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Book Reviews

Power Trap: How Fear and Loathing Between New Democrats and Liberals Keep Stephen Harper in Power – and What Can Be Done About It

by Paul Adams

The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy

by Yves Engler

In September, at a conference in Boulder, Colorado, a couple  dozen academics crowded into a room to listen to Canadian university professors describe the Harper government’s disastrous energy and environmental policies. The audience was told just how disdainful the federal Conservatives have been of environmental assessment procedures and international climate change negotiations, while also being introduced to right-wing broadcaster Ezra Levant’s idea of “ethical oil.” It became clear that the tables had, to some small but still significant extent, turned. American progressives finally had reason to feel superior to their Canadian counterparts.

In a similar vein,  Yves Engler’s The Ugly Canadian catalogues the ways in which the current government’s approach has repositioned Canada in the international arena, beginning with climate change. Another new book – Paul Adams’s Power Trap – lays out a plan for centre-left Canadians to reclaim 24 Sussex Drive. The cumulative effect of reading the two is not fundamentally different from the feeling I got as one of the few Canadians in the audience at that panel in Boulder. Canada has changed profoundly in the six years since Stephen Harper and the Conservatives won their first minority. The only question is whether the change has been wrought by Harper or is reflective of a deeper political reorientation on the part of the Canadian public.

Collected in one pocket-sized volume, Engler’s description of Canada’s foreign policy since early 2006 is nothing if not alarming. The Ugly Canadian methodically moves from the tar sands to the Middle East – specifically Israel and Libya – and on to heightened militarism and promotion of the armed forces at home. Taken as a whole, Engler makes a convincing case that Canada has become far more hawkish since Harper was elected, and that Canadian corporate interests are promoted and supported overseas with little or no regard for basic workers’ rights or the environment.

Engler, an activist and author, will never be accused of being an elegant writer. The Ugly Canadian could almost have been written in point form or as an annotated bibliography. Which wouldn’t have been a bad idea, because at least then the book would have included some formal citations. Engler chose not to include any endnotes, stating that all the articles and documents he relied on are cited in the text and easily accessible through Google and the Canadian Newsstand database. At the risk of sounding like a stickler, this makes me uneasy. If you are attempting to build an argument as important as Engler’s, it seems counterproductive to forego endnotes or more formal citations.

Adams’s book is better written than Engler’s and features proper annotations. Unfortunately, it takes far too long to get some of the pressing items addressed in its somewhat unwieldy subtitle. Much of Power Trap is a rehash of the most recent federal elections and other key political moments, most notably Stéphane Dion and Jack Layton’s thwarted effort to create a coalition to oust Harper. The practical business of creating one big progressive party to challenge the Conservatives is relegated to the last fifth of the book.

To Adams’s credit, the former CBC and Globe and Mail reporter (and current Carleton journalism professor) incorporates some original reporting into the election accounts, like the story of Kevin Lamoureux, the last Liberal MP in Manitoba. But the high point of Power Trap is Adams’s case for bringing Liberals and New Democrats together. He argues that the twin issues of economic disparity and environmental degradation might excite both politically disengaged youth and progressives already participating in the political process.

Adams’s passion for seeing this happen is warranted, but his optimism that it could happen is not. It is hard to have any confidence that the New Democrats or the Liberals (or some amalgam of the two) will do anything meaningful to make the economy fairer or protect the environment. Both parties, in their current configuration, have, with rare exceptions, chosen political expedience over meaningful policy change, specifically in relation to the development of the tar sands.

The unsettling truth of these books is that the economic power of the tar sands and of other natural resource projects have turned more of us into what Engler would describe as ugly Canadians, unwilling to sacrifice the comfort and prosperity of the status quo for more altruistic goals. And even a political realignment of the
centre-left would be unlikely to change that.