Paul Kellogg is a teacher, researcher and writer at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, Athabasca University, Alberta, Canada. His focus is political economy (international and Canadian), globalization and social movements.
The tar sands development in northern Alberta is an ecological nightmare, and an insult to indigenous land rights. This nightmare and this insult are profoundly Canadian – shaped by Canadian corporations and Canadian government policies. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency by some in the movement to try and “off-shore” the problem, shifting the blame, in particular to China. This has no basis in fact, and opens the door to a nasty politics of xenophobia.
Listen to the rhetoric. Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, rightly highlighted concerns about a trade deal between Canada and China. But she irresponsibly raised the stakes, saying that, as a result of the deal, Canada would “become the resources colony in that context” (Scoffield, 2012).
Nikki Skuce from B.C.-based ForestEthics Advocacy, in a report on the tar sands that is receiving wide circulation, similarly argued that “Canada is about to move one step closer to being a resource colony for China” (2012a). She bases this claim on the assertion that “the vast majority of tar sands production is not owned by Canadians,” and focuses on the growing role of “rising Chinese Investment”. The combination, she says, is “positioning Canada as China’s resource colony” (Skuce, 2012b).
May and Skuce are quite wrong. Targeting an Asian country as “the problem” should set off alarm bells – particularly when that targeting takes place in British Columbia, a province with a noxious history of “yellow peril” politics. China might be undergoing a massive industrial revolution, but it remains a society far more impoverished than Canada.
More seriously, the term “colony” should not be used lightly. It is a very heavy term, loaded with meaning. For China in the 19th century, the encounter with European colonialism, meant the horrors of the Opium War (1839-1842), the Arrow War (1856-1858, sometimes called the Second Opium War), the resulting disintegration of social order in the 1850s and 1860s, and the subsequent carving up of various ports into “concessions” open to the imperialist powers (Dillon, 2010, pp. 29–119).
There is a colonial history in Canada in the same century, but it is not a story about Canada’s subjection by non-Canadians. It is rather a story of colonial violence, carried out by the newly created Canadian state, directed against the Cree, Assiniboine, Métis and other peoples, as Canada used force to consolidate its developing capitalist economy (Ryerson, 1975, pp. 309–423). Canada is not a victim of colonialism, but is rather a colonial power in its own right.
Further, this alarmism about Canada becoming anyone’s resource colony has no basis in fact. Statistics Canada has systematically collected data on all sorts of aspects of “who controls what” in the Canadian economy, going back decades. For oil and gas, we have access to two separate databases. One is from 1954 until 1986 (based on percentage of capital employed in petroleum and natural gas), and the other is from 2000 until 2010 (based on percentage of assets in oil and gas extraction and support activities).
The story told by these statistics is quite straightforward: Canadian control of the oil and gas industry is steadily increasing.