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Interview with Yves Engler – A Propaganda System: How Canada’s government, corporations, media and academia sell war and exploitation

This interview was recorded on October 9, 2016 at the University of British Columbia on the occupied, ancestral, unceded territory of the Musqueam people. It is important to recognize that institutions across these lands continue to perpetuate acts of colonial violence and dispossession towards the region’s First People and that questioning and dismantling these oppressive structures are necessary steps along the journey of decolonization.

Transcript below.

Scott Martens: Ok, Alright. I’m here with Yves Engler at the UBC Geography building which is located on the occupied traditional, ancestral, unceded territory of the Musqueam peoples. Yves Engler is a Montreal-based dissident, author, journalist and activist who has written a number of books critical of Canadian foreign policy, including The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid, The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy and Canada in Africa: 300 years of aid and exploitation. His most recent book is entitled A Propaganda System: How Canada’s government, corporations, media and academia sell war and exploitation. Thanks a lot for chatting with me Yves!

Yves Engler: Thanks for having me.

SM: In your new book A Propaganda System: How Canada’s government, corporations, media and academia sell war and exploitation you refer to the marketing strategies of the National Hockey League to outline the propaganda system within Canada. How do these analogies help us gain a better understanding of the propaganda system and its functions within Canadian society?

YE: Well first of all I think it’s in large part a sort of literary device to make the book a little bit more readable or popular. But if you start looking at how the manufacturing of support for the Vancouver Canucks, or in the book I detail the Montreal Canadiens, it’s very much tied to the team’s need to sell tickets, the team’s need to sell broadcasting rights, TV rights. And they work with many local businesses, local media outlets to generate a frenzy around the hockey team. And at the end of the day it doesn’t matter one way or another whether the Montreal Canadiens put the black rubber behind the opponent’s goalie more times than the other team puts the black rubber behind their goalie. But they create a sense that that is important. And I think that, when it comes to Canadian foreign policy, what I’m doing in this book is detailing the institutions (the military, foreign affairs, some of the corporations) that are very much generating a positive belief towards Canadian foreign policy a sense that what those institutions of Canadian foreign policy are doing is benevolent, is helpful, is righteous. And I think there is somewhat of a parallel with the NHL hockey teams.

SM: In your new book you note that the Department of National Defence’s Security and Defence Forum (SDF) sends money to the University of British Columbia’s Centre of International Relations** (p.34) and that “dozens of academics writing on military, security and foreign policy issues receive SDF funds” who “generally [articulate] pro-military positions.” (p.35) You also mention that SDF’s budget ranges from 2–2.5 million each year and the committee that allocates those funds are security studies professors and others who have “direct links with the military-industrial complex.” (p.37–38) UBC also receives funding from Boeing and Lockheed Martin. What effect does this funding have on educational institutions and the schooling that they provide?

YE: Well in the case of the Security Defence Forum, the military’s funding agency for the universities, the military wouldn’t be providing those funds if they didn’t think that it served the military’s public relations ideological objectives. So they are quite explicitly funding university programs to build up academic work, academic life in areas of study that serve their purposes and they have security studies programs at universities. The military documents that if they stop the Security Defence Forum that a number of security studies programs that current exist at Canadian universities would end, not necessarily over night, but with time. The military is also involved with setting up the security studies programs at Canadian universities so they provided the seed funding for those programs. So presumably many of those programs would never have developed without the military’s funding.

More generally with Boeing and Lockheed Martin, funding from arms companies, funding from corporations more generally seeps into what areas the research focus is put on. I think it also seeps into the general politics of universities. The more that university administrators focus their time on seeking out corporate funding that just seeps into how they view the institution. Likewise with academics, the more they seek out outside funding they obviously sort of start orienting their outlook in that direction.

With regards to Security Defence Forum another element I think that… you know they also fund graduate work, they fund conferences. So having some funding around from the military increases the likelihood of graduate students looking into or researching domains that Security Defence Forum is prepared to fund. You know, generally prods people in a direction in their academic pursuits that the military sort of prefers.

SM: Many people view Canada as the noble peacekeeper. How was this image adopted, what is its propagandistic function, and what are the geopolitical interests that Canadian peacekeeping has generally served?

YE: Well I think the propagandistic function of Canadian peacekeeping, or the sense that Canada is a benevolent force in the world, is to make the population trust officials, trust foreign policy decisions of the Canadian government. The history is that Canadian foreign policy decisions have been overwhelmingly motivated by supporting the British Empire, the US empire more recently and advancing Canadian corporate interests abroad. So the notion that Canada is a benevolent force in the world I think to a large extent puts the public to sleep in terms of being critical of our policy makers in their international decisions. So it’s, I think, effective in sort of giving politicians a free pass on foreign policy issues.

Specifically about the geopolitics motivating peacekeeping or UN peacekeeping it’s varied and you have to look at each specific UN peacekeeping mission to discuss it properly. But you can look at some important peacekeeping missions that Canada has participated in. The early 1960s in the Congo Canada very clearly helped US policy, which was designed to undermine Patrice Lumumba who was the independence leader in the Congo who was trying to break free from Belgian colonial rule. And Canada actually contributed to his assassination during that UN peacekeeping mission. A more recent example in 2004 Canadian peacekeepers in Haiti were part of a force that overthrew Haiti’s elected government. It was US, French and Canadian forces that ousted the president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and it was those three countries that ousted the elected government. Their forces then became part of a UN mission and the UN mission remains in the country to this day. So it’s really an occupying power from the standpoint of most Haitians. So UN peacekeeping as very much aligned with US lead geostrategic interests on a number of occasions. That’s not always what’s going on but that’s often been the case.

SM: We’re fast approaching Remembrance Day and once again the Royal Canadian Legion is distributing poppies. You point out “Today poppies commemorate Canadians who have died at war. Not being commemorated are the Afghans or Libyans killed by Canadians in the 2000s or the Iraqis and Serbians killed in the 1990s or the Koreans killed in the 1950s or the Russians, South Africans, Sudanese and others killed before that. By focusing exclusively on ‘our’ side Remembrance Day poppies reinforce a sense that Canada’s cause is righteous.” (p.56) Poppies obviously serve an important propagandistic function but what can you tell us about the Legion’s influence in schools and Canadian War Museums?

YE: The Royal Canadian Legion has been a force advancing militarist thought for almost a century in this country and Remembrance Day poppies, in my opinion, are a contribution to that. It’s sort of framed as protecting or commemorating those who fought, those who died or were victims to wars. But, I’ve had a number of discussions with those selling poppies in recent days in different places across the country and their description of what the whole poppy campaign is about is a very nationalistic description.

The Legion has been a force for militarist thought in that they have efforts to get veterans into schools to do programs in schools. They have efforts with teachers around Remembrance Day. They’ve also been a force that puts pressure on the Canadian War Museum when they weren’t happy with a museum exhibit regarding World War II. A few years ago in the mid 2000s the Legion put pressure against the Canadian War Museum to change an exhibit that said that Canadian fighter jet, pilots had contributed to the 100,000s of German civilians dying, being killed during World War II which is a basic fact of history. But the Legion didn’t want the War Museum to mention that fact and they were able to successfully put pressure against the Canadian War Museum to change the exhibit, which led to the head of the Canadian War Museum resigning. So the Legion has been a force that has put pressure on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) on some of its coverage. It’s been a bastion of militarist thought in this country.

SM: So looking at some of the donors for UBC again… mentioned earlier Lockheed Martin and Boeing. They have plaques specifically commemorating these people and corporations who have donated to the UBC school here in Vancouver and in the Okanagan. Donations from the fossil fuel industries including Chevron, Shell, General Motors, TransCanada, the American Petroleum Institute, Athabasca Oil Corporation, among others. (Referring to the “start an evolution campaign” where donors who gave more than $25,000 in gifts to UBC are recognized on the Leading Lights Pillars. You can search the list of donors at this webpage.)

Among the long list of Canadian mining companies that give donations to UBC is Goldcorp, Hudbay Minerals and SNC-Lavalin, who have committed human rights violations (here, here and here), and Imperial Metals, the company behind the 2014 Mount Polly mining disaster. In your book you state that “Internationally focused resource firms have donated tens of millions of dollars to Canadian universities. . . a consortium of BC mining companies donated more than $20 million to the University of British Columbia, including $5 million from Goldcorp.” (p.94) What are the implications of these corporate funds coming to Canada’s largest academic institutions? Also what is the Canadian International Institute of Extractive Industries and Development now called the Canadian International Resources Development Institute and what function does it serve?

YE: Yeah, well, I think in terms of mining funding to UBC, it obviously leads to… it’s partly a PR exercise for the companies. It provides to companies with some good PR to associate with a prestigious public university. The mining companies usually… I mean I don’t know all of the details of where the funding from these different mining companies went to and how it’s being used on the campus. But usually the companies are trying to get access to public resources that are housed in universities and benefit from a lot of the publicly funded infrastructure and they sort of come in and put up some money but it’s actually ultimately a very small sliver of the overarching cost of some the research or efforts taking place and then they gain benefits for putting up fairly limited amounts of money.

In terms of the Canadian International Resources Development Institute it was set up during the Harper government’s time, put up about $25 million [$24.6 million] from the federal government into the institute. And it’s designed to help the Canadian mining sector abroad. I think it was Julian Fantino, the minister in charge of Canadian Aid Agency that was behind the initiative initially, told the Canadian mining companies at a meeting that this would be “your biggest proponent abroad.” I’m not familiar with all of the details of its functioning but it’s designed really to advance Canadian mining interests abroad and the Canadian government has many different initiatives with different governments in Africa, it funds mining schools in Ethiopia, Senegal. The Canadian International Resource Development Institute is tied into a mining initiative called EXCEED, I’m forgetting what the acronym stands for, that’s funded by Canadian aid in Africa. And basically the Canadian government is a leading funder of mining-related aid initiatives on the African continent in large part because Canadian mining companies dominate on the continent. And these initiatives in different ways advance the interests of Canadian mining companies abroad.

SM: Alright, thanks Yves. We’ll have to continue this discussion. It’s a very interesting book. I have quite a few other questions but we’ll leave it there for times sake.

YE: Cool.

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**Note: The Centre of International Relations no longer exists at UBC.

Originally published on The Iconoklast.