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Key lessons for a new year of struggle

Paul Kellogg

January 10, 2012

Imperialist Canada

Written by Todd Gordon

Reviewed by Paul Kellog

It is not uncommon to analyze the world system using the category of imperialism. It is unusual to associate Canada with the term. By putting the two together in his book Imperialist Canada, Toronto author and activist Todd Gordon has provided us with a compelling and important analysis of Canada’s place in the world system.

There is an older literature that “portrayed Canada as a subordinate nation with little or no imperial ambition of its own and dominated first by Britain and then the United States.” This left-nationalist or dependency school of political economy, nearly-hegemonic in left-analysis in the 1960s and 1970s, conceptualized Canada, not as imperialist, but as the victim of empire.

Gordon surveys the emerging literature that challenges this “dependency” analysis, insisting by contrast “that Canada is an imperialist country—not a super-power, but a power that nevertheless benefits from and actively participates in the global system of domination in which the wealth and resources of the Third World are systematically plundered by capital of the Global North.”

Gordon roots this understanding of Canada in a particular understanding of the dynamics of the world system of capital accumulation. For Canada, this means that its actions abroad cannot be seen as “the result of pressures from the Americans and increased integration with them…Canadian capital is still an independent force, however much its interests often coincide with its American counterpart.”

Empire at home

The second chapter is a riveting account of “empire at home,” documenting in grim detail the conquest of indigenous lands which laid the foundation for what is today Canada. “The whole foundation of Canadian capitalism rests upon indigenous land and resources,” he writes. “Canada’s existence is premised on the forceful subjugation of indigenous nations and their resources to its interests.”

In an analysis influenced by David Harvey’s notion of accumulation by dispossession, Gordon puts Canadian mining interests at the centre of this analysis. “Canada has the largest concentration of mining companies in the world, with interests in over 3,700 properties.” This makes the dispossession of indigenous lands a central focus for Canadian capitalism, as “approximately 1,200 indigenous communities are located within 200 kilometres of an active mine.”

Global exploitation

This analysis of Canadian state formation provides an indispensable foundation for Gordon when his analysis turns abroad. “Although separated spatially from the domestic agenda, the international imperial agenda is not an entirely different project; it is a continuation of the former, both geographically and historically.”

In part, this reflects similar commercial interests to that of the mining corporations seeking profits on indigenous lands in Canada. There is quite a long history of Canadian banks in the Caribbean, Indonesia, Guatemala and elsewhere, profiting from the exploitation of natural resources through repressing the rights and interests of local populations.

But Canada’s role abroad is not reducible to these straightforward commercial interests. Canada is a full partner in the complex architecture of Structural Adjustment policies and their “well-documented devastating impact on the Third World.”

These policies were overseen by international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, institutions in which Canada has “ played an important role…By the late 80s structural adjustment was strongly endorsed and advocated by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the departments of Finance and External (now Foreign) Affairs as part of an effort to facilitate the expansion of Canadian economic interests in the wake of the profitability squeeze of the 1970s and 80s.”

Canada’s push abroad has clear economic motives. But is that sufficient to label Canada “imperialist?” Gordon addresses this issue directly. “Any country with imperial ambitions backs up its dreams of global power with some degree of military might”. Even though not as militarized a society as the US, Canada nonetheless has a clear military component to its imperial projects.


Future writings will be needed to fill in areas not covered in the book—most importantly to do with the complex relationship between Quebec and English Canada. Gordon documents the state-sanctioned execution of Métis leader Louis Riel in 1885. There is a reason that Canada’s prime minister of the day famously said, about Riel: “he shall die…though every dog in Quebec barks in his favour.” The one part of the country where Métis resistance found mass sympathy was in Quebec, a nation with its own deep grievances against the Canadian state. Integrating Quebec into our understanding of imperialist Canada remains an important task for activists today.

It is for activists that he writes his conclusion. “As imperialism is the product of the contradictory dynamics of capitalist accumulation, it will not disappear of its own accord. We must build an anti-imperialist resistance.”

The complete version of this review can be found in Socialist Studies 7, (1/2) 2011.

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