As federal and provincial governments prepare to spend $500 million on the celebration of Canada’s 150th “birthday”, Canadian workers continue to be forced to accept privatizations, falling living standards, and austerity. Sleek and expensive advertising campaigns celebrating a vague notion of “Canada” exist alongside child poverty affecting 1 in 5 children nationwide, a worsening shortage of affordable housing, and a suicide crisis in indigenous communities where youth have a suicide rate five to six times higher than the general population.
As a capitalist, colonial, and imperialist country Canada is built on the ongoing colonization of indigenous peoples, the exploitation of its working class, and the imperialist domination of weaker nations around the world. Nevertheless, Canada has enjoyed an international reputation which serves to obscure these relations and bolster a particular variety of liberal positivity in regards to its identity and actions at home and abroad.
Nationalism advanced by Canada 150 and the dominant voices in the mainstream media is one of a lovingly multicultural, peace-keeping, and progressive state when the evidence points to the contrary. This image serves to obscure the real ways in which Canada’s history is one of oppression and exploitation of the majority by the minority, and serves to erase the historic struggle against such oppression–a struggle that continues today.
The historic and ongoing violence of colonization
Canadians exit the public education system with little exposure to the shameful history which underpins the Canadian capitalist system: one of violence, theft, and genocide against indigenous peoples. Canada’s relationship with the indigenous peoples who predated European settlement is sometimes depicted as cooperative and collaborative, while the American historical experience is portrayed as confrontational and destructive. This has permitted a historical narrative of “peaceful cooperation” between the Canadian state and indigenous peoples. Any transgression on the part of the Canadian state is cast as misguided but well-intentioned, rather than deliberate and self-interested.
In Canadian law, the Crown is designated as having a fiduciary duty towards indigenous peoples in that it must act in their interest, for instance to prevent exploitation. This is based on an argument that “this historic relationship” between the Crown and indigenous peoples “is trust-like, rather than adversarial”. This is even though generations of history have shown that the Canadian government has acted and continues to act completely to the contrary: inflicting incredible suffering on indigenous communities through deliberate violence and cynical inaction.
Historical examples are numerous. Indigenous communities represented an obstacle to capitalist development and profits leading up to and after Canadian Confederation, obstacles which the Canadian government needed to neutralize, just as they did in the United States. In the Canadian experience the capitalist class simply went about this in a less obvious way. Thomas King addresses this in his book The Inconvenient Indian:
“Indian-White relations were originally constructed around the concerns of commerce–the fur trade being a prime example–and military alliances. In these matters, Native peoples understood themselves to be sovereign, independent nations, and in early land and treaty negotiations they were treated as such… Beginning in 1823, there would be three U.S. Supreme Court decisions… These three cases unilaterally redefined relationships between Whites and Indians in America… Canada would formalize an identical relationship with Native people a little later in 1876 with the passage of the Indian Act. Now it was official. Indians in all of North America were property.” (Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian, Chapter “One Name to Rule Them All”)
A major barrier to capitalist development was the fact that the land required to expand agricultural and industrial development was occupied already by the First Nations who had held it since time immemorial and who did not intend to be pushed out. Posing as allies and friends of indigenous peoples, the Crown signed treaties to dispossess them of their land and get them out of the way, promising in some cases to not take the land or promising accommodation or compensation. Most of these treaties were never intended to be honoured by the Crown, and promises were either worded in a deliberately deceptive way to facilitate breaking them later on, or obligations would simply be ignored.
An example of the Canadian government’s real attitude towards indigenous peoples and Aboriginal sovereignty was when the Métis people opposed the expansion of Canadian capitalism into the West in 1869-1870 and established their own provisional government. They were put down and their leader Louis Riel was later executed for the 1885 North-West Rebellion.
The existence of residential schools is becoming more and more known to Canadians, generally thanks to indigenous activists. More than anything these facilities show the naked self-interest of the Canadian bourgeois and the despicable violence they are willing to resort to when faced with resistance. These “schools” took children away from their families and deliberately isolated them in a barbaric re-education system meant to erase any indigenous identity, assimilate them into white Christian culture, or as it was openly stated, to “kill the Indian in the child”. There is the misconception in Canada that this violent history is long past, but in fact the last of these schools only closed in 1996. The Sixties Scoop refers to the thousands of children also forcefully separated from their parents by the state in the 1960s and put into the foster care and adoption system with no regard for their culture, eventually representing one third of all children in care.
The findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission stated that these policies amounted to “cultural genocide”, highlighting the brutality of the policies meant to strip away the traditions and language of indigenous peoples with the goal of assimilation. Of course, the destruction of a cultural connection between Aboriginal children and their communities was a major stated goal of residential schools, and was in itself so destructive as to merit unwavering condemnation. But the bourgeois state is guilty of far more than this.
In addition, within the walls of residential schools children were subjected to physical and sexual abuse, creating cycles of intergenerational trauma which continue to inflict and re-inflict wounds on indigenous communities to this day. The suicide crisis is one effect. Another is the unspoken fact that many Aboriginal children lost their lives in these schools, in what could only be described as criminal inaction and manslaughter on the part of the Canadian state.
In 1904 the doctor and writer of Canada’s first health code, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, was hired by the federal government. One of his assignments was to review the health of children in Canada’s residential schools. The results of his inspections were shocking: problems with sanitation, poor air circulation in the construction of the buildings, and a crowding in of children which produced a breeding ground for disease–particularly tuberculosis. Dr. Bryce explained his findings in 1907 in what is now better known as “The Bryce Report”:
“It suffices for us to know… that of a total of 1,537 pupils reported upon nearly 25 per cent are dead, of one school with an absolutely accurate statement, 69 per cent of ex-pupils are dead, and that everywhere the almost invariable cause of death given is tuberculosis.” (Bryce, 1907, p.18)
The New York Times explains that “the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report] documented that at least 3,201 students died while attending the schools, many because of mistreatment or neglect, in the first comprehensive tally of such deaths.” Dr. Bryce’s 1907 recommendations for reform were ignored by the head of the Department of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, who later cut Dr. Bryce’s funding. Put bluntly, blood is on the hands of the Canadian bourgeois and their state and such actions and negligence cannot be explained away as a blunder of a well-intentioned “fiduciary”.
Today, the reality is likely the most obvious it has ever been: that the Canadian state is no friend of indigenous communities. Despite decades of promises by the Canadian government, little has been done to improve the quality of life of indigenous peoples on or off the reserve, or to repair the generations of trauma inflicted by the same state. Over 1200 and possibly as many as 4000 Aboriginal women are missing or murdered in the last three decades alone. Boiled water advisories, and inadequate housing and employment still exist across the country.
The bourgeois politicians periodically cry crocodile tears for the missing and murdered indigenous women, and for the families who have lost their loved ones to suicide. Yet these same people sit on their hands and do absolutely nothing to address the underlying misery in these communities caused by the state’s own abuse and neglect. Some recent statistics from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives show that 60% of indigenous children on reserves live in poverty. A suicide crisis ravages indigenous communities, driven by factors like poverty and inequality. Placing aboriginal communities in a position of such vulnerability helps ensure their compliance with or subordination to the capitalist state and to large natural resource extraction projects. The government has no interest in investing money to make aboriginal communities more independent and able to resist profitable projects, even if these communities are the most likely to be affected by broken pipelines and dangerous environmental pollution.
But it is important to note that in Canada, many indigenous peoples were not conquered by conquest but rather betrayed as allies of the British and worn down over time by the Canadian state. Indigenous peoples are not passive victims, but have resisted and fought back throughout history. The Métis resistance in the West is one example. There is also the Oka Crisis of 1990 where plans to build a golf course and 60 luxury condominiums overtop land including a Mohawk burial ground was met with militant resistance and solidarity from surrounding communities against court injunctions and the armed police and military. The standoff ended with the construction cancelled, and the government buying the land instead.
Few are aware of the existence of a Red Power movement in the 1960s, beginning in the United States but which also spread to Canada, which modelled itself on the radicalism of the Black Power movement in the United States and involved militant organizing including occupations, protests, and confrontations with police. Today indigenous activists organise and resist in many different ways and through movements such as Idle No More. The wider labour and student movements must link up with these struggles and fight in solidarity against the ongoing oppression of indigenous communities by the Canadian state.
The Canadian economy today is rich enough to eliminate poverty, provide all Canadians with decent jobs, fund extensive mental health services, and massively invest in infrastructure. If this wealth was owned and controlled by the majority, it could be invested in and democratically controlled by indigenous communities themselves to address the damage done by the capitalist class and hundreds of years of oppression. The problem is that these resources are under the ownership and control of a tiny minority, the Canadian bourgeois, who do not care at all what happens to indigenous people or their communities and who will continue to perpetuate the same suffering of 150 and more years until their wealth is re-appropriated into the hands of the working class.
The exploitation and struggle of the working class in Canada
Canada 150 collapses the interests and histories of everyone in Canada into one shared story. But in reality there are many ways to view history, and the lens that one looks through is often determined by the viewer’s class interests. It is no wonder, then, that the vision of Canadian history put forward by Canada 150 is silent on the history of class struggle in Canada. Instead, Canada is portrayed as a peaceful, moderate nation where revolution and militancy are alien traditions. Nothing could be further from the truth. What is needed is a working class history which places at the forefront the brave struggles of workers in Canada against their exploitation by the bosses.
Bourgeois history goes to great lengths to extol the development of industry in Canada, like the building of a railroad connecting the continent “from sea to sea”. The image of “the last spike” frequently included in Canadian history textbooks shows the capitalist magnates who owned those railways driving a ceremonial spike into the railway and standing proudly beside their property and what they perceived as their creation.
But someone had to cut those trees and dig those mines, and someone laid each inch of those railways. That someone was the Canadian working class, a diverse and complex working class which for its entire existence has been composed of locally-born and immigrant workers, women and men, people of every colour and creed. And every cent of wealth that was drawn from the development of industry in Canada was squeezed out of the exploited labour of this class.
As with many developed capitalist countries, the few decades of boom in the postwar period were a complete anomaly for the quality of life they provided for workers in Canada. For the rest of Canadian history conditions were very harsh for workers. Politics was for much of Canadian history reserved to the propertied classes by special laws prohibiting the poor, indigenous peoples, racialized, or women workers from voting or participating at all. (Source: Nova Scotia Legal Information Society)
Throughout the late 1800s and into the early 1900s a boom in the economy existed alongside poverty and social tensions.1 Working conditions across the board were exploitative and difficult, and the bosses were at ease to super-exploit immigrant labour and use it to drive down all wages. “Because of their economic priorities immigrant workers were prepared to accept low pay and to tolerate abominable working conditions, at least by North American standards”.2
Racism allowed the bosses to justify paying racialized workers much lower than even the already meager wage allocated to a white worker. Between 1881 and 1884 the Canadian capitalists, in need of cheap labour to finish their railway, hired approximately 17,000 Chinese workers. They were paid wages as little as low as under half that of a white worker, were made to buy their own food and camping gear, faced racism, and were made to do the most backbreaking and dangerous work on the construction of the railroad. As many as 1000 of these workers died in the construction of the railroad, which is portrayed as a symbol of “national unity” by the bourgeois historical narrative. Once the railway was constructed and their labour no longer needed, laws like the famous “Chinese Head Tax” were passed to make further immigration and family reunification incredibly difficult. Unfortunately at the time instead of taking a position of solidarity of all workers against their common oppressor, labour organizations bought into the demonization of Chinese workers and pitted white workers against them.
Canada 150 continues the dominant narrative of Canadian history which portrays Canada as a land of class peace and cooperation between bosses and workers. This is profoundly ahistorical, as the history is actually dominated by class struggle. Not acknowledging this erases the bravery and sacrifice that workers in Canada have demonstrated over those 150 years, which sometimes has included their lives.
An example is the history of militant strikes all over Canada. In ten towns in Southern Ontario between 1901 and 1914 there were 421 strikes and lockouts, implicating about 60,000 men and women, the majority in the building and metal industries. In Toronto alone there was 198 strikes and 38,903 workers implicated in this time.3 Militia, troops, and police were often used to break strikes and force workers back to work. For example, in 1899 Londoners rioted in solidarity with the Amalgamated Association of Street Railway Employees against the corporation running the streetcar and the militia were sent to clear the streets. This was especially common in Nova Scotia’s coal mines, where in 1909-10 the Dominion Coal Company used the majority of Canada’s permanent militia to guard the mines and strikebreakers in order to defeat the United Mine Workers.4
Under such conditions socialist, communist, and labour activists were routinely arrested and deported in order to undermine the workers’ movement. Intense state persecution affected radical labour organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) during and after World War I.5 The “company towns” which characterized early development were important and open sites of struggle between boss and worker:
“Often the dominant note of social relations was not paternalism but the hard edge of authoritarianism and naked exploitation… Mine operators in Timmins, Ontario, employed “gun thugs” to patrol the town during the 1912-13 gold-mine strike. Only after blood flowed did the provincial government order their removal. Once companies lost moral authority, as they often did, industrial discipline could be maintained only by force, which politicians occasionally decided not to provide in crises.” (Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia)
Finally, many do not know that an important general strike which shook the entire Canadian state actually took place in Winnipeg in 1919. The expansion of the West only occurred because of the brutal subjection of workers whose labour was required to expand it. What is incredible is the Winnipeg General Strike’s militancy–that the strike committee began to take over the running of essential services and in effect took over the city, and that it spread beyond Winnipeg with sympathy strikes beginning across Canada. It was crushed when the government brought in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to quell a peaceful demonstration on June 21st 1919. Demonstrators were beaten and shot at, resulting in two deaths and 30 injured.6
In Quebec the French-speaking working class has faced class oppression from the bourgeois as well, but the Quebecois have also experienced national oppression and linguistic discrimination. Since the defeat of France by the British, the francophone population became dominated by an English-speaking elite. Before the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s and the development of a francophone capitalist class, English was the language of the bosses in Quebec and the use of French was discriminated against. Wages for Francophone workers consistently fell much below that of an Anglophone worker.
Today right-wing mouthpieces like the Toronto Sun stoke the flames of anglo-chauvinism against the Quebecois. English Canadian workers are told that transfer payments from provinces like Alberta account for social programs like daycare that the Quebec working class has, and that their interests are at odds with their Quebecois class brothers and sisters.
This is deliberately misleading and merely reflects the interests that the Canadian bourgeois has in pitting worker against worker. In fact, the Quebec working class won those concessions from the bosses through determined struggle, and has demonstrated itself to be among the most militant in North America. The 1949 Asbestos Strike typifies this, where 5000 Francophone asbestos miners demanded better wages and conditions from their English-speaking bosses. The strike may have not won many of its demands, but it set an example of the power of the working class to challenge discrimination and poor working conditions.
In 1972 in Quebec there was the Common Front General Strike which led to 210 000 workers in the public sector going on strike. The government responded with a series of injunctions, back-to-work legislation, and the imprisonment of three union leaders who dared advise their workers not to follow those undemocratic laws. More recently, in 2012 the youth of Quebec led a massive resistance against the provincial Liberal government’s plan to increase tuition. They mobilized layers of the broader working class through “casseroles” where working class people would join in the movement by banging pots and pans. At one point there were 400,000 people demonstrating on one day, and the months of the strike included beatings by the police and laws passed to curtail democratic rights to protest.
“For months on end, a generation marched en masse through the streets of Montréal, night upon night for over one hundred days and at times by the hundreds of thousands, in defiance of the government, in defiance of brutal repression, and finally, in defiance of the law itself.” (page 10, Shawn Katz, Generation Rising)
Coming out onto the streets, they toppled that Liberal government through their militancy and élan. These kind of movements show the way forward and are an example to the English Canadian movement, but these tactics must be pushed even further. Today the situation of the working class under capitalism is bleak. The use of food banks is increasing across the country as regular working people can no longer afford basic necessities like groceries. In March 2016 863,492 Canadians used a food bank, a 28% rise since 2008. The productivity of labour continues to grow while wages stagnate and even fall, as the following data from the International Labour Organization shows:
The growth of inequality is reaching staggering proportions with an Oxfam report released this year showing that in Canada two people own more wealth than the bottom 30%. In the words of Bill Haywood, “If one man has a dollar he didn’t work for, some other man worked for a dollar he didn’t get.”7 The only reason some are allowed to become so rich is because of their exploitation of the vast majority, the working class.
Today, like 100 years ago, the movements of the working class and youth are often maligned in the bourgeois press whenever they become too militant. That is, they are maligned whenever these movements become too effective in their aims. When the Quebec students went on strike in 2012, capitalist publications like the Globe and Mail published pieces calling the Quebec youth “deluded” and spoiled. Public sector workers are often smeared as “entitled” for merely asking for the modest demand of decent wages and benefits, and are slandered for daring to strike for better living standards. Every attempt is made to demonize militancy and struggle in the eyes of the workers and the oppressed, so that they do not fight back.
From this history it is clear that the idea of Canada as a country of class peace and soft cooperation between the boss and the workers is a complete fiction. Like any country divided into classes, there is a history of class oppression and class struggle. The workers of any country have no interests in common with the bosses. Additionally, all of these acts of militant resistance have laid the groundwork for concessions by the bosses with regard to wages, benefits, and labour protections that Canadians enjoy today. But even more militancy and a revolutionary perspective will be needed to defend these same wages, benefits, and protections from austerity and privatizations as Canada continues to be absorbed into the organic crisis of the system which is engulfing the world capitalist economy today.
Racism, xenophobia, and division today and throughout history
Another idea about Canadian history that Canadian workers and youth are consistently misled about is the notion that Canada, unlike its neighbour to the south, has no history of slavery or racism. Many voices on the left have already begun to dismantle this about Canada 150. For instance, the fact that slavery did exist in Canada was explained well in a recent article by Joshua Ostroff:
“Arguably Canada’s most well-known slave is Marie-Joseph Angélique, who was hanged in 1734 for allegedly burning down most of what is now known as Old Montreal.
Born in Portugal, she was sold several times before winding up owned by a rich widow. Following an escape attempt with her white indentured servant lover, Angélique’s owner’s house caught fire, a conflagration that eventually spread to 46 buildings.
It is unclear if Angélique actually set the blaze, as her confession followed brutal torture. Nonetheless, she was paraded through town before being killed by an enslaved hangman and then burned on a pyre, as a warning to other slaves” and,
“(Historian George Tombs) says people like former PQ Minister of Culture and historian Denis Vaugeois have argued ‘these weren’t really slaves, they were more like servants and they were treated like members of the family.’ But while smaller-scale than other slave states, Canadian slavery was also brutal with beatings, rapes, dogs hunting down escapees when they fled their masters, and even executions” and,
“Black Canadians, meanwhile, faced race riots and segregation well into the 20th century — segregated schools arrived right along with the Underground Railroad and the last one only closed in 1983 — and are still fighting discrimination today.”
James McGill, founder of McGill university, in fact owned slaves. That large-scale plantation slavery didn’t exist was a result of the lack of conditions for it, not because the Canadian bourgeois were pious humanists.
Furthermore, racism has always been used by the bosses to divide the workers in Canada. Bourgeois politicians throughout Canadian history have revealed their racist attitudes consistently up until today where they are forced to be more subtle. Prime Minister John A MacDonald, the Prime Minister responsible for approving the execution of Louis Riel and whose face Canadians may recognize on their $10 bills, had this to say about Chinese workers in 1883:
“At any moment when the Legislature of Canada chooses, it can shut down the gate and say, no more immigrants shall come here from China; and then no more immigrants will come, and those in the country at the time will rapidly disappear… and therefore there is no fear of a permanent degradation of the country by a mongrel race.” – Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, House of Commons, April 30, 1883 (Source: Multicultural History Society of Ontario)
These comments are important mostly because they show exactly what kind of sentiments were being pushed by the ruling class into the working class, and what the interests and attitudes of the bourgeois really are. Another example was the intense anti-Black racism in Nova Scotia after Black migrants arrived escaping slavery from the United States. When these migrants arrived, they were given the lowest quality land and the lowest quality tools and made to survive under harsh conditions, as well as being subjected to intense discrimination and harassment.
Anti-Asian racism in Canada, and especially British Columbia, was intense from the early years of the province and was used to sow divisions in the working class by portraying workers of Asian descent as dangerous. There were even laws passed in 1917-1918 in the provinces of British Columbia, Ontario, and Manitoba, and Saskatchewan prohibiting white women from working in restaurants and laundries owned by Chinese men, likely for fear of intermarriage. In British Columbia too, 376 migrants from Punjab, India travelling on the Japanese boat Komagata Maru were turned away because of racist attitudes and sent back to India where 19 were shot and many imprisoned. Jewish refugees would also be turned away by Canada in 1939 despite their massive vulnerability, due to anti-Semitic sentiment.
The truth is that xenophobia and racism are a tool, and a very useful tool, for the bourgeois in Canada. Because of the diversity of the working class in the country, it has historically been a ready instrument to pit worker against worker. Divisions could be created almost on demand between locally-born workers or immigrants, or Anglo-Saxon workers against workers of other ethnic backgrounds. But these divisions are used to undermine solidarity which is vital for the working class movement, and such divisions always lead struggles to defeat.
The dynamics of a strike show that the fundamental tool that the workers have against the bosses is solidarity, their ability to act together decisively as a collective, and any division proves to be fatal to their fight. During the Winnipeg General Strike the bourgeois sought to imply that “alien scum” and “alien Bolsheviks” were leading the strike. It was even insinuated that the strike was directed by Jews.8 This whole exercise was so that the bourgeois could persuade locally-born workers to break with the foreign-born workers, and thus defeat the strike.
There are numerous concrete examples of racism in Canada today for those willing to look at the evidence. The overrepresentation of indigenous people in Canadian prisons in fact surpasses the already horrendous numbers for the black population in the United States:
“In the U.S., the go-to example for the asymmetric jailing of minority populations, black men are six times more likely to be imprisoned than white men. In Canada, the Indigenous incarceration rate is 10 times higher than the non-Indigenous population—higher even than South Africa at the height of apartheid. In Saskatchewan, if you’re Indigenous, you’re 33 times more likely to be incarcerated, according to a 1999 report, the most recent available.” (Source: Macleans)
While there is ample funding to incarcerate and destroy the lives of already marginalized people, there seems to be none available to address the concrete social questions that engender criminal actions like lack of employment opportunities, lack of social programs, drug addiction, mental health issues and discrimination.
Racism in policing has gained attention in the United States, but the Canadian experience replicates these same problems wherever the police interact with racialized communities. Black men are three times more likely to be stopped and checked by police in Halifax, and for the first 10 months of 2016 41 per cent of the 1,246 street checks in the city’s region involved black Nova Scotians.
In Toronto the practice of police stopping black and brown people without cause and questioning and documenting them came under fire recently. According to results from a Freedom of Information request made by The Star, “While blacks make up 8.3 per cent of Toronto’s population, they accounted for 25 per cent of the cards filled out between 2008 and mid-2011.” Furthermore, in each of the city’s 72 patrol zones, black people are more likely than whites to be stopped and carded. The likelihood increases in areas that are predominantly white.
Interactions between the police and racialized communities frequently results in violence and fatalities. The police murders of Sammy Yatim and Andrew Loku having brought this disturbing reality to mainstream attention. This past November despite 38 complaints by indigenous women of assault, harassment, sexual assault, and rape by Quebec’s provincial police, the SQ, it was determined that no charges would be laid against the police. Protests broke out in the community.
These instances demonstrate the complete impunity of the police under capitalism, and the cynicism of using the word “justice” to describe the bourgeois justice system. This is the real face of capitalism, where the primary purpose of the state and its armed wing, the police, is to protect private property relations, not to protect workers and marginalized communities. Harassing and brutalizing black, indigenous, and racialized communities is permitted as long as the force does not fail in this primary obligation.
The Canadian bourgeois today still uses racism and xenophobia to divert workers down the dead end of bigotry. In Quebec in 2013 the Parti Quebecois tried to distract the working class from real issues like falling standards of living and austerity by making the election about their racist proposed “Charter of Values”. At the federal level we have recent examples like former Conservative Party candidate Kellie Leitch’s “Canadian Values Test”. It is no accident that the capitalist class is pulling out this time-tested tool of division now. The disgusting promotion of these prejudices make bourgeois politicians directly responsible for tragedies like the Quebec City shooting and the dramatic rise in hate crimes, particularly against Muslims and Arabs.
Racism is a toxin to the workers’ movement, and it is deliberately fostered by the ruling class because it produces divisions which weaken the collective struggle on the part of the workers. It is also used to justify treating and paying certain groups differently and driving down wages for all workers across the board. It has been used again and again against the Canadian working class, to devastating effect.
A prerequisite to fighting against racism and division is acknowledging its existence, which is why the ruling class’s presentation of “Canada 150” whitewashes historical and existing racism and xenophobia and absolves itself of promoting it. It is the job of the unions and organizations of the student and labour movements to speak out against the racism and xenophobia present in Canadian society and condemn its use by the bosses to divide us, and to organize a united class struggle against the economic and social conditions that give rise to discriminatory attitudes.
Imperialism of Canada’s ruling class
The bourgeois narrative describes Canada as a helpful “peacekeeper” in international affairs. This portrayal is a skillful recasting of the fact that historically Canadian imperialism has always played second fiddle, propping up larger, more powerful imperialist nations as they advance their interests and in return receiving a share of the spoils. First Canada was required to do this with Great Britain, backing up its colonial ambitions, and since its decline has supported the United States.
In 1899 Canada sent its soldiers, largely drawn from the working class and the poor, to die in the Boer War for Britain which was fighting to crush two small independent republics there and to control important natural resources. In World War I the Canadian bourgeois sent its troops to Europe to die in the senseless slaughter there, when the war itself was primarily about the capitalists fighting for profit–the control of markets and territories–and heavily resisted by many workers movements internationally at the time. The Canadian capitalists continue to valorize events like Vimy, where they are really seeking to evade responsibility for sending soldiers into such a slaughterhouse in the first place.
Recently the Canadian government has had to support the United States, especially in its invasions of the Middle East and is thus directly implicated in the death and suffering these interventions have caused for millions of innocent people. The Liberal government under Justin Trudeau recently announced a 75% increase in military spending–indicating that the Canadian ruling class expects to have to exercise its military capabilities more in the future. Canada also has become one of the most important arms suppliers to reactionary regimes, and just weeks before it’s 150th “birthday” Canada has been declared the second-largest arms supplier to the Middle East.
These wars and interventions do nothing for the Canadian working class, and always involve spending public resources on spreading destruction and suffering instead of investing in good jobs or public services. Workers in Canada have no interest in destabilizing smaller countries and ruining the lives of the people who live there, people with whom the Canadian worker has infinitely more in common than the Canadian bosses and bankers. And these acts of imperialism always involve sending soldiers largely drawn from the Canadian working class and poor to kill and die in deadly conflicts for the rich, who then ignore them when they return home with trauma, PTSD, and other health problems requiring mental and physical health services that simply don’t exist. Canadian imperialism, like capitalism, is suffering without end.
The idea that Canada is a nonviolent peacekeeping nation is demonstrably false and should be resisted by those in the labour movement. Instead of celebrating this false history, the labour and student movements must expose these policies and take the side of solidarity with workers and oppressed of all countries. After the Russian Revolution in 1917 Canada was among the imperialist countries to send troops in order to crush the nascent workers’ government in Russia. One group of Canadian workers in Victoria who had been conscripted into the army for this task refused to board the ships heading for Vladivostok, Russia. When they resisted, their officers ordered the other soldiers to whip the resistors.9 These workers understood that their interests were more in line with the Russian workers than the Canadian capitalists who were trying to crush the revolution occurring then in Russia. The actions of the workers in Victoria is an example of what working-class solidarity means when opposing the imperialist policies of your own nation, and must be re-asserted today.
But what role do these myths play? One explanation is that such a mythology obscures the concrete antagonism between the vast majority of those who reside in Canada, the workers and the oppressed, and the small handful of bosses who exploit this majority and in fact pull the strings in the economy and in government.
These myths about Canada create a false sense that struggle by the majority against their oppressors is alien to Canada, and that reforms and higher wages were bestowed through the kindness of the Canadian bosses and happened through friendly negotiation. This image of Canada also erases and absolves the past and present crimes of the Canadian bourgeois and their state against indigenous peoples, their own workers and poor, and it allows them to continue to oppress workers of other nations without condemnation or resistance from their own working class. In reality “our” history is the history of the struggle of the working class and the oppressed in this country and internationally, not the manufactured history by which the Canadian ruling class attempts to coerce the workers into suffering their exploitation in complete passivity.
Presently the Canadian bourgeois seeks to use Canada’s 150th “birthday” as an opportunity to put forward a vision of Canada’s future which precludes united class struggle by the workers and the oppressed against their rule. But Canadian workers have no interest in sustaining these myths about Canada which only serve to obscure their own exploitation and oppression, to obscure their shared interests with workers of all nationalities and origins, and the real relations of power which exist in the Canadian economic and political systems.
A way forward
The labour and student movements must reject all attempts by the Canadian bourgeois and their state to absolve themselves of their historic and continuing oppression of indigenous peoples, workers in Canada, minorities, migrants, and workers abroad. The bourgeois will attempt to coerce the movement into accepting peaceful negotiation, “meeting in the middle”, and eschewing militant tactics as the “Canadian way”, but such an acceptance will only lead to defeat after defeat for the working class. This manipulation must be rejected, and these movements must defend and continue the historical struggle of workers and the oppressed in Canada against their oppression which has historically been vigorous and aggressive.
In rejecting the whitewashing of the Canadian bourgeois state, working people, youth and marginalized communities in Canada must fight the attacks of their own ruling class at home as well as against their government’s imperialist policies overseas. And instead of buying into racist propaganda which the bosses use to scapegoat marginalized communities, we must fight in solidarity with indigenous peoples and migrants for their rights.
An honest assessment of the interests of workers in Canada demonstrates that it is imperative to reject the sanitized image promoted by Canada 150, and to fight back together against ongoing policies of intensified austerity, cuts, privatization, environmental destruction, colonization, imperialism, and grinding poverty. This struggle further allows us to unite and fight for socialism—a world where the workers can end their exploitation, get rid of the sickening poverty and violence that exists under capitalism, and begin directing their own destiny as human beings for the first time.