Where, after all, was the condescending pity for the peoples of the lands he sought to own? The promises to bring civilization, wealth and security to a benighted and troubled territory? The clever colonialist knows that marketing matters.
Take Canada, a country where important, serious-minded people in journalism, politics and academia are constantly floating absurd proposals for their country to seize, annex and control other nations that are no less preposterous than Trump’s Greenland plan. Yet, because these ideas are put forward with a certain genteel sanctimony, their authors are able to sell nakedly imperialist fantasies as merely the sensible benevolence of an advanced civilization.
Since at least the 1910s, proposals have been bouncing around Ottawa that Canada should annex an island chain in the Caribbean to “help” it in some way. It’s an idea that now takes form in a perennial fantasy that the supposedly struggling and unhappy Turks and Caicos Islands possess a latent desire to be absorbed by kind and loving Canada.
In 2004, inspired by then-Prime Minister Paul Martin’s purported interest in the idea, the Nova Scotia provincial legislature passed a unanimous resolution declaring (falsely) that the “Government of Turks and Caicos has expressed an interest in joining Canada” and, therefore, the province should “initiate discussions with the Turks and Caicos to become part of the Province of Nova Scotia and encourage the Government of Canada to welcome the Turks and Caicos as part of our country.”
Fascination with this idea transcends party lines. The tragic islanders are gripped by “widespread public belief that the status quo is not working and a desire for radical change” wrote Liberal Party adviser Andrew Steele in a preposterously grandiose Globe and Mail column in 2009 about the necessity of acquiring this “11th province.” A proposal to annex the island chain made it to the list of resolutions entertained at the New Democratic Party’s 2016 convention. Former Conservative MP Peter Goldring spent much of the last decade obsessed with this dream, declaring how the islands would “benefit greatly” from surrendering their sovereignty.
(Author Alain Deneault, for his part, has argued this seemingly fanciful idea actually has fairly cynical motives, and is largely an outgrowth of long-standing efforts by wealthy Canadians to establish a tax haven in the Caribbean.)
But the Turks and Caicos delusion is far from the most outlandish imperial dream that respectable Canada has entertained.
In 2017, distinguished Quebec law professor Richard Albert wrote a now fairly infamous column for the Boston Globe suggesting that the Caribbean nation of Haiti “should do something virtually unprecedented: renounce the power of self-governance and assign it for a term of years, say 50, to a country that can be trusted to act in Haiti’s long-term interests” — say, Canada. Noting that Canadians “yearn for real influence in the world,” Albert proposed “building Haiti anew drawing from Canada’s values of equality, diversity, and compassion, and its unique expertise in humanitarian assistance.”
The year 2017 also saw the Globe and Mail publish an editorial from award-winning Canadian author Ken McGoogan arguing the entire nation of Scotland should “join Canada.”
“The Scots aren’t happy with the rest of Britain,” he declared. “They aren’t happy politically with Westminster’s shift to the right.” They want greater control over their oil. Ergo, liberation through Canadian subordination.
Most recently, a column in the Tyee, a prominent left-wing publication, suggested that Canada, not the United States, should be the country making a “claim to Greenland.”
“Under Canadian control,” contributing editor Crawford Kilian declared, we can help stop the territory’s ice from melting, export their glacier water to “thirsty nations” in need, and address some of the chronic social problems plaguing the island. Greenland’s majority-indigenous population will surely be excited to “find new allies in their Canadian cousins, and vice versa.”
Canadian proposals to absorb new territories usually have an air of whimsy to them, but it’s a playfulness rooted in a chauvinistic assumption that Canada is a country of such self-evident goodness and purity, virtually anything it could imagine doing in the realm of foreign policy would be morally justifiable.
Imperialism is a mind-set as well as a policy — an attitude that the rest of the world exists primarily to serve your needs. Though every half-baked Canadian suggestion to annex this-or-that place tends to be framed as being in the annexee’s own best interest, there is never any shortage of domestic rationalizations as well, and these often take the form of assurances that a grand Canadian empire will finally bestow upon the country the greatness it has always deserved.
Though Canadians may enjoy looking down at supposedly jingoistic Americans and their voracious president’s bumbled project to grab Greenland, it’s worth considering whether the biggest thing preventing Canada’s leaders from acting on similar fantasies is just a lack of capacity.