Tyler A. Shipley, Ottawa and Empire: Canada and the Military Coup in Honduras, Toronto: Between the Lines, 2017.
(Disclosure: I’ve known Tyler since we were both in a Russian history seminar taught by Oleh Gerus at University of Manitoba, sometime in the late 1990s).
NOTE: This is a pretty hot take, as I just finished the book last night. I’m hoping to revisit and write something more in depth in the near future, either here or in another venue.
The crux of Shipley’s argument can, I think, be summarized by saying that, at some point in the late 1980s, Canadian foreign policy turned towards an open imperialism, despite the maintenance by Canadian politicians and the culture industry of an image of Canada as ‘the good guys’. Shipley argues that, having slowly emerged into at least a sort of relative autonomy with respect to both Britain and the US, having subjugated and consolidated its hold on Indegenous land, Canada turned first towards making itself a competitive capitalist nation, and then towards an imperial project of its own. The ignominious collapse of Canada’s Peacekeeping operations transformed into a glorious military adventure in Afghanistan. In the meantime, Canadian politicians were greasing the wheels for Canadian capital throughout the world, with heavy interference in politics as a means for increasing and maintaining corporate profitability, notably in Central and South America.
Honduras is a case in point, as Shipley forensically uncovers the interlocking interests and maneuvers of the various parties involved in carrying out, legitimating, and maintaining the coup and its leaders. Honduran politicians, linked with drug traffickers and both public and private police forces, the Canadian corporations who are taking and ruining Honduran land through both quasi-legal and openly illegal methods, and the Canadian politicians who both interfere in local Honduran politics and legislation, and at the same time present the bright and shining, innocent face of Canadian “do gooderism” at home, representing the corrupt and rapacious Honduran state as good for Canadian business. They will also benefit from contact with Canada’s record of human rights, democracy, rule of law, and good governance, etc - the collective Tooth Fairy of Canadian culture.
It was interesting to read Ottawa and Empire so soon after Nick Dyer-Witheford’s Cyber-Proletariat. In many ways, Shipley’s book read like a “zooming in” to a detailed part of Dyer-Witheford’s global survey. The processes and mechanisms Dyer-Witherford describes at a global level, Shipley digs into in minute detail, fleshing out what can sometimes seem too high-level a view in Dyer-Witheford’s work. On the other hand, Cyber-Proletariat allows us to situate the Honduran case within a global network of money and productivity (and profitability) flows. The two books share a concern with exposing how both first-world leisure and comfort (Dyer-Witheford) and national self-identity are predicated, founded, on a material substratum of exploitation and violence. The iPhone requires not only the rare-earth mines, but the political and corporate ecosystem for the transformation of minerals into the technology that has become so ubiquitous as to be invisible. Similarly, the docility of the Canadian populace and their willingness to go (or be sent) to fight foreign wars, is predicated on the increased (and increasing) profitability of Canadian corporations on foreign soil: all of which are resumed in the name of Imperialism.
Despite being an academically rigorous work, Shipley’s book has two main advantages over the usual academic fare. On the one hand, it is exceedingly clearly written, something Shipley mentioned in an interview is vital to getting the book actually read, rather than simply sitting on a library shelf. On the other hand, Shipley was actually present for many of the things he describes. One expects this in a book of reportage, journalism or memoir, but in a work of recent history the effect of this can be quite shocking, as in the following passage:
In addition to the 12,000 police and 11,000 soldiers on duty on election day, the coup regime called up 5,000 reservists on November 13, 2009, and brought on an estimated 15,000 private security agents from fourteen different companies, temporarily granted military fatigues, weapons, and powers. These heavily armed commandos patrolled the streets, the voting stations, and the highway checkpoints across the country. As I travelle with Honduran human rights observers through different cities and towns in the southern departments on electiond day, and in the days leading up to it, we were subjected to almost constant stops and searchers, and as we sat in community meetings, we heard story after story of intimidation and violence. (62)
The immediacy of this kind of writing is impressive, and cumulatively adds to the urgency of the work and its message. The 2016 murder of activist Berta Càseres provides a focus for Shipley’s anger, as it does for the popular movements within Honduras. The book ends with an exhortation:
An embattled social movement in Honduras has declared that ‘Berta did not die, she multiplied.’ It is imperative that her spirit live on, not just in Honduras, but in the activist networks of the North as well. The Canadian government is on the wrong side of history, but individual Canadians need not be. It is my sincere hope that this book will compel greater collaboration and solidarity between the social movements and organizations confronting imperialism in Honduras and those in Canada. The need has never been greater. (173)
This is an important book, especially right now, when the left in Canada seems to be at an impasse, caught between a completely bankrupt party system and (in my opinion) a directionless movementism. I really like the idea that the left in Canada might learn from the popular movement in Honduras by focusing on immediate issues and needs. How we decide what those needs are is a difficult question, but one that I think is vital to address right now. Highest on the agenda must, I think, be Indigenous rights (whatever that looks like) and real movement on climate change. The hard part will be getting people to recognize, given the success of the Canadian propaganda machine, that these are even issues at all.