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Did Mulroney really ‘lead the fight’ against apartheid?

The former PM adopted a strong position against apartheid only after it became clear that the South African regime was doomed

Canadian PoliticsAfricaHuman Rights

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney speaks after a visit to the United States, 1984. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

On February 29, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney passed away at the age of 84. A champion of free trade and neoliberal economics, Mulroney’s premiership resulted in widespread deregulation, the privatization of more than 20 Crown corporations, and Canada’s entry into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a treaty that proved ruinous for workers, especially in Mexico.

Mulroney’s time in office represented a major phase in Canada’s neoliberal turn, and he is often grouped with other exemplars of free-market capitalism, namely Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the latter of whom he developed a close personal relationship with.

Like many prime ministers before him, Mulroney’s foreign policy was closely aligned with that of the United States. He endorsed George H.W. Bush’s attack on Panama, supported apartheid Israel, and blasted the Chrétien government’s decision not to participate in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Mulroney also backed the 1986 US assassination attempt on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi (which killed 37 and injured 93) and offered high praise for Boris Yeltsin’s sell-off of state assets following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, during the Kanesatake resistance of 1990—also known as the Oka Crisis—the Mulroney government took an aggressive stance against the Kanyen’kehà:ka (Mohawk) people defending their sacred land from being turned into a golf course. Ellen Gabriel, an activist and artist from the Kanesatake Nation, noted that Mulroney “refused to call Parliament to sit. They basically threw our human rights out the window.” Gabriel added: “He didn’t care about us… For me, it’s not a great legacy that he has in regards to Indigenous people, at least here in Kanehsatake.”

The Globe and Mail posthumously lauded Mulroney as “the last great prime minister.” The Toronto Star celebrated him as a man dedicated to Canada. Meanwhile, politicians of all stripes issued public statements of praise for the former prime minister.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford described Mulroney as a “role model.” Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow posted on X that Mulroney “leaves a legacy benefitting us all.” Québec Premier François Legault labelled him a “visionary.” Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre described Mulroney as a mentor, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated, “He never stopped working for Canadians, and he always sought to make this country an even better place to call home.”

Of all the praise heaped on the former PM, however, the common refrain that Mulroney played a central role in the fight against apartheid in South Africa stands out. Indeed, numerous media outlets have claimed that Mulroney “led the global fight” against apartheid, eventually convincing even Thatcher to drop her opposition to imposing sanctions.

While Mulroney did oppose apartheid in the 1980s, it is disingenuous to claim that he “led” international efforts that dismantled institutionalized racial segregation in South Africa.

As prime minister, Mulroney spoke out against South African apartheid and leveraged his political and personal power to effectively lobby for sanctions in 1985-86. In the scope of global resistance to apartheid, however, these actions came very late. In fact, by the mid-1980s, the white supremacist regime had already been significantly weakened by the triumph of national liberation movements in surrounding countries, many of them supported by the socialist bloc. And while these movements and governments were resisting apartheid in the 1960s and 1970s, Canada was quietly supporting the South African government.

In The Ambiguous Champion: Canada and South Africa in the Trudeau and Mulroney Years, Linda Freeman notes, “The record clearly shows that the Canadian government followed rather than led the sanctions campaign.” In fact, Canada was economically entwined with the apartheid regime for many decades, including through the investments of companies like Bata Shoes, Hudson’s Bay Company, Ford Canada, and transnational mining firms including Alcan, Cominco, Falconbridge, and Rio Algom.

In the 1970s, Canada publicly supported an arms embargo on South Africa but still transferred military goods to the country. According to Yves Engler:

Officially, the [Pierre] Trudeau government supported the international arms embargo against South Africa. But his government mostly failed to enforce it. As late as 1978, Canadian government-financed weapons continued to make their way to South Africa. Canadair (at the time a Crown company) sold the apartheid regime amphibious water bombers, which according to the manufacturer, were useful “particularly in internal troop-lift operations” (the official buyer was the South African forestry department). In the early 1970s the Montréal Gazette discovered that the RCMP trained South African police in “some sort of liaison or intelligence gathering” instruction.

By the late 1970s, Pierre Trudeau implemented a series of measures supposedly designed to limit the involvement of Canadian business with the more sordid aspects of the regime. These measures included “the withdrawal of Canadian trade commissioners from Johannesburg and Capetown,” the cessation of Export Development Canada (EDC) funding for projects in South Africa, and the “publication of a ‘code of conduct and ethics’ regarding employment and related practices of Canadian firms doing business in South Africa.” However, the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid described these changes as “more cosmetic than real.”

Canadian investments in South Africa deepened throughout the 1970s and continued to reap huge profits until Mulroney’s belated reversal in the 1980s finally aligned Canada’s position on apartheid with world opinion.

While Canada quietly deepened ties with the apartheid regime in the mid-twentieth century, freedom fighters in the African National Congress (ANC) put their lives on the line to resist the South African government. Continentally, they received material support from liberation movements in Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, and Angola. Globally, actors like Cuba, Libya, East Germany, the Soviet Union, China, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) also supplied the ANC with material support.

At the same time, Ottawa actively condemned internationalist efforts to militarily oppose apartheid. When Cuban troops landed in southern Africa to fight alongside the liberation forces, Trudeau reacted furiously, stating that “Canada disapproves with horror [of] participation of Cuban troops in Africa” before cancelling a small aid program to Cuba.

It would not be until 1979, by which point Cubans were fighting and dying alongside Angolans in the struggle against apartheid and Libyan advisors were supplying training and weaponry to the ANC, that Ottawa took the half-measure of ending preferential tariff rates with the South African government. Even this, as Engler points out, “was as much an economic decision… as it was a reprimand for [South Africa’s] racist policies,” since at the time the trade balance between the two countries favoured the apartheid government.

Ultimately, by the time Mulroney took an explicitly anti-apartheid position on the global stage, other countries around the world had been providing the liberation fighters with material assistance for decades. As professor Brian Tennyson notes in the Canadian Journal of Political Science, “When Mulroney did adopt a bold policy in 1985, it was because a new consensus was emerging that the apartheid regime was doomed and that Western powers and business interests should, in their own long-term interests, align themselves with the black majority and the front-line states.”

After his release from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela stated at a town hall hosted by ABC News’ Ted Koppel: “Yasser Arafat, Colonel Gaddafi, Fidel Castro support our struggle to the hilt… They do not support it only in rhetoric. They are placing resources at our disposal, for us to win the struggle.”

Following the overthrow of apartheid, Ottawa meddled in South African politics to benefit Canadian companies. Canadian embassy officials interfered in the drafting of a new South African mining law, preventing the institution of progressive legislation that would have enabled the redistribution of wealth and the rectification of racial inequality.

Mulroney’s position toward South Africa is often contrasted with that of Reagan and Thatcher, who were more publicly supportive of the apartheid government. The implication is that Mulroney, and by extension Canada, was staunch in its opposition to apartheid despite some wavering in the Western alliance. Canada is portrayed as being (and always having been) on the right side of history.

In this way, the emphasis placed on Mulroney’s opposition to apartheid—and the erasure of left-wing governments and movements that had supported the liberation fighters materially and for far longer—serves a deeper political purpose. It is about more than Mulroney. It’s about Canadians’ perception of their own country on the world stage.

The hagiography of Mulroney’s time in office, especially his foreign policy, is about more than one man. It is about reaffirming Canada’s benevolent brand to Canadians. Right now, this reaffirmation is especially important to the ruling class, as Canada’s global image is increasingly tattered due to Ottawa’s complicity in the genocide in Gaza, which has seen the Trudeau government accused of complicity in “flagrant and systemic violations” of international law before the International Court of Justice.

It is worth noting that, in October of last year, Mulroney gave his wholehearted support to Israel’s military assault on Gaza. “I think that Canada could have only one position,” he said on October 14. “Complete, blanket support for Israel and unrelenting denunciation of a jihadist criminal group, namely Hamas.”

He reiterated his support for Israel on November 9, claiming that Hamas had no objective on October 7 besides “killing Jews.” He described criticism of Israel as a “pernicious form of racism.”

So while Mulroney is celebrated for his opposition to an apartheid state in the 1980s, he was consistently and publicly supportive of another apartheid state, Israel, up to and including its genocidal military assault on Gaza. This suggests that Mulroney’s opposition to South African apartheid was likely not motivated by deeply-ingrained moral values—if it was, he would have spent his final months speaking out against Israel’s slaughter of Gazans rather than supporting it.

Indeed, Brian Mulroney did not ‘lead’ the fight against South African apartheid. To say that he did is historically dishonest. In fact, Mulroney’s policy toward apartheid followed decades of sustained resistance by African liberation movements and their international backers in the world socialist movement. Anyone vaguely familiar with the history of resistance to apartheid knows this. But one should not expect this country’s media or political classes to honestly represent the facts.

Owen Schalk is a writer from rural Manitoba. He is the author of Canada in Afghanistan: A story of military, diplomatic, political and media failure, 2003-2023.


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