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Review: Ottawa and Empire

Although I was given the opportunity to read an early draft of Tyler Shipley's Ottawa and Empire, that reading was overdetermined by my job as a "slash and burn" editor. That is, Shipley recruited me to help transform his doctoral dissertation into an accessible book since, due to his proximity to the project, he knew he lacked the objectivity to make hard decisions about what parts of the book to sacrifice. Since (as I have joked with him) the manuscript was not mine, and thus I felt no personal attachment to its contents, I spent many hours cutting out the necessary academic redundancies and pages upon pages of research that would cause the lay reader's eyes to glaze over. While I learned a lot about the book's subject matter in that reading (the 2009 coup in Honduras, Canada's complicity in this coup, and its historical context), my ability to fully process the manuscript's contents was partially compromised by my editorial duty.

Hence, it has been a pleasure to read the final project, especially now that nearly two years have passed since working on the edits, published by Between The Lines at the end of April. Well, pleasure is not the best word to describe my (re)reading experience: although Shipley's elegant prose and deft ability to wed history and political critique pulls the reader into the maelstrom of Honduran history and politics, much of what he depicts and analyzes––the triune rot of colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism––is woefully displeasurable.

Ottawa and Empire serves two purposes, both important. The first purpose is relayed in its subtitle, "Canada and the Military Coup in Honduras": to provide a thorough analysis (including the social-historical context) of the 2009 coup in Honduras and highlight Canada's role in the coup regime. The second purpose is contained in the main title: to use the Honduran coup as a particular example of Canadian imperialism in general, an event that reveals the meaning of Canadian foreign policy and thus forces us to declare that this foreign policy––in Honduras and around the world––demonstrates that Canada is an imperialist power in its own right.

I want to concentrate on the second purpose for a moment since it might seem unimportant for readers unfamiliar with debates amongst the Canadian left. To claim that Canada is "an imperialist power in its own right" actually remains controversial amongst broad swathes of Marxist political economists. Whether they deny Canada's imperialism due to dogmatic readings of Lenin or due to the fact that they aren't reading Lenin (both versions of denial exist, despite contradiction each other), for a long time the common sense consensus amongst leftwing political economists has been that Canada is not its own imperialist power. At best, this common consensus goes, Canada is a sub-imperialism that has been pulled into the great game by its neighbour to the south; at worst, Canada is partially a victim of US imperialism––several decades ago, when "Three Worlds Theory" was still popular in some sectors, it was common to refer to Canada as a Second World polity with imperialist ambitions. This analysis is still hegemonic amongst an entire generation of leftwing Canadian political economists. Outside of academia the old Canadian Marxist organizations––the Communist Party of Canada, the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist)––also retain this tired understanding of Canada's relation to imperialism.

The academic work of both Jerome Klassen and Paul Kellogg attacked this edifice of Canadian left nationalism, providing the first steps of an analysis of Canadian empire. (To a lesser extent Todd Gordon's Imperialist Canada was also important, but it borrowed much of its framework from Klassen's early research without providing a thorough political economy of imperialism.) And organizationally, the first Canadian Marxist project to declare Canada imperialist was the PCR-RCP which, combined with its analysis of Canadian settler-colonialism, drew me to its organizational milieu. After all, every Canadian activist who cared about anti-imperialism knew that this country was an imperialist shit show; it was quite strange for those of us actively pursuing internationalism to discover that the official left academics and organizations presumed otherwise.

Shipley's Ottawa and Empire is thus a contribution to the thesis of autonomous Canadian imperialism and follows the analyses of Klassen and Kellogg in this regard. It is another assault on the edifice of Canadian left nationalism, a rejection of the lie that Canada is not properly imperialist, and it justifies this rejection with the case study of the Honduran coup. Indeed, Shipley introduces his book by attacking the myth of the kind and caring multicultural Canada. Whereas there is an old Canadian ideology that treats itself as a nation of peace-keepers, Shipley argues that Canada's involvement in the Honduran coup follows an intentional rejection of this myth on the part of the Canadian ruling class: in the wake of its involvement in the war on Afghanistan, and in direct opposition to the myth of peace-keeping, the representative of Canada's armed forces would declare "that the job of the Canadian military was 'to kill people.'" (1) Four years after this declaration, Canada would take a more openly robust role in flexing its imperialist muscles to defend its economic interests in Honduras.


One of the strengths of Ottawa and Empire is its ability to encourage an unrelenting anger towards imperialism from its first chapter onwards. Beginning with the backdrop of European settler-colonialism the reader is forced to see contemporary Honduras as the result of genocide that was never overcome. From Spanish colonization to the "Banana Republic" days of US fruit companies, to its strategic importance in the USAmerican war on anti-systemic movements in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador, the people of Honduras have endured––and have worked hard to resist––multiple waves of imperialism. Shipley names the people and states involved, tracing their imperial lineages to the present. And in this present we are provided with a living document of an imperialist concentration camp that is the direct result of five centuries of colonialism. The culmination of these five centuries is the 2009 coup and, since Shipley was in Honduras during this living history, his interviews with the multiple voices of Honduran resistance––as well as his angry interviews with Canadian officials undermining this resistance––force the reader to empathize with the individuals struggling against the might of imperialism. I haven't felt such visceral anger towards particular individuals prosecuting imperialism for quite some time. It's hard to walk away from this book without wanting to hunt down the likes of Peter Kent, Edward Fox, or Michael Kergin.

Shipley provides a taxonomy of social forces involved in the coup that is detailed, but always from the perspective of below rather than above––from the numerous activists and organizers of the social movement that succeeded in making Zelaya concede to the will of the people and thus rendered his rule odious to the oligarchy and its imperialist managers. One important detail that Shipley does not want the reader to forget is that Zelaya was not the movement––he was not even the Honduran Chavez––but a conflicted product of a social movement that had struggled for generations against neo-colonialism. At best, Zelaya was a moderate reformer who was willing to make significant concessions to the people (rendering him anachronistic to his social class) who, upon agreeing to open the Constitution up to significant reform, was immediately removed. The movement thus gathered around the event of the coup and perhaps made him more significant than he would have been. Hence, when he returned to declare a new party he also became something of a problem; his faction functioned to reign in the more radical elements of the coalition organization, the very same elements that had catapulted him to anti-imperialist notoriety in the first place.

Behind the coup event, though, are the interests of the imperialist camp, particularly Canadian interests. The book also provides a detailed examination of Canadian mining, garment, and tourist industries that required the protection of the coup regime to pursue their interests. From the point of view of workers, peasants, and Indigenous people, these industries are monstrous institutions that have murdered thousands and wreaked massive environmental devastation. But Shipley argues that "[w]hile Canada's foreign policy in Honduras is partly shaped by the immediate needs of companies like Goldcarp, Gildan, and Life Vision, what is really at stake in Honduras, from the perspective of the Canadian state, is the broader promotion and protection of the conditions necessary for further profitable investment." (116)

Hence, following the coup, Ottawa pursued deals with the golpista regime to make structural changes that would transform Honduras into a Canadian semi-colony for whatever future adventure possible Canadian venture capitalists might imagine: charter cities. That is, the "idea was to establish in Honduran law the right of the state to grant territorial concessions to businesses within which they would posses virtual city-statehood, with their own laws, police, and foreign relations." (116) Indeed, as Shipley points out, the Canadian media celebrated the idea of charter cities with columnists claiming that such entities would be a bastion for human rights (despite the fact that all Canadian industries that have acted even according to Honduran comprador law have been brutal), even going so far as to compare them to the British control of Hong Kong as if this was a good comparison. Indeed, Shipley cites two ideologues of the charter city concept making the "extraordinary claim" that "many [Chinese people] will acknowledge that, if they had a chance to replay history, they would gladly and voluntarily offer Hong Kong to the British." (118) Hence, with these absurd claims about civilizational right that sound like a throwback to the height of the British Empire but are printed in mainstream newspapers, and with the development of laws flimsily justified by these claims, it becomes rather hard to imagine that Canada is anything other than an imperialist power.

Behind the pompous talk of Canadian values, the rule of law, and corporate responsibility––as lovely as the flowery speech of every imperialist power for five centuries and counting––lies the horrors inflicted on Honduran society since 1492. The violence following the coup was also tremendous and, from 2009 to date, the country has been transformed by the coup regime and its imperialist overlords into a nightmare where activists and even moderate reformers are criminalized, the police and army are intertwined with the cartels, workers are destroyed by inhuman labour practices, patriarchal violence is rampant, and the leaders of various social movements are arrested, assassinated, or disappeared.


By treating Honduras as microcosm of Canada's foreign policy, Shipley is able to conclude Ottawa and Empire with some significant insights about Canadian imperialism that contribute to the growing body of scholarship that rejects the left nationalist and peacekeeping discourses. Aside from demonstrating that Canada is as vicious as its neighbour to the south when it comes to the global peripheries, he also proves that Canada has its own national capitalist class with its own international interests and that the Canadian state seeks to foster spheres of influence in order to grow its monopoly.

Although the ideology that Canada is a "peace-keeping" middle power is still strong and functions to deny claims about Canadian imperialism (especially with counter-claims about US hegemony), Shipley demonstrates that the "peace-keeping" discourse is in fact a myth since, by 2006, Canada was contributing "less than 0.01 percent" to UN peace-keeping personnel. (149) Moreover, he shows how US military hegemony, far from proving that Canada is "holding the bully's coat", has been useful for the Canadian ruling class: Canada has not had to expend as much money on the military as the US but has been able to rely on the US in opening up markets for its own interests while being able to promote itself as a more neutral power. Indeed, Canada was the "driving force" behind the construction of NATO which "suggests not dependence on the US but, rather, an active strategy for protecting its independence." (146) In this sense, Canada was able to spend less on military and more on actively exporting capital (the very definition of imperialism) by being "an active benefactor of the US wars of empire." (Ibid.) Moreover, against the myth that Canada is economically dominated by the US, empirical facts tell a very different story: "Canadian firms have a much higher concentration of controlling shareholders than does the United States, and have a relatively small number of transnational ownership links that interrupt the intra-Canadian matrix of ownership." (142)

Honduras is paradigmatic of Canada's imperialist strategy. Relying on a history of US hegemony in the region (a brutality that is not neglected in Shipley's book), as well as the USAmerican willingness to support a coup against a regime that was willing to accede to a social movement (Hillary Clinton, it is worth noting, applauded the coup), Canadian capitalism embedded itself in the region and the Canadian state rushed in, post-coup, to rewrite the country's laws to make Honduras completely amenable to Canadian controlled neo-colonialism. It was able to do all this with only minimal military expenditure; only after the coup consolidated its power did Canada send its armed forces––and even then it tried to disguise its "boots on the ground" according to discourses of Canadian charity, i.e. they were there for "medical support". Hence the Canadian state was able to consolidate a region of economic influence without the spectacle of a full-scale military invasion USAmerican style. If there is any distinction between Canada and its neighbours to the south it is not that the former is a "kinder and more gentle" nation of "peace-keepers" but that it pursues imperialism––that is, the export of capital––without the same bombast. Such a distinction is ultimately cosmetic: Honduras was reduced to a living hell without carpet-bombing or drone warfare. It is also deceitful since the Canadian armed forces have also involved themselves in US-led wars of aggression as well, such as the long war against the people of Afghanistan… And Shipley is also sensitive of this possible shift in traditional Canadian foreign policy, which is why he began Ottawa and Empire with the statement, from the "peace-keeping" Canadian armed forces, about how it was "our job to kill people."


I've joked with a number of fellow academics about writing feisty blurb endorsements, and that if I was ever asked to write a blurb for a book (ask me! I want to try my hand at this flash genre!) it would be all piss and vinegar. For Ottawa and Empire I would write: "If you didn't finish this book without feeling the visceral need to kill the political and economic class of Canada for the sake of humanity, you either lied about reading it or you're part of the class that needs to be up against the wall."