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The Canadian Foreign-Policy Myth

A recent Globe and Mail article (reprinted on Rabble.ca) by Gerald Caplan detailing Canadian relations with Uganda made be mad.

Why?

It was not so much for what’s in the article, but rather what it ignores, which is reality. Any progressive author writing about Canada’s foreign affairs betrays his readers if he ignores the bad this country has done and feeds the benevolent Canadian foreign-policy myth.

“Canadians have had ties to Uganda for many decades”, writes Caplan, a self-described “Africa scholar” citing the establishment of diplomatic relations soon after independence. He also mentions many Canadians who “found their way to the country” amidst instability and the federal government taking in Asians expelled by Idi Amin. The former NDP strategist points to some private Canadian aid initiatives in the country and details a Canadian lawyer’s contribution to a suit over the Ugandan government’s failure to provide basic maternal health services, which may violate the Constitution.

But, Caplan completely ignores the unsavory – and much more consequential – role Canada has played in the East African country.

For example, he could have at least mentioned this country’s role during the “scramble for Africa” when Canadians actively participated in subjugating various peoples and stealing their land. This is necessary to acknowledge if we are ever to build a decent foreign policy.

In the late 1800s a number of Canadian military men helped survey possible rail routes from the East African Coast to Lake Victoria Nyanza on the border between modern Uganda and Kenya. The objective was to strengthen Britain’s grip over recalcitrant indigenous groups and to better integrate the area into the Empire’s North East Africa-India corridor.

Beginning in 1913 dozens of Canadian missionaries helped the colonial authority penetrate Ugandan societies and undermine indigenous customs. The preeminent figure was John Forbes who was a bishop and coadjutor vicar apostolic, making him second in charge of over 30 mission posts in Uganda. A 1929 biography describes his “good relations” with British colonial authorities and the “important services Forbes rendered the authorities of the Protectorate.”

In 1918 Forbes participated in a major conference in the colony, organized by Governor Robert Coryndon in the hopes of spurring indigenous wage work. The Vaudreuil, Québec, native wrote home that “it’s a big question. The European planters in our area, who cultivate coffee, cotton and rubber need workers for their exploitation. But the workforce is rare. Our Negroes are happy to eat bananas and with a few bits of cotton or bark for clothes, are not excited to put themselves at the service of the planters and work all day for a meager salary.” British officials subsidized the White Fathers schools as part of a bid to expand the indigenous workforce.

Canadians were also part of the British colonial authority. Royal Military College of Canada graduate Godfrey Rhodes became chief engineer and general manager of Kenya and Uganda Railways and Harbours in 1928. The Victoria, BC, native was in Uganda for over a decade and was followed by Walter Bazley, a colonial administrator in Bunyoro from 1950 to 1963 (after Ugandan independence, Bazley joined the Canadian public service).

Throughout British rule Ottawa recognized London’s authority over Uganda. After fighting in the 1898 – 1902 Boer War Henry Rivington Poussette was appointed Canada’s first trade commissioner in Africa with “jurisdiction extending from the Cape to the Zambesi, including Uganda.”

Poussette and future trade representatives helped Canadian companies profit from European rule in Africa. By independence Toronto-based Bata shoes controlled most of the footwear market in Uganda while a decade before the end of British rule Falconbridge acquired a 70% stake in the Kilembe copper-cobalt mine in western Uganda. In a joint partnership with the London controlled Colonial Development Corporation, the Toronto company’s highly profitable mine produced more than $250 million ($1 billion today) worth of copper yet paid no income tax until its capital was fully recovered in 1965. In 1968, post-independence leader Milton Obote increased the country’s copper export tax and then moved to gain majority control of the mine. Falconbridge quickly stripped out $6 million in special dividend payments and threatened to withdraw its management from the country.

Falconbridge: Portrait of a Canadian Mining Multinational explains: “Although Kilembe Copper was both profitable and socially important in the Ugandan economy, this did not prevent the Falconbridge group from withdrawing capital as rapidly as possible just before president Obote forced it to sell Uganda a controlling interest in 1970. The implication was that its management team would be withdrawn entirely if the government did not restore Falconbridge’s majority ownership. Dislocation in the lives of Ugandan people was a price the company seemed willing to pay in this tug-of-war over the profits from Uganda’s resources.”

The Kilembe mine also contaminated Elizabeth National Park and tailings seeped into Lake George, near Uganda’s western border with the Congo.
Upon taking office, General Idi Amin returned control of the Kilembe mine to Falconbridge. (This was maintained for several years, after which Amin returned the mine to his government.) He had managed to overthrow Obote’s government in January 1971 with the aid of Britain, Israel and the US. A British Foreign Office memo noted that Obote’s nationalizations, which also included Bata, had “serious implications for British business in Uganda and Africa generally… other countries will be tempted to try and get away with similar measures with more damaging consequences for British investment and trade.”

While this country’s “Africa scholars” have largely ignored Canada’s position towards Amin’s rise to power, the available documentation suggests Ottawa passively supported the putsch. On three occasions during the early days of the coup (between January 26 and February 3, 1971) the Pierre Trudeau government responded to inquiries from opposition MPs about developments in Uganda and whether Canada would grant diplomatic recognition to the new regime. Within a week of Obote’s ouster, both External Affairs Minister Mitchell Sharp and Prime Minister Trudeau passed up these opportunities to denounce Amin’s usurpation of power. They remained silent as Amin suspended various provisions of the Ugandan Constitution and declared himself President, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, Army Chief of Staff and Chief of Air Staff. They failed to condemn a leader, now infamous, for plunging the nation into a torrent of violence.

In African Pearls and Poisons: Idi Amin’s Uganda; Kenya; Zaire’s Pygmies, Alberta bureaucrat Leo Louis Jacques describes a conversation he had with the CIDA liaison officer in Uganda who facilitated his 1971-73 appointment to the Uganda College of Commerce. Asked whether the change in government would affect his CIDA-funded position, the aid agency’s liaison officer in Uganda, Catrina Porter, answered Jacques thusly: “‘Yes, there was a coup on January 25th, 1971 and it was a move that promises to be an improvement. The new administration favours Democracy and Western Civilization’s Democracy, while the former one favoured the Communists.’ I [Jacques] said, ‘I understand the present government is being run by the Ugandan army under the control of a General named Idi Amin Dada. What is he like?’ Porter said ‘General Amin’s gone on record as saying he loves Canada and the Commonwealth. He also vowed that his country of Uganda would have democratic elections soon. The British and Americans have recognized him as the Ugandan government and so do we.’”

Two years after the coup the Canadian High Commissioner in Nairobi visited to ask Amin to reverse his plan to nationalize Bata shoes. After the meeting, the High Commissioner cabled Ottawa that he was largely successful with Bata and also mentioned that “KILEMBE MINES (70 PERCENT FALCONBRIDGE OWNED) IS DOING WELL.”

But, just in case you think it’s just our unsavoury history that Caplan ignores, there’s more. He also also ignores more recent developments such as SNC Lavalin’s alleged bribery in the country, Montréal-based Canarail’s contribution to a disastrous World Bank sponsored privatization of the Kenya and Uganda railway systems or Ottawa’s “logistical support and some funding for the Uganda led [military] force” dispatched to Somalia to do Washington’s dirty work.

Why did this article make me so mad? Because it’s part of a pattern of the social democratic Left ignoring how Canadian corporations and governments impoverish the Global South. Too often social democrat intellectuals dim, rather than enlighten, progressives’ understanding of Canada’s role in the world.

To preserve his position at the Globe and Mail and CBC Caplan may feel he needs to feed the benevolent Canadian foreign-policy myth. But, he should at least show some decency and spare Rabble.ca from this nonsense.

More articles by:

Yves Engler’s latest book is ‪Canada in Africa: 300 years of Aid and Exploitation.

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