In Search of Heroes: Canada's Peacemaker Myth
By Richard Sanders, Coordinator, Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade
The prevailing mythology that Canada is a major player promoting peace on the global stage is a powerful part of our national psyche. From an early age, our cultural beings are infused with this well-honed message about who we are as Canadians and what our country represents internationally. To free ourselves from such an all-pervasive belief structure is a difficult challenge. Even when presented with the facts about Canada's long-standing roles in aiding, abetting and committing crimes against peace, humanity and the environment, many will not discard this cherished national myth.
The Canadians peace movement's work begins with public education to make the public aware of our country's involvement in war and repression around the world. Because our government excels in preaching peace and yet promoting war, our best strategy may be to expose state hypocrisy. For example, while government leaders make glorious public speeches about Canada's heroic peace efforts, they shamelessly promote war industries that profit from ruthlessly exploiting people and natural resources.
Our government - and particularly the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) - leads the way in assisting corporations to reap the rewards of an unjust global economic order. They proudly extract wealth from the world's poorest nations. Canadian military corporations have received billions of dollars in grants from our government. For this dutiful obedience to corporate interests, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party before it have been richly rewarded. They have received millions of dollars in donations from Canada's largest military exporters. These corporations know very well who their friends and allies are. Do we?
Oddly enough, some believe that representatives of the very institutions profiting from war are their allies in the struggle for peace. How can we seriously expect that government officials so closely intertwined with the interests of the military industrial complex will serve as our allies against those who line their pockets? No amount of window dressing or polite diplomatic gesturing should be enough to excuse the horrors committed by our government and its corporate allies. Given the financial connections between government and industry, and the extreme hypocrisy evident in our government's posturing on peace issues, we simply cannot trust government officials to act in good faith on these issues.
No doubt this argument has been raging for thousands of years. There have always been those who accept the prevailing mythology and "work within the system" to try to influence incremental changes.
The Hero's Hidden Face
Crucial to all myths is the hero who champions the fight against evil by courageously going into the fray to battle for what is good. Within the prevailing Canadian passion play, Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy is often portrayed in this heroic light.
Before examining the claim that Minister Axworthy is a hero for peace, let's look at the role of hero in ancient mythology. The hero of Homer's Odyssey is Odysseus. He has superhuman powers and is allied with the gods. As a great warrior, he commands the strongest army and navy of his day. The myth is a backdrop for showing off the hero's exploits. These are calculated to display his bravery, wit, wisdom and great feats of strength. The common folk are taught that their leaders are descended from the gods and that their heroic missions around the world are fraught with many dangers as they struggle against evil. By building a nation's pride in its heroes, myth builds nation's pride in itself.
But the Odyssey is also a horrific tale of Odysseus' leadership in the sacking of cities, the plundering of other nation's wealth and the sale of enemy women and children into slavery. The violent excesses of Odysseus are also turned against Greeks who dare to challenge his right to power. In ancient times, as in today's world, war is a deterrent to those who dare oppose the mythical hero, or the interests of his class or nation.
An important but overlooked role of myth, whether ancient or modern, is to build the public's fear and acceptance for the heroic leader and his exploits. The myth teaches that excessive violence is an essential tool in the hero's noble struggle for his nation. No matter what horrific deeds our hero commits, and no matter what cities he has plundered for economic gain, he remains worthy of our respect and obedience. We must stand by him, or we will incur the wrath of gods. The hero's violence is used to protect the status quo but it is presented as if it were necessary for the betterment of the whole society and indeed of the noble and righteous principles of justice and goodness. In short, the myth teaches the necessity of fighting and supporting what some now call "humanitarian wars." The inexcusably violent excesses of ancient mythological heroes, though fantastic, pale in comparison to the wars waged by today's rulers.
Thanks to government and media propaganda, there are many who believe that Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy is one of those whose struggles for peace from within government confines are sometimes hurt by the peace movement. This perception of Minister Axworthy as peace activist is a central part of the grand, national myth of "Canada the Peacemaker." In fact, Minister Axworthy has the starring role as valiant hero of the myth. But like the heroes of old, Canada's hero also has a dark side. He has a dual persona; he is two-faced. On one hand, he leads the government department responsible for promoting the export of Canadian military hardware. In this capacity, behind closed doors, Minister Axworthy signs the permit forms that authorise exports of a vast array of Canadian weapons systems. Their destinations read like a who's who of regimes notorious for engaging in war and for terrorising their citizens with the systematic use of torture, extrajudicial executions, unfair trials and the imprisonment of peaceful protesters. On the other hand, with much public fanfare, our great smiling hero signs declarations to promote peace by discouraging the use of one particular weapon - the antipersonnel landmine, which the government had stopped exporting during Tory rule in the mid-1980s.
Minister Axworthy's first persona serves as a boon to the war corporations that profit from strife and repression in foreign lands. His second persona is well crafted to please a naive public that desperately clings to the belief that their cherished myth is true. Both persona aid in his party's re-election. The first ensures that his party's war coffers are brimming with corporate donations, while the second casts its spell on voters eager for peace.
In deciding whether Minister Axworthy is really the peace movement's ally within government, we shouldn't overlook his dutiful promotion of military exports. Some may argue that we should ignore this behaviour as it is merely an anomaly in Minister Axworhy's otherwise good policy record. Let's examine that record.
When Indonesia's General Suharto considered cancelling his attendance at the APEC summit in Vancouver, Minister Axworthy sent a letter assuring the dictator that Canadian authorities would ensure that protesters would not embarrass him. (Suharto came to power during the mid-1960s in a CIA-backed blood bath that left between 500,000 and 1,000,000 dead. This blood bath opened the flood gates. Multinational corporations flooded in and the wealth of Indonesia flooded out. Canadian corporations were among those that benefited the most.)
Minister Axworthy supported our country's participation in the 1991 bombardment of Iraq and he continues to support the genocidal, economic U.S./UN embargo that has, so far, resulted in over one million deaths, mostly children. (Currently, one of Canada's state-of-the art warships is continuing to enforce this devastating blockade in the Persian Gulf.)
Minister Axworthy's "good guy" image was put to use rallying support for recent U.S. military attacks. He publicly supported the illegal U.S. bombings of Sudan and Afghanistan and he was a major supporter of Canada's role in NATO's, U.S.-led war against Yugoslavia. (Our government admits that Canadian warplanes conducted 560 air raids and dropped about 1,000 bombs on Yugoslavia.)
Since NATO's horrific war, Minister Axworthy has been a leading champion of the neoliberal, public relations ploy designed to package future, U.S.-led acts of aggression. This so-called "humanitarian war" philosophy is a kinder, gentler version of the Cold War "peace through strength" doctrine. This same philosophy has taken many guises since ancient times when it was summed up in the Roman maxim: "If you want peace, prepare for war."
During the Mulroney era, Axworthy carefully cultivated his progressive image by courting peace and other grassroots movements. Now, he acts as a front man for the status quo, brilliantly putting the government's best face forward on the very policies that he countered while in opposition.
Certainly there are other, far more right-wing politicians in the Liberal cabinet than Minister Axworthy. They must be pleased that his "nice-guy" image deflects public attention away from the war policies that arise from the back rooms of DFAIT and the "Defence" Department. With Minister Axworthy's "good cop" image and gestures of peace, he deflects public attention from the government's bellicose foreign policy. While Minister Axworthy performs a few popular parlour tricks in the front lobby to distract the public, others work overtime behind the scenes to dream up much larger-scale policies, like "Defence 2020," which will even further integrate Canada's military into the U.S. war machine.
Seeing through the Myth
The myth of "Canada the Peacemaker" shapes the way that we see ourselves, our country and our political leaders. It is a myth that elevates certain politicians to the status of hero in a global battle between good and evil. By doing this, the myth serves the vested interests of corporations and their representatives in government. It is part of a complex strategy to blind the public to crimes that are committed by our country's elite in their selfish pursuit of corporate welfare.
The age-old struggle for peace and justice is also struggle for truth. It is a struggle to confront the prevailing myths of our time. Much of the peace movement's strength comes from an analysis of contemporary events which is rooted in a radical understanding of history. This allows us to see through the powerful myths of our day and to confront those who promote and benefit from war and injustice.
Because peace activists are as much a part of Canadian culture as anyone else, we are not immune from being deceived by the mainstream culture that engulfs us. To be effective we must remain vigilant in our efforts to expose and oppose prevailing cultural constructs, like the myth of "Canada the Peacemaker."