In the current crisis over Ukraine, Canada has not played its usual role as the mild-mannered younger brother of U.S. imperialism. As a recent op-ed in the Toronto Star pointed out, Canada has been “playing the cowboy” and being “unusually hawkish”. Far from unusual, this is entirely consistent with Canada’s typical approach to Ukraine. Posing as a benevolent protector to cover its own imperialist maneuvers, Canada’s denunciations of “Russian aggression” ring with hypocrisy.
‘Human rights and dignity’
During her recent visit to Kyiv, Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said, “The amassing of Russian troops and equipment in and around Ukraine jeopardizes security in the entire region. These aggressive actions must be deterred. Canada will work with its international partners to uphold the rules-based international order and preserve the human rights and dignity of Ukrainians.” She added, “Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine is unacceptable. Russia is the aggressor,” and that Canada stands “shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine.”
Hearing such statements, one could easily forget that Russia’s amassed troops are a response to Western refusals to guarantee that NATO will not expand any further east. While Russia’s position obviously treats Ukraine as its backyard rather than as a sovereign nation, it is also hardly unexpected. It’s difficult to imagine, for example, that the United States would accept a Russian military presence in Mexico with the same good grace that’s expected of Russia. NATO forces already have a base in Latvia, led by Canadian soldiers, constituting Canada’s largest overseas military presence, that puts on showy war games simulating battle with Russia every so often.
Meanwhile, Western countries (Canada not least among them) have very much been interfering in Ukraine for years. It is without irony that Western leaders like Boris Johnson accuse the Putin administration of plotting regime change in Ukraine when NATO countries did precisely that. The 2014 Euromaidan movement overthrew then-president Victor Yanukovich with the heavy support of NATO countries, with the Canadian embassy in Kyiv going so far as sheltering anti-government protestors and allowing them to use it as a base of operations. Since then, Canada has maintained a military presence in Ukraine of 200 advisors, and has sold weapons to Ukraine. Currently, Canadian arms manufacturers are planning to build an ammunition factory in Ukraine, as Ukraine’s own ammunition factory is in the separatist-controlled Donbass region—one of the many business opportunities in Ukraine that have opened up to Canadian capitalists thanks to a Western-friendly government being in power.
Canada also provided training to Ukrainian armed forces, notoriously to troops associated with the far-right neo-nazi Azov battalion, known for attacking anti-fascists, LGBTQ people and Roma people, and for engaging in torture and other war crimes. This was not the result of any accident or oversight: Canadian representatives knowingly met with nazis in the Ukrainian army, and were more concerned about the optics of it than anything else. So much for “upholding the rules-based international order” and “preserving the human rights and dignity of Ukrainians”!
Western media uncritically parrots the imperialist allegation of “Russian aggression” but remains completely silent about NATO aggression. NATO was set up as the military wing of the anti-Soviet capitalist states, and has nothing to do with maintaining peace or democracy. When the Warsaw Pact was dissolved, the supposed raison d’être of NATO ceased to exist and, by all accounts, NATO should have been ended too. During this time, NATO committed to not expand its borders. Instead, we saw an increasing military and economic expansion of the Western imperialist powers right up to the border with Russia.
The list of NATO missions reads as a list of reactionary and bloody adventures. During the 1990s NATO conducted a series of bombing raids in the former Yugoslavia to keep the people of the region weak, divided, and under the boot of this or that imperialist power. Many civilians died during the bombing. The terrible conditions felt by the people of the Balkans today is in no small part due to the legacy of NATO intervention.
Following on from Yugoslavia came the criminal and murderous war in Afghanistan. At the time people asked what on earth the “North Atlantic Treaty Organization” was doing in central Asia—a very long way from the North and the Atlantic Ocean. There was a large groundswell of working class opinion against the war for mineral rights and strategic bases. Jack Layton, to his credit, opposed the war and earned himself the nickname of “Taliban Jack” from the corporate media. Now, after decades of spilled blood and wasted money, the western powers have been forced out of Afghanistan in total failure.
Finally, NATO jets played a criminal role in bombing Libya. Their intervention aimed to divide the revolutionary movement and foster pro-imperialist factions. Now, a divided Libya is weak and in crisis. History shows us a very clear picture of NATO’s aggression, an aggression that leads to civilian casualties during hostilities, and a legacy of national oppression and exploitation in the aftermath. The working class has absolutely nothing to gain by backing up NATO’s imperialist war aims.
Why so bellicose?
As a member of NATO, it would suit Canada very well to hem-in Russia as much as possible, peeling former Soviet Republics and Warsaw Pact countries away from Russia’s sphere of influence. Edging-out Russia geopolitically also means opening up Ukraine economically to Canadian capitalists. Indeed, in 2017, Canada and Ukraine signed a free-trade agreement, which was expanded again in 2020. This gives Canada access to a market historically dominated by Russia. And, importantly, whether Ukraine is facing east or west also influences who gets dibs on reaping the benefits of privatizing the country’s public sector. As Ukraine’s ambassador said in 2017 about the free trade agreement, “We’re still transforming to a free-market economy, so public procurement will be huge, not just with agencies, but also state-owned enterprises, including railways. It’s like a Pacific Ocean of opportunities with $14.6 billion per year in procurement.”
The ambassador went on to say, “Canadian companies will not only bring us good quality work, but they’ll help us fight corruption, which we’re very serious about.” Much Western involvement in Ukraine, from Canadian loans to IMF restructuring, is carried out in the name of “fighting corruption.” This does not mean moving towards a system that serves the interest of average Ukrainians. “Fighting corruption” just means giving western capitalists the same business opportunities as the gangsters and oligarchs who traditionally dominated the Ukrainian economy.
Added to this is the political calculation of appealing to the organized Ukrainian-Canadian community. Canada is home to the largest population of Ukrainians outside of Ukraine or Russia, and while early waves of Ukrainian immigrants played important roles in the labour and communist movements in Canada, those that arrived post-war, were decidedly nationalistic and anti-communist. They formed the basis for the “official” community that we see today, which is highly organized and highly political. This is the community that politicians play to when they talk about “defending Ukrainian independence”. It just so happens that “defending Ukrainian independence” is indistinguishable from giving Western powers the chance to exploit Ukraine.
Shameful NDP pro-war position
Abandoning the legacy of Jack Layton’s opposition to NATO’s war in Afghanistan, and the traditional NDP position in the 1980s of leaving NATO, Canada’s social democratic party released a mealy-mouthed statement supporting the imperialist aggression of NATO.
The NDP is “alarmed” at Russian aggression, but is completely silent on NATO’s aggression and the right wing government of Ukraine. In an attempt to cover their rear ends, they perpetuate the Orwellian fantasy of “non-lethal” assistance, and “non-combat” military training, as if the Canadian special forces in Ukraine are teaching people how to tie knots and play lacrosse! After their other-worldly call for “peacebuilding” they then go on to advocate sanctions, which are themselves an act of war. They say this is only “as a deterrent”, which is ironically exactly the same language all imperialist powers use as a prelude to war.
Realizing they are skating on thin ice with regards the well documented links between the right wing Ukrainian government and fascist groups, they make a clumsy attempt to minimize these forces as a “small part” of the Ukrainian military. They even go to compare this with the small number of fascists in the Canadian military. We are the last to excuse the Canadian military for laxity against far-right infiltration, but as far as we can see the Canadian fascists aren’t in control of complete military divisions and aren’t able to parade their Nazi history out in public!
The NDP statement concludes with a totally bizarre call for a “feminist foreign policy” as if NATO bombs or Nazi sympathizers have ever done anything in the interests of women! This lie of “feminist” bombs was shown to be total propaganda in the war in Afghanistan and Ukraine is no better. If the NDP genuinely wants to support women, it should immediately call for NATO out of Ukraine. The millions of dollars propping up this right wing regime would be much better spent on funding shelters in Canada for women escaping violence. Canada is not in Ukraine for reasons of “feminism”, “peace” or “diplomacy”, it is there for profits and strategic advancement. You can be for peace and for women, or you can be for NATO and Canadian imperialism, but you cannot be for both. The NDP should use its platform to reveal this truth to Canadian workers.
Witch-hunt against the NDP left
After the shameful capitulation of the NDP bureaucracy the right wing media has seized on the opportunity to sideline any voices opposed to war. This is the traditional method in the lead up to a conflict, where the range of “acceptable” public opinion is hysterically narrowed to exclude any alternative argument.
Winnipeg NDP MP Leah Gazan was vilified for tweeting against the Ukrainian neo-Nazis and was forced to issue an apology by the party bureaucracy. Zionist groups also attacked Gazan, showing that they are more interested in supporting imperialism than in fighting real antisemitism.
Left-wing MP Niki Ashton and Vancouver MP Don Davies have also been attacked for retweeting anti-war podcasts. Unfortunately, nobody on the NDP left has issued a clear explanation of why workers should oppose NATO expansionism. This attempt to paper over the divisions within the NDP will not last and eventually will be forced into an open conflict. History shows that those with the courage to oppose war are slandered when the drums of war are beating. But in the long run, those opposing imperialism are the ones who are proved correct and win support in the population.
Oppose Canadian imperialism
In Canada, our first job is to oppose Canadian imperialism. To do otherwise is to lend credence to the false idea that Canadian imperialism is a benevolent peacekeeper in the world. Canada is in Ukraine to profit off of gutting the public sector. The fact that this has meant cozying up to and funding neo-nazis just shows that the aims of the Canadian governments are not altruistic. While Canadian politicians spout platitudes about “human rights and dignity” in Ukraine, the Canadian state brutally suppresses Indigenous people defending their rights and territory in Wet’suwet’en. The notion that Canada represents a kinder version of capitalism is a myth.
It goes without saying that Putin is a reactionary out to protect the interests of Russian capitalism—and Russian capitalism does have certain imperialist ambitions. But when there is reaction on both sides the solution is to not to supplant one for another. Capitalism has failed in Ukraine. In the past 30 years, it has brought Ukrainian workers nothing but lower standards of living, corruption, exploitation, and war. This conflict is an imperialist conflict from which Ukrainian, Canadian or Russian workers will gain nothing. Both sides treat Ukraine as a mere playing piece in their geopolitical games. There will be no such thing as “democracy” or “dignity” in Ukraine so long as it’s a playground for imperialism. We say, Canada out of Ukraine.