Many Canadians see Bombardier Inc. as a Quebec company that gave us fun outdoor machines such as Ski-Doo snowmobiles, Sea-Doo watercraft and muscular all-terrain vehicles.
But a new book by a Mount Allison University professor paints a darker picture of a global corporation that is now a giant in aircraft production and high-speed rail transportation.
“Most Canadians would view Bombardier’s work, especially something like high-speed rail, as being relatively benign, maybe even good for the environment…a good thing for Canada,” says the book’s author, David Thomas. “But what I’m suggesting is that a lot of the mythology around the benevolence of Canadian actors needs to be deconstructed.”
Thomas, who’s a professor of politics and international relations at Mt. A., deconstructs that “mythology” of corporate benevolence in Bombardier Abroad: Patterns of Dispossession distributed by Fernwood Publishing in Nova Scotia. He defines dispossession as the process of stripping people of land and resources so that others can benefit from them.
During the book’s official launch this week at the Owens Art Gallery, Thomas said the inspiration for it came from his longstanding interest in the actions of Canadian corporations overseas as well as the ways in which Canadians themselves are complicit in those actions.
“So, for example, when our companies are operating abroad, there are lots of different ways that the Canadian government directly and indirectly supports companies working overseas, using our money, our taxpayer public funds, to help companies gain access to markets,” he said. “Most of us are invested in one way or another in the companies either through the Canada Pension Plan or [other] investments.”
Bombardier’s ‘contested’ projects
Thomas’s book examines Bombardier’s involvement in three controversial high-speed rail projects in South Africa, China/Tibet and Israel/Palestine. He argues these projects have heightened social and political tensions partly by entrenching racial divisions in South Africa that favour the mobility rights of privileged white professionals over those of impoverished black workers and partly by denying Tibetans and Palestinians political independence and control over their own land.
“The Israel/Palestine case, I think is a fascinating case,” Thomas says. “The controversial part of the project is that the rail line, for six kilometres, crosses into the occupied West Bank.”
Thomas adds that the route through Palestinian territory raises questions about the violation of international laws and UN resolutions that prohibit an occupying power from confiscating land in an occupied territory.
In two small Palestinian villages in the West Bank — Beit Iksa and Beit Surik — residents have struggled against Israeli occupation and annexation of their land for many years. While the Israeli state has historically confiscated land around these villages to build illegal settlements and the separation wall, the most recent land seizures are for a different purpose — the construction of a high-speed rail line connecting Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, promising to move travellers over the 56 kilometres between the cities in 28 minutes flat. (Excerpt from Bombardier Abroad: Patterns of Dispossession)
“Bombardier didn’t build the rail line,” Thomas says, “but they will be running their trains on that line.” He notes that even though it officially opposes confiscation of Palestinian land, the Canadian government is not questioning the Bombardier project.
Thomas rejects the company’s argument that its international business projects have nothing to do with politics.
“All of the projects in this book are deeply contested by local people,” he says, “and all of them involve very political concepts and ideas such as sovereignty, self-determination, territorial integrity and so, when the people on the ground are telling us that this project is political and this project is deepening existing political problems in the area, I think we need to reassess the idea that they’re just conducting business and it’s not political in any way.”
Thomas’s book argues that the railway projects in China/Tibet and Israel/Palestine are examples of what some scholars call “settler colonialism” in which indigenous people are displaced from their land and replaced, in these cases, by Chinese or Jewish settlers.
He notes that Canada itself is a settler colony.
“Because we live in a settler colonial state and because that is overall normalized in society and in government, then it becomes easier to justify our involvement in similar acts of dispossession and colonialism overseas,” he says.
Thomas’s book expresses the hope that it will awaken Canadians to overseas business projects that dispossess local populations and also make Canadians more aware of their own complicity:
As a settler on this land, my intention is not to deflect attention from, or abdicate responsibility for, contemporary forms of dispossession in Canada by focusing on case studies abroad. On the contrary, my goal is to highlight the fact the Canadian actors are simultaneously complicit in processes of dispossession both at home and abroad and that dispossession abroad is in some ways normalized because of dispossession at home.