The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: Africa

Stephane Dion’s Opportunity for Renewal

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This post is also available on National Newswatch here.

IT PROVED TO BE A SEMINAL MOMENT FOR CANADA-AFRICAN RELATIONS – not just for me during my tenure as a Member of Parliament, but for Canadian politics and the work of the civil service.

It was May 2009. The setting was Centre Block, where the Foreign Affairs Committee was facing 19 African ambassadors who had come together in support of 8 African nations – Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Kenya, Malawi, Niger, Rwanda, Zambia – who had recently learned through the media that their foreign development assistance was about to be severely cut by the Harper government.

It’s all recent history now, but the effects of what appeared to be a betrayal of commitment lingers to this day, and that’s why it’s still important. The champion in that moment was Burkino Faso’s ambassador, the intrepid Juliette Yameogo, and her inference couldn’t have been more pronounced:

“We only want to understand why our friend in Canada would do this. Canada was a friend who understood the challenges of Africa. For us, Canada is a country where its citizens stand solidly with the oppressed people both at home and elsewhere in the world. In international gatherings, Canada has always stood shoulder to shoulder with Africa in defense of our continent’s interest. Are we to believe that our longtime friend, Canada, is leaving?”

The answer to the ambassador’s question was “yes” – a silent confirmation from which our country’s reputation has never fully recovered. Another ambassador ruefully asked, “We would like to ask our friend, Canada, to come back to Africa.” I spotted tears from a couple of civil servants in the visitor’s seats.

That single action rippled through the Canadian foreign policy establishment and in United Nations circles. It was believed to have played a part in numerous African nations failing to vote for this country’s bid to win a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. But the greatest effect was experienced in Africa itself. In a visit to South Sudan some months later, government officials from that region, Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda all voiced their incredulity when we met in various venues. It was a sense of confusion that still lingers in that continent today whenever the subject of Canada is introduced.

In symbolic terms, this was Africa coming to our national capital to offer assistance and summon us from our prevailing preoccupation with ourselves. Yes, there was Harper’s clear-sighted commitment to the Child and Maternal Health initiative in the run-up the 2010 G8 summit in Canada. It was a shining light in the midst of a darkening sky, often lost in our participation in war and in moving development assistance from Africa to Central America in favour of Canadian companies working the region.

This is merely one revealing example of what Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion is facing as he attempts to build a new mandate, a clearer pathway, for this country’s new foray into the world. In short, while Justin Trudeau maintains that Canada is back, our present and perhaps future allies are waiting to see what that actually means. It’s up to Dion to lay out that road map and one of his first imposing tasks is to make things right with the African continent.

Along with a seasoned foreign affairs department, the quiet, efficient academic has some powerful allies from which to draw, including a slate of former prime ministers. For all of the bragging rights Liberals maintain concerning international development, it was under Brian Mulroney that international aid reached historic highs – not to mention the important role played by the former Progressive Conservative leader in fighting apartheid – for which he later received South Africa’s highest award given to a foreign national. He added to that accomplishment by assigning his cabinet to coordinate their efforts in adding pressure to free Nelson Mandela from prison.

When former Progressive Conservative PM Joe Clark in 2013 accused the Harper regime of abandoning the global arena, Africa was uppermost in his mind. It was Clark who convinced Mulroney to appoint Stephen Lewis as UN ambassador, in part to tackle the problem of AIDS on the African continent, and Clark who led the national and global effort to provide coordinated relief to the Ethiopian famine.

Jean Chretien made African development the focus of his 2002 Kananaskis G8 summit. Paul Martin spends half of his retirement days working on implementing an African economic market to assist the continent in becoming a global economic powerhouse. His work in protecting rainforests on the continent has been duly recognized by the UN.

Add to this Ed Broadbent’s tireless efforts on African inclusion, Lloyd Axworthy’s struggles for peace in various regions of Africa, Romeo Dallaire’s fight to curb the use of child soldiers, Stephen Lewis’s and former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler’s relentless efforts and you have a veritable Justice League of experience. Dion would do well to draw them together for a special summit, seeking their input on what Canada’s re-engagement with Africa would look like and what should be the priorities.

Canada might not have as much of a present on the African continent but it has a committed past. The trick for the new Foreign Affairs minister is to now draw on that knowledge to knit together an engaged future.

Promise Fulfilled


THE WORK OF FOUR REMARKABLE Canadian women in South Sudan has been so inspiring that I am including my new London Free Press article here on their efforts.  Just link to see some great pictures, along with a description of their efforts.  This is inspiring stuff in a new nation struggling to find its feet.  Proud to know these four great champions.

Who Knew?

Twins (1)

Achan and Abuk a few moments after meeting one another – 2005

They were violently wrenched apart at only four months of age.  Too young to understand what happened, they likely were terrified by the sound of gunshots and their mother covered in blood.  One was immediately ushered away while the other lay in a tangle of bodies, nestling in the arms of her dead mother.

For years they both lived separate lives, aware that the other had once existed, but believing that death had taken the other.  They were informed they had once had an identical twin but that life and war had conspired to separate them forever.  The one lived and thrived in Canada, aware of her loneliness but surrounded by everything wonderful.  The other fought for life in Darfur, also aware of loneliness but with nothing present that could ease the feeling of alienation and fear.

On a single day in 2005 they bumped into one another beside an airplane on a dirt airstrip in South Sudan.  They looked at each other, fascinated by the resemblance, but too young to understand what was happening.  To the amazement of all, they later grasped hands and walked away from the crowd, holding on to a soccer ball.  Time stood still.  The earth stopped rotating. Destiny was in the making.

It was later that day that the identical twins learned that other had, in fact, survived but half a world apart.  While they kicked the soccer ball in the dirt, forces at play on two continents had already begun to reunite them in Canada. This was Abuk and Achan, our twin girls, and an ever-present reminder that not only do miracles yet occur, but they mature over the years to the amazement of those willing to see.  Today, they become teenagers.  At thirteen years of age they have defied the odds and brought honour to their two mothers – one dead, the other preciously alive.  To this day, they look individually in the mirror and see the other.  They look at each other and see themselves.

For those around them there has been the discovery that there are two things for which we are never fully prepared – twins.  They stand as one of the unique unfoldings of creation and humanity.  They remind all of us that every once in a while two people come into life together, sharing possibilities as they once shared a womb.  And they are an eternal reminder that they share an African mother that lost her life in her pursuit of their freedom and in that reality they will ever be bound to a remarkable woman leaving them with an inspiring legacy.

But there is more.  They share another mother, a Canadian woman, who also risked her life for their freedom.  Only this Mom they get to keep – and what a keeper she is.  In so many ways she is younger in spirit than they are, more capable of spontaneous joy than anyone else in our family.  And as they mature they will ever be captured by the memory and knowledge that this mother lives every waking moment treating the rest of humanity like she treats these precious girls.

I ask you, what were the odds that they would be together for their teenage birthdays?  The war, the famine, death of their mother, in remotest Africa, disease, lack of water, noticed by only a few people in their village willing to care for them – such things conspire to wipe out lives and possibilities.

But not for these two.  They live and are as different as identical twins usually are.  Yet they are the living embodiment of Louisa May Alcott’s observation – “We’re twins, and so we love each other more than other people.”

This is a day of possibilities, of reminders that should we but enter into the pains of humanity we might yet rescue people from their circumstances and unleash their marvelous humanity in our generation – and theirs.

There is a custom in South Sudan that tells of how a mother who has died but whose twins remain separated hovers over the earth in her efforts to reunite them.  If unsuccessful she takes them to heaven to be with her.  If successful, and they come together on earth, she is free.  The village sacrificed a bull in honour of the twins and as they looked on with Jane they could hardly have understood what this meant to the Sudanese.  One mother from Canada had one last slave to free – a weary Sudanese mother of twins attempting to bring them together.  In that one act they were united before the entire village and their African mother could cease from her labours.  Go, then, Sudanese Mom, and rest.  They live.  They thrive.  They love.  And they will ever be reminded that you sacrificed your all so that they might have a shot at living.  If you could only see them now.  It was a sacrifice worth making in every sense of the word.  We thank God for every thought of you – a towering woman.  Just think, your twin girls are thirteen today.  Who knew?

A Climate for Change

World Without WaterI’ve had the fortune to have spent some quality time with some Nobel Prize winners in recent years – most notably sharing a conference with Al Gore in Montreal and a delightful dinner with Muhammad Yunus in Toronto. Though they are real people, I felt dwarfed by their commitment, intelligence, and sheer accomplishment.

But of all those “Nobel” folks, I am the proudest of one of London’s own. Gordon McBean is the Director for the Centre for Environment and Sustainability as well as for the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, and won his Nobel Prize as part of the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). He is forever on the move to the various continents, assessing the damages from environmental degradation and attempting to get the attention of world policy makers. He meets with presidents, tin-pot dictators, prime ministers, government ministers and fellow scientists. But he is also an educator and yesterday morning he met with Masters students, bringing his vast knowledge of global environmental changes and challenges to students in his hometown. When he invited me to share the lecture with him, I recall thinking “What? … Me?” He’s way out of my league and has the recognition to prove it. But since his thinking was that I speak about how climate change affects the average African, I agreed his request. It was an honour that I hardly deserved.

The first part of the lecture was Gordon’s, and he put up slides showing the effects of climate change over the last couple of decades. Most reading this blog will likely be aware of much of this, but what people aren’t prepared for are the sheer numbers. Climate change is already contributing to the deaths of some 400,000 annually.  That’s a number higher than the population of all of the London, Ontario. Most of these take place in developing countries, especially in Africa, where damage to agricultural production from extreme weather linked to the changing environment is contributing to deaths from malnutrition, poverty, and associated diseases. Globally, air pollution caused by the use of fossil fuels separately contributed to the deaths of at least 4.5 million people a year.

Please don’t gloss over these numbers – they are HUGE and represent not only a deterioration but a threat to the human condition. All these deaths cost the world more than $1.2 trillion in productivity, wiping 1.6% annually from the Global Domestic Product.

This research data is coming from a 331-page report titled Climate Vulnerability Monitor: A Guide to the Cold Calculus of A Hot Planet. Written by a team of 50 scientists, economists and policy experts, it was a study commissioned by 20 governments. Likely you’ve never heard of it because it was filed away by media outlets exuding over Kate Middleton’s pregnancy or the near fisticuffs in the House of Commons this week. Naturally, we’re happy for the first and saddened by the second, but the climate change report contains implications for each of us. Yes, the tragedy is being played out at its most extreme in other parts of the world, but it was those very regions that this country once felt a commitment toward. By putting such numbers out of our mind, we hide our national DNA in the closet.

My part in the lecture was to bring the story home by way of personal narrative. I could never do it justice, but the sight of families roving through Africa in search of food, water and a living has had deep repercussions on me – something I recounted to the students. For the first time since my Sudanese son came to Canada, he will be returning with us in January and the land he knew back then has already been irrevocably altered by an ever-shifting environment. Refugees have flooded into the area, threatening to overrun services and exacerbate tensions. He once told me of having to spend days walking through Darfur in search of some groundnuts to eat and keep the family alive. He would have to walk a lot farther now. Even with the arrival of peace, the implications of climate change will still have his historic community over a barrel.

My son Ater is only just now learning that Africa adds hardly anything to greenhouse gas totals. He is trying to get his head around the fact that opulence in the West has created such devastation in a continent that bears no responsibility for the change. It’s something we should wrestle with too, for the ethical implications of our actions and buying habits having direct and indirect effects on remote African communities is something we can put out of our minds if we wish, but only at the price of negating our humanity. We are only human as we can project outside of ourselves to feel empathy for others. Lose that and we lose ourselves.

Witnessing all this can be a cause of deep despair, which most prefer to shrug off. But yesterday morning three things filled me with hope. The African people are the most adaptive on earth and represent a great investment. Second, just witnessing those Masters students humbled me. Should they decide to work together with all their abilities, they will build a climate for change. And, finally, for a two-hour period I stood in the shadow of a powerful advocate, not only for environmental reform but for the human condition. As long as the Gordon McBeans of the world maintain their advocacy, there is yet hope for all humanity.

No Mere Dream Date

Thirteen years of marriage is a very brief time to fill with all the adventures we have had over the years. Jane and I are deeply aware that our life has not been an ordinary sojourn – anything but. There’s a reason for that and it has nothing to do with me.

Even as I type these words, Jane is packing for her and her mother as they head out tomorrow to Churchill, Manitoba on the train. Her mom is 89 years old and I haven’t seen her this excited in a long time. She knows that with Jane there everything will be taken care of. This is just what my wife does – inspires people to press the envelope, regardless of age or caution. While her mom reads her books in Churchill, Jane will be in her wetsuit, swimming with the Beluga whales – just like her.

It was on our first trip to Sudan all those years ago that I suddenly understood that being with Jane could be a dangerous thing. It wasn’t because we were in a war zone or that we were attempting to avoid enemy troops as we sought to locate slaves seeking their freedom. I’ve spent a lifetime in such conditions, so we were a good match that way. No, Jane suddenly became dangerous because I discovered she was helping me to believe in the impossible. Such people turn our worlds upside down. We all have values, but, over time, we come to our personal accommodations with them, coming to terms with the fact that we’ll be lucky to see some of our dreams come true. My wife breaks those limitations, not by rhetoric or argument, but by living out her ideals to the very limit of their reach.

We had just finished identifying a number of slaves, mostly women, seated under the shade of a tree and looking concerned that they might not find their freedom. We had purchased that liberty through funds we had raised in Canada, but these struggling Sudanese women didn’t know anything about that. Jane rose from the ground and addressed them through an interpreter. “You’re free to go your own way,” she began. “Find your families. Live your life. Build a better world with your freedom.” In an instant I realized I was listening to a great liberator – not just of others, but of me. It was then I knew that this is who I wanted permanently in my life. We sat back to back, on the ground, and ruminated over what we had just experienced. Even there I knew her spine was stronger than mine.

But she has been dangerous, let me tell you. In her journeys to Iraq during the Gulf War, Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, the Congo, and now Sudan, she has never been content to leave a place without making life better, even for just a few. She has made me younger, and if you could have seen her mother today you would have thought she was a spring chicken. This is the effect of Jane Roy on the lives of others.

I can’t get a fix on the exact moment I became overwhelmed by her goodness; instead, I was just kind of baptized into it. It wasn’t about the words, gestures, looks, or even touch. It was the sense of human movement, that I was journeying out into my world and it was going to feel the effect of my presence specifically because I was affected by Jane’s abiding company. This is a powerful revelation and stands at the root of all great loves. She had immersed me into humanity and I was in the depths of it already before I realized just how much I loved her.

Charlotte Bronte wrote in Jane Eyre, “I would always rather be happy than dignified.” I understand what she meant, but that’s not me. Personal dignity – at home, with friends, in my community, in Sudan, or even in the House of Commons – to me is the inspiration for true character. Jane makes me truly happy, but it’s a byproduct of respectfulness and humility she has brought to our relationship.

So, here’s to you, Jane. To the climbing of Kilimanjaro to the savanna of Africa; from feeding the hungry to chasing our desire for adventure; from enjoying our moments alone to those times when the kids jump in our bed and won’t leave us alone; from the building of a family to the construction of a deck; from the jumping into life to the pursuit of each other. But behind it all is this absolutely restless desire to heal our world – to give without getting, to learn humility with honour, from burying those that perished to bringing new life out of slavery. It’s always – repeatedly and, yes, at times dangerously – about helping others. I was like that before I met you, but you refined me, bettered me, and taught me that sacrificing for love of others can be a spontaneous thing.

You are a darling, Jane, not because you’re mine but because you’re you and in the beauty of your character you have become the servant of all humankind – God, I love that. Tonight, while you’re asleep, my eyes will be wide open because I’ll be living in the world of Dr. Seuss – “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.” This is my reality. You are more than a dream date or a loving wife and terrific mother. You are life as God meant it lived. Thank you for taking me along.

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