'What Is Canada For?'—An Interview With Michael Byers

Am Johal, Vancouver, Canada, November 28, 2007

Intent for a Nation: What Is Canada For? By Michael Byers. 248 pp. Douglas & McIntyre Ltd. $32.95.

Michael Byers recently released Intent for a Nation: What Is Canada For? He recently spoke with journalist Am Johal from Vancouver.

Johal: I just read your book over the weekend. How did you come up with the idea to write a contemporary response to George Grant's iconic Lament for a Nation?

Byers: The motivation was intensely personal. Like many Canadians, I had internalized George Grant's message: Canada as an independent country had ceased to exist.

Grant based that conclusion on what he called "continental capitalism," the increased integration of the Canadian economy into the U.S. economy, and "global modernism," the overwhelming cultural hegemony of things like Hollywood and Motown. For people of my generation, that thesis and explanation seemed pretty compelling. When I left Canada in 1992, there was no reason to think Grant was wrong. We did a couple of significantly independent things—for instance, we stayed out of the Vietnam War—but the fear of being subsumed by the American project was always prevalent and widely accepted, and certainly felt in the 1988 Free Trade debate.

In your book, you said that you voted for Brian Mulroney in 1984. But you were disenchanted with Canada by 1988 and, certainly, by the time you left the country in 1992. Was it Prime Minister Mulroney's "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" song-and-dance routine with Ronald Reagan, or what was it?

It wasn't just that. It was the end of the Cold War, the seeming triumph of the American model, American economic hegemony. The sense that the future was very much centered around the U.S. People of my generation were looking to the U.S. When I finished law school at McGill, the best students were destined for New York and Washington.

But then, something happened that made me rethink my assumptions. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's decision to stay out of the Iraq War was a direct contradiction of Grant's thesis. At that time, in 2003, George W. Bush was a remarkably popular and powerful president. It seemed inconceivable that Canada could have said no to the U.S. But we did.

There was also the realization that I wanted my kids to grow up somewhere other than Durham, North Carolina, USA.

Trudeau was more independent and Mulroney moved closer to the U.S. In terms of how Canada has engaged as a player in the international system, what do you see as the broad trend which reflects how Canada has misdirected its foreign policy?

Let's look at climate change, the number one challenge facing humanity today. Brian Mulroney did very little, though he recognized it as an issue. Chrétien used Kyoto to burnish his image, but, in fact, did very little. Now Stephen Harper is doing very little and engaging in smoke-and-mirrors with his emissions intensity policy.

With climate change, Canada has consistently refused to lead. We are just coasting along in the slipstream of the United States and the Bush administration. This issue, that lends itself to Canada's multilateral and compassionate place in the world, this opportunity to be a leader, is being lost.

We have been flaunting our legal obligations under the Kyoto Protocol and done very little to develop policies that differ from those of the United States.

Could you speak about Paul Martin's tenure as prime minister and Canada's shift in foreign policy during his tenure, especially related to the Middle East?

Paul Martin was prime minister very briefly and hardly the most decisive of leaders. He continued Canada's foot-dragging on climate change. His tenure also saw a badly thought-through decision to volunteer for the most dangerous mission in Afghanistan, in Kandahar.

The shift from Canada's traditionally neutral position regarding Israel and its neighbors was altered under Martin's watch.

Overall, there was a lack of independent analysis, though there was a pretty concerted effort to dress it all up as distinctly Canadian and progressive.

The best example of this concerns the celebration of Canada's success in getting the concept of a "Responsibility to Protect" into the 2005 U.N. World Summit Declaration. The only reason we got it there is because we caved: we took the substance out of the concept and agreed that it would act merely as a guideline for U.N. Security Council action. That's not leadership; it was a move designed to impress domestic audiences and nothing else.

The Rwandan mission in the nineties and other peacekeeping missions have had challenges for Canada. Has Canada rethought their role and lessened their international contributions due to the controversy of some of these missions in the nineties? How would you explain other areas of activity related to Canadian foreign policy including actively attempting to sabotage the Universal Declaration on Indigenous Peoples?

I actually did some work on the draft declaration on Indigenous peoples in 1991 as a summer student in the Department of Justice. I sat in on meetings of a working group with government bureaucrats. The work we were doing was essentially to steer the document so it did not cause serious problems for the Canadian government. Canada was remarkably effective at driving that agenda—the end result was that, although the Canadian government did not achieve a 100 percent victory, the final document was significantly altered as a result of a decade and a half of active Canadian diplomacy.

At the end of the day, I don't see anything objectionable in the document. It also has no legally binding force. Canada should have supported the declaration because the vast majority of countries were comfortable ratifying it and did not view it as a threat. In the end, it is an aspirational document which sets out general principles. The countries that have voted for it are doing something important—in that they are acknowledging that they are conscious of the predicament of aboriginal peoples.

Canada's current stance is a slap in the face for indigenous people in Canada. The government is doing a number of things which are seriously contrary to the interests of indigenous peoples in this country. The most striking is the refusal of the Harper government to even meet with Tom Berger regarding his conciliator's agreement concerning the implementation of the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. And the Inuit are now suing the government over that.

The government is basically saying that they don't really give a damn. One sees that in the international policy just as one sees it at home.

Our role in the international system is always fraught with challenges and controversy. How has Rwanda and other missions affected our Canadian sensibility to play an active role abroad?

First of all, it should be noted that Rwanda was not a failure of peacekeeping—it was a failure of political will. Gen. Romeo Dallaire's options were diminished due to the politics of international decision-making. It was a moral failure on the part of the leaders of nation-states, including Canada. I don't see how anyone could use the Rwandan experience to criticize peacekeeping. If anything, it shows that the framework of U.N. peacekeeping is sound and that the problems—when they exist—usually concern a lack of political and moral will on the part of the leaders of nation-states.

I interviewed Stephen Lewis recently, Canada's former ambassador to the U.N., and he mentioned that peace and security, which he viewed as very important, was getting too much attention under the international system – in other words, that other U.N. areas such as human rights and development were underdeveloped financially and organizationally. What do you think about that?

He's absolutely right. It is one of the scandals of Canadian foreign policy. We are not even half way toward the goal that Lester Pearson set of directing 0.7 percent of G.D.P. to overseas development assistance. Our economy has grown enormously since the 1970's. We certainly have the capacity—we have the eighth largest economy in the world, with a population of only 32 million people.

Anyone who studies these issues knows that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Putting money into overseas development assistance is an important responsibility for a country like Canada. And not doing so constitutes a moral failure on the part of successive Canadian governments.

It's even happening with regard to Afghanistan. Afghanistan is the largest beneficiary of Canadian aid. But we are spending much, much more on the Kandahar counter-insurgency mission. Though we claim to be stepping up to the plate, the investment in overseas development assistance is relatively minor compared to the cost of the counter-insurgency.

After the events of 2001, American commentators have talked about Canada underinvesting in its own military and relying on the U.S. to subsidize its security and protection. What would you say to this argument?

In the area of defense procurement, I'm not unhappy with some of the purchases that have been made. It's not necessarily a question of equipment—the more important question is the choice of mission. Our new strategic lift airplanes are superb equipment for peacekeeping and humanitarian aid missions.

The same thing is true of the new Chinook helicopters. They have the potential to be wonderful peacekeeping and humanitarian machines. This is not the case of our new tanks. It is very difficult to win the hearts and minds of people looking down the barrel of a tank. And the new ice-strengthened patrol vessels, although ostensibly intended for Arctic sovereignty purposes, simply take much needed money away from the experts in Arctic sailing: the Canadian Coast Guard.

We are also using untendered contracts to purchase equipment, and this significantly inflates the costs. These extra, unnecessary costs constitute money that isn't then available for other purposes—such as development internationally, and schools and health care here domestically.

The government is in a rush to seize the political opportunity to spend money on equipment for Canadian forces. And the biggest problem is the haste with which it's being done.

Rick Hiller been very vocal as the leader of the Canadian military. We haven't had a military figure enter in to the Canadian public sphere as much as he has done in a generation, and he has certainly made comments which have entered in to the political arena. What are your views of the tenure of Rick Hillier, the chief of defense staff for the Canadian military?

Earlier this year, I wrote an op-ed in Toronto Star calling on Hillier to resign. My view is that he's overstepped his role, and has—since his public spat with Liberal Defense critic Denis Coderre—become unacceptably politicized. Hillier has taken on a Douglas MacArthur-like persona.

To be fair, Hillier has also been dealing with extraordinarily weak politicians. He's had open running on where he thinks the Canadian military should go. He has found the opportunity to take on this very public role. But regardless of the issue of fault, he is now in an untenable position, and must step down.

Since we may be heading in to federal election season, what are your critiques of the foreign policies of each of the major federal political parties?

With the Conservatives, the big criticism I have is the marked unwillingness to conduct independent analysis and even consider policies that differ from the Bush administration. On the matter of Arctic sovereignty, Harper has used the issue as an opportunity to pretend to differ, when in reality we are working quite closely with the U.S. in the North.

The climate change policy of the Conservative government has been an abominable failure.

The commitment to persevering with the counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan has clearly failed. I would fault the policies of this government as a major contributing factor in that debacle.

The Harper government has made no attempt at objectivity related to Middle East policy. We cannot play a mediating role in the foreseeable future in the region as a result.

With the Liberals, there was a decade of missed opportunity on climate change, which included Stephane Dion as a culpable actor. Their inaction on climate change was inexcusable: given the scale of the crisis, what they knew, and the huge budget surpluses they had.

Choosing the counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan was a major misstep in foreign policy. Though I am not a fan of Jean Chrétien, he made the right decision in not taking us to Iraq. And our two years of peacekeeping in Kabul were a good thing, in my view. As for the 2005 deployment of Canadian troops to Kandahar, I now believe that Mr. Martin was misled. If he had been prime minister for one more term, we might have been rotating out of there right now.

With the N.D.P. [New Democratic Party], I have fewer problems with their foreign policy. To some degree, the N.D.P. needs to work harder to have a balanced position regarding the Middle East. They err on the opposite side of the Conservatives on this matter. It is perfectly fine to be critical of the Israeli government when it does something wrong, but they should also criticize other actors in the Middle East when they do wrong. If I could rewrite N.D.P. foreign policy, it would not be to write in a pro-Israel policy, but to more clearly stake out the middle ground regarding these complicated and often emotional issues.

The Bloc Quebecois' main problem is that they want to break up the country—and obviously, there are major foreign policy implications inherent in such a move. It would be disastrous for Canada on an international basis, limiting our capacity to exercise influence in all sorts of ways.

In terms of climate change, how will issues of Northern sovereignty affect Canadian international relations, in terms of other countries who are putting in claims with international bodies due to real possibility of resource extraction becoming distinctly possible?

We're seeing the collapse of the Arctic sea ice. This year alone, Planet Earth lost an area of Arctic sea ice twice the size of British Columbia. The impact on the entire global climate system will be enormous—the Arctic sea ice is the canary in the coal mine, and the canary is almost dead.

The other, distinctly Canadian thing is that the Northwest Passage is open. We had 11 ship transits in 2006. And more shipping is coming: before long, we are going to have an international shipping route through the Canadian archipelago. We need to be grappling with that in a very urgent way, including with pro-active diplomacy—and that includes diplomacy in Washington.

There is immense power and strategic advantage of being a middle power, while not having the same burden as a more powerful state. Could this mean the possibility of carving out a role in the international system that is rooted in international law and human rights—could we then, perhaps, have the space to take moral leadership in the international context? Why is it that Canada is not taking a leadership role today?

Well, we've stopped believing in ourselves—because we're in the shadow of the most powerful country in the world. Canada is one of the 10 most influential countries in the world, if you look at all the indices of power: the size of the economy, our immense natural resources, the fact that we've no sworn enemies, our incredibly large immigrant population living in remarkable harmony.

We have an impressive country, but don't seem to realize that ourselves. It is the great limiting factor. If you don't believe in yourself, you have no reason to try as a nation, especially when it comes to foreign affairs.

Quasi-international bodies such as the International Narcotics Control Board, which are driven by U.S. policy, openly come to Canada and speak against innovative public policies such as the supervised injection site in Vancouver. Clearly, in the development of the international system, there are probably many other examples where institutions don't seem to fit the times. Some suffer from institutional malaise while others lack leadership due to the cumbersome processes of international decision-making. Stephen Lewis is very much in favor of the creation of an international women's agency at the U.N. Others, like the Slovenian academic Slavoj Zizek, argue that the development of human rights within the international system, in reality, is a blunt, biased, and politicized instrument of Western hegemony superimposed upon the international system.

Can you talk about some of the deficiencies in the contemporary international system?

One should never assume that international institutions are divorced from politics. There are different groups seeking to promote their own interests as they see them. As there are opportunities to shape institutions and their agendas, any country will seek to do that. It is important to understand that international politics involves, among other things, the deliberate effort to shape institutions.

It is a contested field. International institutions are no different than domestic institutions—some you might regard as negative, some as positive. The point is, this is one of the reasons that we need an engaged and progressive Canada on the world stage: so that we can compete over the future role and shape of these international institutions. The problem right now is that we are not using our stature and role to lead as we could.

In Canada, multiculturalism as a state policy has been immensely successful in accommodating the realities of immigration, where Canada has one of the largest intakes in the world. It is also a cyclical debate in Canada that emerges with cultural flashpoints. During the Quebec provincial election some issues came up where even a relatively moderate leader like Charest brought over a European debate to Canada by talking about the need for immigrants to fit in to the dominant culture. Do you view this debate as emergent in Canada? Since the vast majority of immigrants come in to cities such as Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, there seem to be some legitimate issues of social cohesion. What do you view as some of the public policy challenges for Canada regarding this matter?

We are incredibly accepting of differences in Canada, and certainly, no society is frozen in time. On a trip to Winnipeg recently, I was reminded that there was a period not so long ago when entire neighborhoods in that city were Ukrainian speaking. And there was anxiety among the established communities about those who were from elsewhere. Yet today, most Canadians don't view Ukrainians as an alien group.

Immigration has been remarkably effective as a state policy. It will allow us to escape the box that countries like Japan find themselves in with aging populations. Many countries in Europe also have demographic issues. And immigration brings international perspectives and experiences to Canada. Sure, there's also a difference between the urban centers and rural areas related to the immigration patterns, but Canada is strong enough in its identity to overcome any challenges which might arise—largely related to the progressive evolution of what it means to be Canadian.

Among my undergraduate students at U.B.C. [University of British Columbia], 60 percent are foreign born. They are effectively color-blind, with many intercultural social and personal relationships. There is a very vigorous and strong foundation for the future of a resilient multicultural state in Canada.

This is my question I have to ask you to appease the decentralizers that exist in our current federation. The European Union was a construction of a federalist system consisting of existing nation-states. Some have argued that the future of Canada by the end of the 21st century would be as a federation of nation-states—a kind of protracted devolution of the current federation that would still keep a modified federalist system intact, similar to the EU.

Would this somehow be advantageous or hurtful to Canada in your view—Ottawa would still be the capital, after all?

From a foreign policy perspective, it would be a terrible thing. It would take a top 10 country and, through devolution, strip out the ability to allow the federal government to act boldly on the international stage.

I was thinking you were going to ask me about deep integration with the U.S.—the big problem here being that, unlike the European Union which has many strong partners, NAFTA has one disproportionately powerful partner. The distortion of the power dynamic is quite profound. Anyone who thinks the U.S. will modify their constitution to allow Canadians to vote as part of continental integration is dreaming in Technicolor.

You have lived in England and the U.S., which are very different than Canada in terms of their public sphere. Now at U.B.C., as a Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law, you are surrounded by water on three sides and by reality on the other out there in the rarified air of the Point Grey campus. U.B.C. is also known as an extremely conservative institution. Has your entry to the public sphere and role as a public intellectual in the national debate related to Canada's role in the world been challenging? In other words, has there been criticism and blowback as an academic with stature and political space to talk about fairly controversial issues in a middling place like Canada in the last three years? What have been the challenges related to coming back here?

I came to Canada willingly, rather than being pushed out of the U.S. I remain a great fan of many things American—including the vast majority of the American people. But I am a Canadian, this is my home, and I think Vancouver is a wonderful place. I am keen to contribute to Canada and help make it better.

In terms of "blowback," I developed a very thick skin in the United States. Five years in the United States toughened me up, including at the hands of right-wingers like Bill O'Reilly. Conservative pundits and hosts are often highly intelligent people, and I respect my opponents in the course of public debate. I haven't encountered any problems here.

Also, it's famously said that if you don't have critics, you're not having an impact.

I treat criticism from certain quarters as a measure of success. I would be worried if people like Paul Wells of Maclean's Magazine liked my book; as it is, the fact that he tried to tear it apart means that he's taking the challenge seriously.

You would make a great contribution to Canadian politics. Have you thought about running in the future or playing a role in the diplomatic or political arena?

Not in the near future. I have two young children, and I've seen what politics does to families.

I, of course, have to ask you the final question, which every journalist is compelled to ask in an interview: Anything else?

I wrote Intent for a Nation to shake people up. I was being intentionally, provocatively optimistic. I wanted to write a book that was kind of American in its approach, in that I wanted to present my country as a glass half full.

If we could shake up the old stereotypes of subservience, we could actually be a leader on the world stage. To some degree, we have different values from the United States, and we should start behaving in a manner that reflects those distinct values. And not just talking. For the truth is, we do much less than we claim.

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