon’s Imperialist Canada is perhaps not in the type of book typically reviewed in Canadian Mennonite.  It is not a piece of theology or a devotional work of spirituality; it is not written for or about the church; nowhere are Mennonites mentioned within its pages.  The content of this book, however, forms a clearly articulated account that I submit should be of great interest to Canadian Mennonites.  As the title implies this work is an attempt to demonstrate that Canada has and continues presently to operate under an imperialist logic and practice.  This portrayal of Canada is brought into direct contrast with popular caricatures of Canada as peacekeeping or a sort of benign moral compass for our southern neighbours at best or their obedient lackeys at worst.  Gordon argues that these caricatures exist simply because the global presence of the United States quantitatively overshadows the role of Canada not because Canada functions under any qualitatively different structure.  In this way Canada is now framed as a sort of junior (though maturing) player in global imperialism.  So what does it mean for Canada to be an imperialist nation and why is it important that we as Canadian Mennonites pay attention?

While the era of direct colonial control over nations by Europeans is (largely) over Gordon argues that the logic of imperialism that fueled colonialism remains intact.  Citing David McNally imperialism is described as “a system of global inequalities and domination – embodied in regimes of property, military powers and global institutions – through which wealth is drained from the labour and resources of people in the Global South to the systematic advantage of capital in the North” (26).  It is important to note that imperialism is here framed predominantly as an economic issue and more specifically a capitalist issue.  A significant contribution to this book is not only with regards to Canadian imperialism but to the growing sentiment that the logic of capitalism is reaching or has surpassed its carrying capacity (it is straining under the weight of its own growth).  This comes from the central (and profoundly simple) insight that “just like the other major capitalist powers, Canadian capital is driven by a logic of expansion” (10).  The phrase ‘economic growth’ is so deeply embedded in our cultural lexicon that we don’t often stop to think about the implications of our growth or why there is a need for growth.  For economically stable westerners economic growth means the material accumulation of things like funds, property and products.  How can such accumulation be made possible?  Gordon asserts that it is made possible by an imperialistic logic of expansion which will create advantages for the wealthy at the cost of the poor.  Gordon goes on to spend the bulk of his book demonstrating how Canada is directly and often independently involved in these sorts of practices.

Gordon follows Canada’s imperialist logic down several pathways.  Beginning at home Gordon looks at the clearest historical trajectory which is Canada’s relationship to First Nations people.  While these practices are given increasing (not to say sufficient) attention in the Mennonite church I will shift to the later chapters.  From domestic relations to First Nations people the book shifts to Canada’s global vision and outlines the implications and effects of the global liberalization of southern economies (often referred to as neo-liberalism).  The claim of neo-liberalism is that if smaller more impoverished economies can come on board as international trading ‘partners’ they can stand a better chance at improving their domestic quality of life.  Whatever the intention of these shifts in global economics the reality according to Gordon is that more affluent nations have been able to open up formerly isolated or marginalized nations where they are able to profit from extracting natural resources or exploiting cheap labour.  Here Gordon cites the expansion of Canadian based mining companies in places like South America or Canadian clothing manufacturers in Haiti.  And in contrast to public claims by neo-liberal advocates Gordon cites studies that shows poverty growing fastest in countries that have opened themselves up extensively to wealthy trading partners.  Proceeding chapters continue to outline how these imperial economic practices inevitably bring ecological instability, social unrest and military enforcement.  Particularly unnerving is the account of Canada’s role in overturning the democratically elected president Jean-Bertand Aristide in Haiti in 2004.

Gordon covers a vast and complex array of issues related to Canada’s domestic and foreign practices.  Many of the claims are of course contested by other groups and individuals.  One reviewer criticized Gordon for not being more balanced in acknowledging that many practices in the globalized economy can improve the quality of living in particular locations.  In some ways this criticism can be likened to those who cite the positive experiences of some First Nations individuals who attended residential schools.  It is important to give voice to people’s experience and part of the human spirit is its ability to exist and even flourish in a variety of circumstances.  These stories however cannot detract from those wishing to take a step back and examine the functioning of larger social structures or policies and their effects on people’s lives.  In this matter Gordon is clear in his claims.  Contemporary capitalism as it is expressed in Canada remains an imperialist and colonial project.  As such it is inherently and explicitly violent and needs to be rejected.  This is claim that the Mennonite church, as a peace church, must at very least understand and then to wrestle with how we can respond.  A peace theology with any integrity or hope of relevance must continue to understand and explore the economic structures that now weigh so heavily on so many.  Imperialist Canada offers itself as an important dialogue partner in that process.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review – Imperialist Canada

  1. The book was written with a very clear agenda which I am sure will put some off. I am also still trying to learn how to write a good short review. So while I do think some acknowledgement of the complexities of some aspects of his claims would have been helpful I also did not want to distract from the clarity and force of his overall claim and hopefully help people to see why it would be important to read such a work (even if they did not always agree).

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    1. I am intrigued by the book if only because it seems like it presents a challenge to our smug, at times self-righteous understanding of ourselves as un-Americans, er.. Canadians. We are not as different (or righteous/noble/peaceful) as we like to think.

      I find short reviews difficult, too… I invariably try to say too much. I think you’ve done exactly what you set out to do here—helpfully and compellingly present a “dialogue partner” to consider as we form/maintain/challenge our identities as followers of Jesus, Mennonites, and Canadians.

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