Book Review: Intent for a Nation

Vancouver political scientist Peter Pronzos emailed this review of Michael Byers’ new book, Intent for a Nation:

“…so close to the United States”

By Peter Pronzos

Book review of Intent for a Nation: What is Canada For?
By Michael Byers
Douglas & McIntyre, 248 pages, $32.95

When former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien bowed to public opinion and refused to send young Canadians to fight in Bush’s illegal war in Iraq, the Vancouver Board of Trade boldly sprung into action.  It sent a letter of apology to the U.S. government, stating that the Board was “shocked and embarrassed” that Canada did not join the “coalition of the willing”. (I may be wrong, but I don’t recall any members of the Board volunteering to go into combat themselves.  Perhaps, like Vice-President Cheney during the U.S. attack on Vietnam, they had “better things to do”.)

The Canadian response to international crises such as the “war on terror”, rampant poverty, the militarization of space, and global warming are the focus of the latest book by Michael Byers, who teaches Global Politics and International Law at the University of B.C. He discusses these serious topics with a style that is informative, engaging, clear, and even funny at times – qualities that are often lacking in writing by academics. His use of personal anecdotes adds to the charm of the narrative, which attempts to provide some perspective on the big question: “What is Canada for?”  In exploring this theme, Byers looks at both previous foreign policy decisions, as well as current challenges.

Naturally, much of the discussion revolves around our relationship with the United States. One of the most useful aspects of this book is to remind us of those times where Canadian involvement really did make a difference, such as the Suez crisis of 1956, various peacekeeping operations, helping to draft the treaty banning landmines, and supporting the creation of the International Criminal Court.  He demonstrates just how critical a role Canada can play, given our abilities, wealth, and generally positive international reputation.

It is that very reputation that is threatened, Byers claims, by the tendency of Canadian governments – especially that of the ruling Conservative Party – to go along with reckless policies of the Bush regime.  He points out, however, that the problem is not just pressure from Washington; there are also domestic Canadian interest groups that promote policies that are opposed by the majority of Canadians.

The discussion of the Pentagon’s plan to militarize the heavens (“Star Wars”) is a good example of this internal dynamic.  Byers makes a strong case that taking part in the Bush administration’s “missile defense” system would be dangerous to Canada, as well as increasing the risk of yet another nuclear arms race.  If this is so, then why do some individuals and groups urge Canada to go along with the U.S. program?

Byers believes that one answer is that, “Harper and his colleagues have always believed that Canadians would just as happily be Americans” (although my guess is that this is a case of both projection, and wishful thinking, on Harper’s part). More significantly, Byers points out that, “one striking characteristic of Canadian proponents of missile defense was how many of them were either members of the corporate elite or financially supported by them.”  Not only do some Canadian companies profit directly from military spending, but the business sector as a whole views good Canada-U.S. relations as vital to the corporate bottom line. From this perspective, doing anything to upset the U.S. that might reduce Canadian trade – and profit – is to be resisted, hence the desire of the Vancouver Board of Trade that young Canadians offer their lives in Iraq to placate the U.S. government.

Of course, most Canadians prefer to see ourselves in the role of peacekeepers, and Byers cites an Angus Reid poll in 2006 showing that 87% agreed that helping to keep the peace is an “essential” duty for our soldiers.  In reality, however, our participation in peacekeeping has been declining dramatically for decades, as more and more money is pored into conventional military operations and equipment.

This shift in focus is one reason that Canada cannot help to end the continuing horrors in the Darfur region of Sudan, where over 200,000 people have been killed so far.  Last year, the United Nations finally authorized the deployment of a peacekeeping force, but, as Byers laments that: “instead of rushing to contribute to – or even lead – the mission, the Canadian government has held back, claiming that its commitments in Afghanistan preclude another mission elsewhere.” Exactly.

The discussion on global warming focuses on Canada’s “dismal record”, including the Liberal government’s refusal to take the Kyoto Accord seriously.  Since then, the Conservatives have at least had to honesty to say that their government has no intention of living up to our international agreement. (This stand reflects what Stephen Harper wrote in 2002: “Kyoto is essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations.”  Harper seems to be implying that this would be a bad thing).

Another chapter argues that we have over-reacted to the threat of international terrorism, and that we should not be too hasty when it comes to restricting traditional Canadian freedoms.  The chapter is titled, “Get a Grip”.

Another area where Byers argues that Canadians should be concerned is our northern regions.  The melting the ice from global warming is threatening the eco-systems there, and in a decade or so it will open a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific through Canadian waters. Except – the United States says that Canadian claims in northern waters are illegitimate because “the Northwest Passage is an ‘international straight’” in Washington’s eyes.

However, the question of sovereignty in the north is not only relevant for shipping.  As oil prices – and profits – skyrocket, and as supplies are being used up, it is important to keep in mind that the “U.S. Geographical Society estimates that 25 per cent of the world’s undiscovered fossil fuels are located under the Arctic Ocean.” It is an understatement to say that the question of sovereignty and ownership of these resources will be an increasingly critical one in the years to come.

A consistent theme that emerges throughout the book is that of the threat of further integration with the United States, in economic, military, security, and other ways.  Byers believes that Canada is “being targeted for continental integration by stealth” through such deals as the semi-secret Security and Prosperity Partnership plan.
The discussion on water exports is one of the potentially most crucial, as shortages in the States have caused many U.S. politicians to cast envious glances at our lakes and rivers.  It is still unclear if the NAFTA agreement will be interpreted to mean that Canada could be forced to send this precious resource south to help water golf courses and lawns.

One of the ironies regarding moving into a closer orbit with the United States is that integration is being pushed at the same time as the differences in the attitudes of Canadians and Americans on a host of issues – such as gun control, the “war on drugs”, immigration, and the use of military force are growing wider year by year (as Michael Adams has shown in his book, “Fire and Ice”).

It is Byers’ belief that Canada can potentially play a very significant role in making the world a more peaceful and more just place, and that we take the lead in creating a global economy that is ecologically sustainable. However, these initiatives will rarely come from the government. Byers contends that they will only come into being if Canadians insist that our political leaders put private interests aside and actually do what the public wants.

In Political Science, the technical term for this form of government is “democracy”. His hope that Canadians can become active citizens rather than mere spectators is why the book is sub-titled: “A relentlessly optimistic manifesto for Canada’s role in the world.”

My quibbles with the book are just that.  For instance, by referring to the military-industrial complex (President Eisenhower’s term) as the “defense” industry,  the book tacitly reinforces the idea that its true purpose is indeed a benign one – national defense and the promotion of freedom.  Instead, the military-industrial complex has a rather more complex series of goals, including the expansion the U.S. empire and protecting what leading U.S. dissident Noam Chomsky calls the “freedom to rob and exploit.”

Also, I believe that Byers somewhat underestimates the role of public opinion and social movements in creating a unique and independent Canada, while giving a bit too much credit to individual politicians.  For example, Tommy Douglas didn’t achieve a public health care system all by himself, just as Jean Chretien only refused to participate in the invasion of Iraq because most Canadians were strongly opposed to it. (A notable exception was, of course, Stephen Harper, who argued that Canada should have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with George Bush).

One final criticism: too many sentences end in exclamation marks!!

Despite these sins, “Intent for a Nation” is an engaging call-to-action for all Canadians who are worried about our future and the choices the government will be making in our name. Perhaps the traditional Mexican lament should now be re-written to apply to the True North as well: “Poor Canada – so far from God, and so close to the United States!”

Peter G. Prontzos is a Research Associate for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.  He teaches Political Science at Langara College in Vancouver and recently served on the Peace and Justice Committee of the City of Vancouver.


  • Rachelle Czerwinski

    Byers’book seems to relate the same basic ideas one can read in Maude Barlow’s:”Too Close for Comfort: Canada’s Future within Fortress North America”. It is comforting to see that many academics share the same concerns regarding the relations between canada and the US

  • This post reminds me of an op-ed by Michael Byers printed in The Globe and Mail on March 11, 2005: “We Can Settle This: Let’s Trade Oil for Fish.” Essentially, he recommended that Canada abandon its claim to a contested portion of the Beaufort Sea to get the US to abandon its claim to a contested region between the Alaska Panhandle and BC.

    Trading the former area’s oil and gas for the latter area’s salmon fishery has never struck me as a good deal for Canada, although I have not explicitly tried to estimate the value of either resource. Byers’ op-ed also seems potentially inconsistent with his subsequent outspokenness on Canada’s Arctic sovereignty. Does the book shed any more light on his oil-for-fish proposal?

  • Andrew Jackson

    I heard Michael being interviewed at some length on CBC Radio last Sunday. I think he’s an important voice, very much in the Axworthy mould though also critical of much of the Liberal foreign policy and defence record.

    I suspect that the answer to Erin’s question is 1. that the salmon are in BC while the Beaufort Sea oil is not, and 2. that Professor Byers teaches at UBC. Alas, he may be not be the first Canadian nationalist to put province first! (Where do you stand on this one Marc?)

  • August 12, 2007
    Michael Byers puts a clear message out to those open to recieve. The details of coverage has potential to reconnect us with our past as a nation. Much of what Byers writes confirm my own observations and views particulary those final chapters of the book which clearly show Canadian Militery cohesion with USA deepening. It is not too late to raise our voices, stand up to those in our own military and associates that crave cohesion with The Big Boys Club in the USA. Why align our country with questionable values when we have already established peaceful intent internationally.

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