Challenging Canada’s myths about its role in Palestine

(EI Illustration)


At the end of March, the Liberal Party of Canada staged a conference exploring the challenges Canada will face in 2017, the state’s 150th birthday. Robert Fowler, Canada’s longest-serving ambassador to the United Nations and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s former special envoy to Niger, caused a fervor on the final day of the conference by contending that Canada’s reputation and foreign policy effectiveness in the Middle East have been diminished as a result of domestic pandering to Jewish voters — because foreign policy has been put in the service of domestic electoral concerns.

Fowler’s comments have been read as critical by the corporate media, a reading sure to be reinforced by Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff’s rejection of them and the predictable responses that followed from Israeli apologists. This is a perfunctory reading. Fowler’s comments are hardly remarkable for their muted critique. Instead, they are notable for their larger political function — for the manner in which they mythologize Canadian policy to the Middle East.

Fowler is not alone in claiming that Canada has a reputation for being fair, just and objective as regards the Middle East. He is, in fact, only one of many reproducing this fantasy. Canada’s policy has always been markedly tilted toward Israel in a way that has compromised Palestinian rights and damaged prospects for peace and justice.

Fowler’s substantive remarks began with the observation that Canada has turned inward and its “reputation and proud international tradition have been diminished as a result.” From this global observation, he moved to a regional focus and the challenges the Middle East poses, and put forward several rhetorical questions:

“Where is the measure which for so long characterized Canada’s policy toward [the Middle East]? Before, that is, Canada’s politicians began using foreign policy exclusively for domestic purposes; before the scramble to lock up the Jewish vote in Canada meant selling out our widely-admired and long-established reputation for fairness and justice in this most volatile and dangerous region of the world?”

Fowler followed these questions with the pointed statement: “I … deplore the abandonment of our hard-won reputation for objective analysis and decency as a result of our reckless Middle Eastern posturing.” Finally, he noted that Canadian support of policies that make Palestinian-Israeli peace more remote “did not begin with our present government, even if the extent to which radical voices within domestic constituencies are indulged has, over the past few years, been taken to a whole new level” (Video of Fowler’s presentation).

Fowler’s comparison suggests a “before” and “after” period in the Canadian approach to the issue. Sometime in the past, and he is imprecise as regards the exact timing, Canadian foreign policy to the Middle East shifted decisively in Israel’s favor. The second part of his comparison is correct — contemporary Canadian policy is uncritically supportive of Israel. However, the first part of his comparison is ideological fantasy. Canadian policy to the Middle East, and particularly Palestine, was never measured, fair or just. Canadian policy has not even been decent. As for Canada’s reputation, it is just that — Canada’s.

Recent Canadian policy vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians has been uncritically supportive of the former. Early last year, as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council Canada was the only state to vote against a motion condemning Israel’s January 2009 massacre in the Gaza Strip. Then, Canada tried to block the UN nuclear assembly from passing a resolution calling “for Israel to open its nuclear facilities to UN inspection and sign up to the non-proliferation treaty” and dismissed the findings of the UN-commissioned Goldstone report.

Canadian support for Israel is nothing new. In fact, supporting Israel and denying Palestinian rights has been persistent Canadian policy. In 1947, Canada supported the creation of the State of Israel through the UN partition of Palestine, and in 1948 was one of the first states to recognize Israel.

While Canada condemned the 1956 British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt and established the first UN peacekeeping force (a period Fowler lauded), during the War of 1967 Canada supported Israel, the aggressor. According to scholar Paul Noble, Canadian policy in the 1970s refused to recognize Palestinian national rights, including the right to self-determination (Canada and the Arab World, University of Alberta Press, 1985, p.102).

Tareq Ismael similarly notes that in the 1980s, Canada voted against UN resolutions “calling for sanctions against Israel’s annexation of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights” and urging “all governments to recognize the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people,” (Canada and the Arab World, University of Alberta Press, 1985, p.19).

In the 1990s Canada joined the international consensus supporting the Oslo process. The Oslo process effectively ended in 2000 and by 2003 Canada opposed the International Court of Justice (ICJ) examining the issue of Israel’s apartheid wall in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem. And since the ICJ issued its advisory opinion on Israel’s wall in the West Bank in 2004, Canada, in violation of the opinion, has not pressured Israel to dismantle the wall.

Serious scholars of Canadian foreign policy offer the same characterization: Canada has always been pro-Israel. The assessment Peyton Lyon offered in International Perspectives in the 1980s is as accurate now as it was then (presumably during Fowler’s “measured” period and before his “shift” in Canadian policy towards Israel): “Canada’s approach [to the Middle East] has in fact long tilted in favor of Israel,” and “[o]utside observers have always categorized Canada as one of Israel’s most predictable supporters” (“Canada’s Middle East Tilt,” p. 3). Of course, this Canadian support denied Palestinians their rights and the causes of justice and peace.

National mythologies are not built on single utterances, but rather repeated statements. Like Fowler, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Bill Graham and former Canadian ambassador to the UN, Paul Heinbecker, recently invoked and reproduced the same Canadian mythology. During Israel’s 2006 attack on Lebanon, Graham lamented the current government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper for its “abandonment of Canada’s historic role as a bridge-builder.” He reminded the reader that it “is vital for middle-power nations such as Canada to pursue a fair-minded and balanced foreign policy” lest Canada, in particular, lose its “ability to act as peacekeeper and honest broker internationally” (“Bill Graham on the Middle East,” Globe and Mail, 2 August 2006).

In 2009, after Canada voted against the UN Human Rights Council motion condemning Israel for its massacre of Palestinians in Gaza, Heinbecker said that while “always considered ‘a friend of Israel,’ until recently Ottawa’s representatives at the UN voted on Middle East issues on the basis of ‘principle’ and ‘fair-mindedness’ ” (Bruce Campion-Smith and Les Whittington, “Canada votes alone for Israel,” Toronto Star, 13 January 2009).

Canada has long purported to be balanced, objective and neutral in its foreign policy to the Middle East. This claim is baseless, and exclusively Canadian; no one other than Canadians recognizes Canadian policy as anything less than resolutely partisan towards Israel. Worse yet, it is deleterious to the causes of peace and justice in the region. Canadians desirous to serve these causes must stop reproducing this made in Canada myth. The first step towards reconciliation and peace in Palestine must involve an honest historical accounting, particularly of the events of the 1947-1948 ethnic cleansing. For Canadian foreign policy to make any positive contributions to these ends, its history must be similarly appraised, not ideologically valorized.

Sean F. McMahon is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the American University in Cairo and author of The Discourse of Palestinian-Israeli Relations. He can be reached at: smcmahon A T aucegypt D O T edu.