That’s what we are becoming, according to Ottawa law Professor Amir Attaran. Outstanding credentials and impressive career achievements mean that we should pay attention to his proposition. Dr. Attaran writes in the June 2009 issue of the Literary Review of Canada. In his essay, this lawyer and scientist argues that Canada is liquidating its internationalism, losing the outward gaze that Prime Minister Lester Pearson cultivated, leaving today’s Canadians more insular than preceding generations.
Born in California, educated at Berkeley, Oxford and UBC, Attaran chose to become Canadian, attracted by this country’s traditional commitment to furthering international peace, development and human rights. But, Dr. Attaran believes that Canadian laws are now showing a dark side and today’s Canada would not please Lester Pearson. The former PM might even say that we are hazardously far down the road toward becoming a country of diverse but ugly Canadians.
Internationalism is a collective effort to make the world a safer and more prosperous place. Attaran sees growing evidence of Canadian exceptionalism, which he says is frequently arbitrary, unexplained or self-sabotaging. He notes bizarre applications of trade laws. For example, Canada has dedicated itself to use tariff preferences to encourage trade with poor nations and to promote democracy. How, Attaran asks, does Putin’s Russia or Mugabe’s Zimbabwe gain trade preference? Why do Hong Kong, Israel, South Korea and Singapore get the preference or Qatar, which per capita is the world’s richest country?
In further discussion, Attaran accuses Canada of deliberately maintaining the loosest corruption laws of any developed country. Bribery of foreign public officials is only criminal if the transaction occurs entirely in this country. Canadian executives can pass out cash stuffed envelopes around the world but they enjoy exemption from prosecution here. None of the other 29 OECD countries has this loophole and, despite mighty complaints from abroad, Canada cravenly refuses to close it.
Another area of Attaran’s concern is in public health regulation. Worry of an influenza pandemic makes this time critical. Again, Canada has paid lip service to international cooperation but fallen short in implementation. The Harper government passed a law to establish the new Public Health Agency of Canada but deliberately kept the agency toothless, even after criticism of the Auditor-General. When the federal government kept pertinent information secret while a listeriosis outbreak was killing Canadians, the World Health Organization concluded that Canada was a country of concern.
Finally, despite national self-righteousness, Canada has a rather poor record of respecting human rights. The UN’s International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance has been open for signatures since 2007, and so far 81 countries have signed. The Harper government refuses to sign, although it issued assurances that it “supports” the treaty. Attaran believes that Canada does not sign because it is contravening the treaty in Afghanistan. He fears that the agreement between Ottawa and Kabul on prisoner transfers makes Canadian soldiers complicit to torture in that war zone.
Attaran faults fellow academics and NGO leaders for failing to speak out and complacently accepting the drift away from effective internationalism. He blames widespread self-censorship on the dependence of individuals and institutions on government funding. He also says that government has given in to the convenience of employing experts and consultants selected from a sycophantic gallery. As in most established bureaucracies, contrarians are unwelcome, even driven out.
The Ugly Canadian is published in the Literary Review of Canada
Amir Attaran is a lawyer and biologist and Canada Research Chair in Law, Population Health and Global Development Policy in the Faculties of Law and Medicine at the University of Ottawa.