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The Deep Roots of Canadian Imperialism in the West Indies

March 31, 2020

Part 2 of ‘1970 Black Power Upsurge in Trinidad: A Commemoration’

Fifty years ago, in February-April 1970, the spark of Black student militancy in Montreal set off a mass popular upsurge in Trinidad and Tobago. It was the coming of age of the Black Power Movement in the Caribbean.

During the weeks that followed, I toured Trinidad and the Caribbean with U.S.-based socialist Tony Thomas to gather first-hand reports of the movement and its impact. Our reports appeared in a long out-of-print pamphlet, Black Power in the Caribbean (Pathfinder, 1971).

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of this historic event, I am posting these articles here, along with a study of events in the previous year Montreal that sparked the Trinidad upsurge.—JR

Black Power in the Caribbean: Contents

  1. The Rise of Black Power in Canada: The 1969 Student Protest Against Campus Racism,” by John Riddell (first published, January 27, 2019).
  2. The 1970 Mass Upsurge in Trinidad,” by Tony Thomas.
  3. Canadian Imperialism in the West Indies,” by John Riddell.
  4. Lessons of the 1970 Upsurge: A Discussion among Caribbean Activists,” by John Riddell

By John Riddell (First published in Labour Challenge, 1970; subheads added): The February 26, 1970, demonstration that sparked Trinidad’s revolutionary upsurge marched first against the Canadian High Commission, and then attempted to occupy the main branch of the Royal Bank of Canada. Accidental?

Canadian bank branch in Trinidad

The action was called by the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC), formed a year earlier, when angry demonstrations (in solidarity with students occupying Sir George Williams [Concordia] University in Montreal to protest against racism in Canada) prevented Canada’s Governor General from entering Trinidad’s university campus. The trial of the Sir George students provoked the February 26 action. Coincidence?

Canadian banks were a favorite object of demonstrations during the March–April upsurge. There were repeated fire-bombings and window-smashings of Canadian businesses. Unjustified vandalism?

How could the Canadian government and business elite come to suffer such indignities, when Canadian business has poured millions into the West Indies, when Ottawa generously donates no less than $24 million a year in foreign aid to the region?

Anyone you meet on Toronto’s Bay Street or Ottawa’s Parliament Hill can quickly tell you of Canada’s historically friendly relations with the Caribbean over the centuries since the first shipload of rotten Canadian fish was sold to feed West Indian slaves.

Was the Sir George trial merely an unfortunate accident? For Trinidadians, it dramatized the indignities suffered by their nation every day at the hands of Canadian and other foreign capital.

Canadian Colonialism

The real dimensions of Canadian capitalism’s stake in the West Indies appear to be a well-guarded secret. Even External Affairs Minister Mitchell Sharp pleaded his inability to get any statistics on Canadian profits from the West Indies, while estimating total Canadian investments there at something over $500 million. This would indicate total Canadian corporate profits of perhaps two to four times the amount of Ottawa’s economic aid.

But foreign investments, any capitalist will tell you, are necessary for the economic development of these backward islands, and the profits that accrue from them are only proper payment for the economic contribution they make. This theory will bring a bitter smile from any Caribbean historian. Once these “backward” islands were so rich that half a dozen empires scrambled to possess them. One island alone, Guadeloupe, was thought in 1763 to be equal in value to all Canada! Thanks to “foreign investment,” the wealth produced by Black slaves in the Caribbean was stolen to finance the industrial revolution in Europe while the islanders were left impoverished.

Milton Scott of the Jamaica Maritime Union explained that imperialism operates exactly the same way today. The largest Canadian investment in his country is held by the Aluminum Company of Canada – $175 million in bauxite. The bauxite worker is highly paid by Jamaican standards, but he earns half the North American rate or less, and his wages are about all that Jamaica has to show in return for the steady depletion of its richest resource. The bauxite companies send out much of their product without even the first stage of processing, and their industry produces ten jobs in North America for every one in Jamaica. Meanwhile, they hold a sixth of the land area, denying access to Jamaica’s land-hungry, impoverished farmers.

Role of Canada’s Banks

Yet another Canadian bank branch in Trinidad

Finance is the particular preserve of Canadian capital in the West Indies. In banking, 60% to 90% of the business in each island is in Canadian hands. The Canadian banks and insurance companies have a peculiar function: collecting the meager savings of West Indians and employing them not for the economic development of the region but for the further exploitation of its people. And the loans which the banks condescend to make in the Caribbean go to short-term and low-risk investments in trade or in the secure foreign-owned industrial sector. The banks have no interest in loans for agricultural development or factory construction, the very undertakings that could relieve chronic unemployment. “The government has had to establish its own independent financing wherever risks are involved,” Jamaican economist Owen Jefferson explained. “The foreign companies get the profits, we bear the risks.”

Go to Port Antonio in Jamaica and you can have a luxurious vacation for only $200 a day. You’ll be enjoying yet another of Canadian business’s peculiar contributions to the West Indies: Garfield Weston’s posh Frenchman’s Cove resort. Many islands are now totally dominated by foreign-owned tourism, and Canadian capital is prominent in raking in the profits.

But what benefits are there for the islanders? Half the tourist income is estimated to leave the islands immediately to pay for imports. Almost all the profits go abroad. For ill-paid and insecure jobs as waitresses, cabdrivers, etc., an entire people can be forced into the position of servants and beggars to the white masters from far away.

The economic development policy of the West Indian islands is aptly termed “industrialization by invitation.” The idea is to use various forms of subsidies to bribe foreign corporations to set up shop in the West Indies, in the hope that they will provide employment for local labor.

The extent of Canadian industry’s involvement in these subsidization plans is unknown. But many of the biggest names in Caribbean manufacturing are Canadian: E. P. Taylor, Roy Thompson, Labatt’s, Hiram Walker, Bata Shoes, Forsyth Shirts, Moore Business Forms – the list goes on and on.

Imperialist Bonanza

Royal Bank of Canada building in Trinidad

A Trinidadian economist, Edwin Carrington, has summed up the impact of subsidized foreign investment. First, he points out, it doesn’t develop the local resources. Governments are inviting in branch plants which on the average have imported no less than 60% of their raw materials. By the same token, the foreign “benefactors” produce only for the local market, not for export, and so produce only an extra drain on foreign exchange. Imperialist corporations bring in their own highly mechanized technology which employs little local labor. The share of labor in the national product is falling steadily. Modern machinery is more profitable and would be welcome if the profits went to establish new industries. But thanks to foreign ownership, the proceeds leave forever. Meanwhile the government subsidies to these foreign monopolies in Trinidad mount up to some 15% of the total government budget. And for all this, over its first thirteen years, the industrialization program supplied exactly 6,921 jobs – 7% of the increase in the labor force.

So to secure the bonanza of imperialist investment, Trinidad and the other islands whirl on the merry-go-round of subsidization, budget deficits, foreign-exchange problems – and yet more unemployment.

But industrial investment does not exhaust the disguises of Canadian imperialism in the West Indies. You may find it lurking, for example, in a Jamaican forest.

“Do you have any tropical jungles in Canada?” Jamaican Trevor Munroe asked me. “I was just wondering. We see your troops have come down here to train in jungle warfare. Do you think your government could tell us whose jungles they plan to fight in?” Will these troops be used against the next phase of the revolution to be unleashed in Trinidad? The Pentagon, tied down by the valiant resistance of the Southeast Asian peoples and by the growing resistance of its own population, needs allies willing to do its dirty work against the next revolutionary explosion. And Canadian troops have frequently been used against revolutions, in the guise of United Nations peacekeeping forces (Korea, Congo, Cyprus). Their preparations in the Caribbean pose an urgent danger.

Does the $24 million yearly in Canadian aid conjure up images of the selfless charity of a generous government? First of all, 47% of Canada’s foreign “aid” consists not of grants, but of loans that must be repaid with interest. If interest rates are lower than what we pay at the bank, they are substantial enough that many Latin American states now must pay more each year in interest and principal on past loans than they receive in “assistance.”

In addition, “foreign aid” is usually simply consumer credit for the purchase of Canadian goods. Terms regularly stipulate that aid recipients must spend the money in Canada, even when the goods in question can be bought more cheaply elsewhere. It has been calculated that this factor alone reduces the money value of aid by 20%. It also blocks the possibility of spending the “aid” to utilize and develop local resources, skills, and industries. The “aid” is in reality merely a backhanded subsidy to Canadian industries.

To add insult to injury, it is Ottawa which approves or rejects the projects for which aid is given. Such provisions ensure that “aid” will not go to projects that appear unconventional or threaten the stability of imperialist control – such as possible redevelopment of nationalized sugar estates.

Ottawa’s “aid” shows all the generosity of the bandit who, having robbed you of all your money and clothing, graciously offers to lend you $10 of your money (repayable monthly with interest) to buy the underwear that he peddles as a sideline.

Support Caribbean Anti-Imperialism

The outcry of revolutionary Trinidad against Canadian imperialism is a challenge to the Canadian labor movement, and all radicals, to take their stand in support of the Caribbean anti-imperialist movements. Canadian workers receive no dividends from their bosses’ West Indian operations.

But the Caribbean working class, whose militancy underlies the growth of Black power/anti-imperialist sentiment in the islands, will be a powerful and reliable ally in the struggle against the Canadian and U. S. monopolies exploiting both regions. Our first response must be to defend the revolutionary movement in the Caribbean against the repression, to defend the West Indies against any imperialist intervention.

We must support the demand of the West Indian revolutionaries that the holdings of Canadian corporations in the region be turned over to the West Indian people. And we must add that these corporations owe some back payments for the riches robbed from these lands.

Finally, we can pledge them the collaboration of the workers’ Canada we are fighting to establish. We will then place sufficient resources from our rich industrial technology at the disposal of the West Indian peoples for the development of the great social and economic potential of their lands.

Source: Labor Challenge 1970.

From → Colonial freedom

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