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Yves Engler is a highly acclaimed Canadian writer and researcher. He has just completed an explosive new book, Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation. I caught up with Yves before he sets off on his cross-Canada book tour beginning tonight in Montreal.
Michael: This is your eighth book in less than a decade, what the f*** do you eat for breakfast?
Yves: Uhhh. I try and eat just fruits in the morning for the first few hours of the day, because I hear that’s supposed to be healthy. I do that, then I spend lots of my time writing and researching.
Michael: Is it true that you played left wing for the Chilliwack Chiefs?*
Yves: That is true. It wasn’t the most glorious of Chief careers, but it was a short stint with the team.
Michael: Is that where you developed your politics?**
Yves: Yes. It’s actually probably the best place in the country to become aware of Canadian foreign policy [as there are] debates taking place between players in the lead-up to the game; the coach tells us that’s what you have to do to get your mind prepared for playing.***
Michael: When people think of Slavery, they think of the U.S.A and often overlook Canada. However, Canada still has monuments erected celebrating slavery profiteers. Many people don’t realize Canada benefitted from slavery. Based on your research, can you explain Canada’s relationship with slavery?
Yves: First of all, McGill University is named after somebody who had slaves. So [there are] some pretty big monuments in the country that have that history tied to it.
Canada’s probably most important Canadian connection to the enslavement of Africans was the selling of goods to the plantation economies in the Caribbean, primarily cod from the Atlantic provinces from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. There was a whole lot of wealth made in trade with the Caribbean plantation selling cod because the slave owners didn’t want to devote any area to growing food stuff. They wanted to devote it all to sugar for export. So they bought poor quality cod from the maritimes.
There were also connections [with] Canadians... in current day Canada who went down to [the] Caribbean to suppress the Haitian slave revolt and other connections like that [which] Canada has to African enslavement.
Michael: Many take the position that we do not need new gold at all and say this industry should no longer exist. Yet, from Central America to Africa and beyond, Canada is a global leader in mining for gold. How would you describe Canadian mining impacts on Africa?
Yves: It’s an incredibly destructive process. Canada is a global mining super-power across the African continent. [In] most countries in Africa, there are Canadian mining companies operating, obviously including in the gold sector. [For example, a] major company like Barrick Gold, a Toronto-based company, the biggest gold company in the world, has major operations in Tanzania. Operations that have seen dozens of people killed by Barrick security or police Barrick pays for in Tanzania -- people often searching for small bits of gold and the security forces run them off of the site and often kill them.
There is all kinds of abuses and in the book I document a whole bunch of abuses [by] Canadian mining companies displacing communities, incredible ecological damage, death, and rapes, and all kinds of different human rights abuses. But beyond the specific cases, there is a bigger question of whether the entire foreign-dominated mining sector across the continent, whether that is beneficial to most Africans. I think it probably isn’t.
In certain circumstances, constrained mining companies obviously can be beneficial to communities, but for the most part [in] most countries in Africa there [are] very low royalty rates. Foreign companies completely dominate. Canadian government officials are actively promoting the industry, promoting reductions [in] royalty rates, promoting flexible labour policies, promoting low environmental standards. The sum total of the industry, or of the process, is that basically the African continent continues to be what it was during the colonial period, which is an exporter of raw materials and in a position of incredible economic dependence, with Canadian mining companies a major player in that process.
Michael: Vancouver Canucks or Montreal Canadiens?
Yves: That is actually one of the hardest questions.****
Michael: Propagandhi or Rage Against the Machine?
Yves: Rage. I only came into Propagandhi much later. Teenage years were spent listening to a whole lot of Rage.
Michael: What is your favourite Rage song?
Yves: Good question. Probably Killing In The Name Of. One of my best concert experiences was jumping the fence, sneaking into the Rage show down at [Plaza of Nations] back in 1997/98. A good friend was not able to make it over the fence, and he has not been able to live that down [laughs].
Michael: I have a quote by Todd Kowalski of Propagandhi, and I’d like your response to it:
The problems of Africa have become cliche here in the West. This is absurd to me as every single country in Africa is different and interesting on its own. Many have suffered endlessly at the hands of Western corporations, “explorers”, slave traders, missionaries, corrupt officials, and armies. To read about Africa is to get a firmer grasp on how the world truly works, and is also a good way to understand failed states, genocide, world imbalances and disasters. I think if we read and care and make the continent more familiar to ourselves, we will find that there is a lot really good sh*t going on, and a lot of rockin‘ tunes. And maybe we will not think of the suffering as just the way it is, in a place that seems like it’s on a different planet. A new world can open up for us, if we take the time to look, and everyone will be better off for it.
Yves: Yeah. That’s a very good summary of the situation. When you hear about Canada helping and all the rhetoric promoted about saving Africans, when you look a little deeper into the processes in which Canadian corporations, British imperialism, or different forces have played in terms of undermining African economic and political freedom, you realize there is some big lies being told...I can’t speak to the situation with the tunes [laughs], but it’s very important for people to demystify that there’s obviously different countries with very different histories on one hand; but on the other hand, it is important to be conscious of the ways in which Canadian policy, European policy, has led to a situation where there is incredible economic divide between most people living in North America and most people living on the continent of Africa.
Michael: Legendary labour organizer and folk singer Utah Phillips once famously said, “The earth is not dying, it is being killed and those who are killing it have names and addresses.”
This book of yours, Yves, it not only makes the reader aware of the injustice being committed by Canada, but the book identifies the institutions people have, or should have, influence in that are contributing to the injustice in Africa. What do you most want people to take away from reading this book?
Yves: The first thing is to be incredibly critical, or skeptical, of the official claims of Canadian officials with regards to foreign policy; more specifically, foreign policy towards different African countries. Also, I’d go further with that, not just official politics, but the dominant media and much of academia have been complicit in distorting the reality of Canadian foreign policy. So people need to be a whole lot more critical.
Also, [for people] to be more conscious and pay more attention to Canadian policy on the continent, because these are real questions of life or death. When Ottawa decides to go to war in the case with Libya in 2011 there was, and there continues to be, major consequences for many people in Libya and many of the states around there. Part of the whole refugee crisis that we are seeing in the media now today, some of that flows out of very direct policy decisions of Canadian decision-makers.
So people need to be conscious of the ways in which [the] Canadian government and corporate policy is contributing to suffering in Africa.
For a full list of locations for Yves Engler’s cross country Canada in Africa book tour, including stops in Nelson, Abbotsford, and Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories, check out: www.yvesengler.com
*Beloved, but inappropriately named, Junior A hockey team.
** Chilliwack and surrounding areas is often described as the “bible belt”, with predominant leanings towards conservative politics.
***Sarcastic answer to a facetious question.
****Not a sarcastic answer at all. As an avid hockey fan growing up in Vancouver, but living in Montreal for the past 15 years, Yves truly struggled answering the question.