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Excerpt from Canada and Africa in the New Millennium: The Politics of Consistent Inconsistency by David R. Black

From the Introduction

Canada’s engagement with post-independence Africa presents a puzzle. On the one hand, much of the country’s identity and reputation as a good international citizen has rested on activism toward the continent, through diplomatic initiatives in multilateral organizations, through aid and humanitarian relief, through (more controversially) multilateral “peace operations,” and through the leadership of particular Canadian internationalists. Examples have included the roles played by John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney in relation to apartheid South Africa; the extraordinary response to the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s; Roméo Dallaire’s witness, and ongoing response, to the Rwandan genocide; and Jean Chrétien’s leadership in orchestrating the G8’s 2002 Africa Action Plan. On the other hand, critics have long noted the inconsistencies and contradictions of Canadian involvement in Africa: through erratic aid policies that benefit Canadians and reinforce inequities; through security policies that fail to match normative advocacy of high-minded principles with sufficient resources to realistically support them; and through large extractive industry investments that undermine local environments and human security. How are we to make sense of these inconsistencies and, more broadly, of the place of Africa in the Canadian political imagination? How, more specifically, do we explain a record that, as reflected in the epigraphs above, has oscillated within the past decade between aspirations toward global diplomatic leadership, through transparent indifference, to renewed interest and initiative?

This book seeks to make sense of the puzzle of Canadian involvement in sub-Saharan Africa. Though the focus is primarily on the period since the start of the new millennium, marked by the striking juxtaposition of Jean Chrétien’s G8 activism and Stephen Harper’s retreat from continental engagement, these comparatively recent trends are part of a longer history of consistent inconsistency, in which the prominent role of African issues in the Canadian political imagination has been in chronic tension with the country’s limited and contradictory role in addressing Africa’s multiple challenges.

No one interpretive frame can adequately explain this record. Rather, I will argue that three approaches must be combined to account for it. Canada’s involvement in Africa reflects, first, genuine instances of activist engagement, reflecting a more cosmopolitan or solidarist tradition of what international society theorists characterize as “good international citizenship.” These instances are the necessary foundation for two other, less celebratory theoretical accounts: Canada’s role as a benign face of, and key interlocutor for, western hegemonic interests in Africa; and Africa’s role as the basis for a resilient narrative concerning Canada’s ethical “mission” in the world, and thus a cornerstone of Canadian identity—a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. The question that comes to the fore in light of the Harper government’s departure from the post-colonial pattern of Canadian involvement in Africa is whether this most recent phase should be understood as simply the latest oscillation in the historic pattern of consistent inconsistency, or a more fundamental break with—and retreat from—the liberal internationalist narrative of the Cold War and immediate post–Cold War periods? While this question is impossible to answer definitively, the framework developed in this book provides the basis for a more theoretically grounded account of what the Harper government has sought to change, and why. It also underscores the way in which Africa—though relatively marginal to Canadian interests as traditionally conceived—has served as an important marker of the wider characteristics of Canada’s international role.

In order to properly understand Africa’s place in Canada’s foreign relations, and Canada’s role in Africa, it is necessary to provide an account that encompasses the most important dimensions of Canadian involvement and their cumulative impact. Thus, in contrast to most previous treatments of Canada’s involvement in Africa, this book combines a focus on: multilateral, and particularly G8, diplomacy; foreign aid—the traditional touchstone of Canada’s continental role; security assistance through peace operations and training; and the role of Canadian extractive companies, which have become this country’s dominant and deeply controversial face in many parts of the continent. While it is impossible for one book to provide a comprehensive account of Canadian involvement in this huge and diverse region, it is essential that we move beyond views that extrapolate and generalize from isolated cases and issues.