REVIEW | Yellow Ribbons: The Militarization of National Identity in Canada

Yellow Ribbons

Most Canadian intellectuals ask too many questions. They seem to love posing the kind of rhetorical query that hides a vicious truth-claim behind the innocent-looking interrogative form, flaunting a political mediocrity that masquerades as academic objectivity. Perhaps it is only the Socratic method at work. Perhaps it is a manifestation of that elusive Canadian politeness I’ve heard so much about. Or it could be an instinctual political caution that prohibits so many Canadian intellectuals from taking a firm and outspoken stand. Thankfully, A.L. McCready is not in their camp.

Born out of a 2012 dissertation at McMaster University, McCready’s newest book, Yellow Ribbons: The Militarization of National Identity in Canada, retains its objectivity while stating exactly where it stands. Yellow Ribbons charts recent changes in Canadian concepts of national selfhood, following in particular the state’s altered military role after September 11, 2001.

McCready demolishes the myth that “peacekeeping” is a major element in Canada’s foreign policy. This fiction is primarily for internal consumption anyway; it has not really been exported. As she points out, Canada actually plays a rather insignificant role in peacekeeping operations, with the bulk of UN peacekeeping roles borne by countries of the global South. McCready provides a highly instructive reading of the peacekeeping narrative as the “‘white man’s burden’ of managing global civility and creating order.” She likewise exposes the Canada-led “responsibility to protect” doctrine as permitting imperialist nations to “cloak their own interests and objectives in humanitarian rhetoric.”

However, it’s in her approach to that other much-touted facet of Canadian identity, multiculturalism policy, that I find a contradiction in McCready’s outlook. Throughout most of the book, she highlights the genocide of Indigenous nations and the Canadian state’s need to wield the weapon of racism to delineate the social borders of the nation. She underscores the salient truth that Trudeau’s vision of multiculturalism was aimed squarely at undermining Québec’s claim to national self-determination, casting it as one minority among many. McCready astutely shows that it is precisely because the Canadian nation is in a state of denial about its sinister origins that it traditionally claims no founding myth, instead affecting a self-deprecating, apologetic, and in her words, a “feminized” or subordinate national identity, particularly in contrast to American military power. She shows how the Harper Conservatives aim to eradicate these characteristics by supplying an alternative narrative of white, militaristic national heroes and historical events.

I find these highly important considerations at odds with her feelings that “multiculturalism is a zone of contention that both opens up and closes down opportunities for critical anti-racist work….As articulated under Trudeau, it was a moment of progressive Canadian nationalism.”

The Canadian nation is a Damocles’ sword suspended above Indigenous land, gilded with a sparkling pyrite called “multiculturalism.” I find it interesting that though McCready understands all of the foregoing, she can still speak of “progressive Canadian nationalism.” There can be no “progressive nationalism” when that nation’s existence is premised on genocide; no “multiculturalism” in a culture that goes hand-in-hand with racialization.

The chapter “Militarized Cultural Production” describes the “militarized multiculturalism” of government recruitment ads. McCready analyzes these ads for their ability to carry out a process of “taming multiculturalism.” But again I see a gap in the analysis. Military recruitment relies on the economic desperation and frustrated personal ambitions of racialized working-class young people – promising jobs, an opportunity to see the world, and a social status that they could never claim out of uniform. The ads’ demographic composition is not evidence of a tamed multiculturalism, but rather what the rhetoric of multiculturalism was always intended to do: permit racialized people to indulge the falsehood that they, too, can be part of the nation.

This problematic, though not thoroughly incorrect, perspective on Canadian nationalism resurfaces in McCready’s surprise at discovering that unions are often a bulwark of militarism. “Because unions are workers’ engines for social transformation, usually associated with social justice and equity, we might imagine unions to be opposed to militarism, but unions and militaries share an historical culture of fraternal, working-class masculinity.” It is far from masculinism alone that has helped to unify the nation. We need to look elsewhere to understand the fundamental coalescing bond between unions and the army.

Since their inception, unions have been organizations that provide class cohesion to the larger Canadian nation, by racially restricting whose labour was available for purchase. Asian residents of Vancouver in 1907, for example, would not have viewed unions as organizations dedicated to social justice. Union-led anti-Asian riots and persistent anti-Asian lobbying were the key instrument that permitted the government of the day to effectively close Canada to non-white immigration until the Trudeau era. While subordinate class position and immigrant backgrounds provided a fracture that might have led white Canadian workers to repudiate nationalism, the institutionalization of unions amid postwar prosperity and the Rand formula has prevented this for three generations now.

Both in terms of composition of leadership and membership demographics of representation and income levels, the white Canadian worker is the subject whom Canada’s unions are intended to serve. Today, unions function as bastions of class peace. More relevant to McCready’s argument, they benefit materially from military hardware contracts. One of the last manufacturing niches Canada can still claim is centred around war production. Imperialist war creates manufacturing jobs for workers who belong to the dominant nation. The army absorbs many of the unemployed who are left over.

There is no contradiction between recognizing these links that create national solidarity, and also seeing capitalist imperialism as exploitation of white Canadian workers, calling on them to sacrifice their lives when their labour is unneeded. In turn, an analysis of the military-labour nexus should not prevent us from paying attention to emerging union militancy among migrant communities and people of colour, particularly in the service sector and hotel workers.

Yellow Ribbons has moments of true brilliance, such as its diagnosis of the effects of CBC Radio’s Afghanada in debilitating the listener’s sense of moral clarity. McCready is correct to define the militarization of Canadian culture as a facet of capitalist restructuring towards global austerity model, transforming the welfare state into the security state.

Situating her point of view through the lens of Canada’s presence in Afghanistan since 2001, however, McCready crucially neglects the dynamics of the anti-war movement of 2003-4. The present process of militarization must also be understood as an ideological reaction to, and a conscious offensive against, the largest protest movement in human history, the genuinely mass-based finale to the “anti-globalization” era of left-wing activism that mobilized against the invasion of Iraq.

This movement posed a real threat to governmental stability in the years of minority rule by both Liberals and Conservatives. Even from a purely electoral standpoint, all other factors being equal, the anti-war mood within the Canadian public had to be skilfully neutralized. The federal Liberals fed off the protest movement by publicly refusing to join Bush’s coalition in attacking Iraq, all the while contributing to it, whereas Harper’s Conservatives could only grovel their way into the good graces of American militarism by shifting the Canadian political discourse away from notions of a sentimental Canadian exception to militarism.

McCready notes that she began research into the phenomenon of wearing yellow ribbons, worn to show support for the troops, with the expectation of finding an “autonomous, citizen-led kind of cultural militarization.” What she found, however, is mounting evidence pointing toward (at the very least) a role for the federal Conservatives in augmenting and promoting that cultural trend. Yellow ribbons were “the thin edge of the wedge,” functioning to “transform and constrain public space and discourse.”

Yellow Ribbons rigorously maintains a clinical tone, one of diagnosis and not of virulent denunciation. This care is necessary in approaching such a topic: her introduction refers to several family members and community members who have served in the Armed Forces. “The civic ethos that drives many to military service, the genuine desire for altruism, service, and the prospect of meaningful and gainful employment, are not small matters,” she writes.

It’s a relief to read something like this from the left. My own experience of university-based activist circles includes far too many people who can’t grasp these basic truths, while my experience of Canada’s racialized communities includes far too many for whom the army provides the only career path out of poverty. Such inability to comprehend the real-life factors that motivate such individuals was one key factor that prevented the anti-war movement from relaying its message of dissent into the lower ranks of the army and organizations of workers employed in arms production.

McCready is correct to point out the disconnect between the jingoism of the populist right and actual cuts the Conservative government has made to the Veterans’ Affairs budget, military pensions, and disability payouts. Canadian society has yet to understand the long-range effects of active combat role in Afghanistan in light of such policy decisions. Ex-soldiers feel the effects of this hierarchy of priorities in untreated PTSD, economic insecurity for themselves and their families, and feelings of depression and betrayal leading to drug abuse and suicide attempts.

The message of Yellow Ribbons is clear. For the last thirteen years, the assault on our way of life has not been conducted by “terrorists,” but by those who have adroitly marshalled Canadians into support for state-terror in Afghanistan and elsewhere, or else moulded them into accepting that militarism as an unalterable fact of life.