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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.