Justin Trudeau understands that his path to a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) seat runs through Africa. The continent shouldn’t give it to him.
As part of his bid for a two-year seat on the UN’s most powerful decision-making body, Canada’s prime minister has called the leaders of Ghana, Sudan, Namibia, Liberia, Botswana, Mozambique and Uganda over the past month. In February he attended the African Union Summit in Ethiopia and just prior to the pandemic, Trudeau made his pitch for Canada’s bid to African diplomats in Ottawa. But actions speak louder than words, and the PM’s government has supported controversial mining companies, dubious climate policies and a war that spilled into various countries on the continent. Justin Trudeau has also distorted his father’s legacy in Africa.
In 2017, Global Affairs Canada threw its diplomatic weight behind Canada’s most controversial mining firm in the country where it committed some of its worst abuses. Between 2006 and 2016 65 people were killed and hundreds injured by security forces paid by Barrick Gold at its North Mara Mine in Tanzania. With Barrick’s subsidiary, Acacia Mining, embroiled in a conflict with the government over hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid taxes and royalties, Canada’s High Commissioner set up a meeting between Barrick Executive Chairman John Thornton and Tanzanian President John Magufuli. After accompanying Barrick’s head to the encounter in Dar es Salaam, Ian Myles, a Director General in charge of Southern and Eastern Africa at Global Affairs Canada, told the press, “Canada is very proud that it expects all its companies to respect the highest standards, fairness and respect for laws and corporate social responsibility. We know that Barrick is very much committed to those values.”
The Trudeau government has given various forms of support to the mining industry, which has been embroiled in dozens of conflicts across the continent. During his trip to the aforementioned African Union Summit in Ethiopia, Trudeau announced negotiations on a Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPPA) largely designed to solidify the position of Canadian mining interests. A few days later foreign minister François-Philippe Champagne attended an event in Senegal where Teranga Gold and Barrick Gold received licenses for projects.
While it promotes mining interests, the Trudeau government has failed to follow through on a promise to rein in Canada’s controversial international mining sector. Despite five UN bodies calling on Ottawa to hold mining companies accountable for their international operations, the Liberals recently created an Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise without the power to deny diplomatic or Export Development Canada support from companies found responsible for major rights abuses.
From the desertification of the Sahel region to rising sea levels in heavily populated coastal areas of West Africa, climate change is a death sentence for ever-growing numbers of Africans. In a profound injustice, most of those worst hit by climate-related disturbances have emitted relatively low levels of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Per capita GHG emissions in many African countries amount to a tiny fraction of Canada’s rate. Among the highest per capita emitters in the world, Canada is on pace to emit significantly more GHGs than it agreed to in the 2015 Paris Agreement and previous climate accords. The Trudeau government oversaw a 15 million tonne increase in 2018 and then decided to purchase a massive tar sands pipeline. In March 2017, Trudeau told oil executives in Houston, “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.” Extracting 173 billion barrels of carbon intensive Canadian tar sands oil would drive ever-greater numbers of Africa’s most vulnerable over the edge.
Before becoming prime minister, Trudeau also backed the 2011 NATO-led war on Libya. The African Union vigorously opposed the bombing campaign, arguing it could destabilize neighboring countries. Indeed, violence in Libya soon spilled southward to Mali and across much of the Sahel region.
In his speech to African diplomats in Ottawa just before the pandemic the PM cited his father’s legacy on the continent. Unsurprisingly, he skipped Pierre Trudeau’s indifference to Portuguese violence—fed by Canadian and NATO Mutual Assistance Program weaponry—against the liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau. More controversially, it took over a decade after Trudeau senior was elected prime minister for his government to abrogate the Canada-South Africa trade agreement. In 1979 Ottawa ended preferential tariff rates to the apartheid regime but this was as much an economic decision (the trade balance favoured South Africa) as it was a reprimand for its racist policies. In October 1982, the Pierre Trudeau government delivered 4.91 percent of the votes that enabled Western powers to gain a slim 51.9 percent majority in support of South Africa’s application for a billion-dollar International Monetary Fund credit. 68 IMF members opposed the loan, as did 121 countries in a nonbinding vote at the UN General Assembly.
At a 1977 Commonwealth meeting, Pierre Trudeau dodged press questions on post-Soweto South Africa suggesting that Idi Amin’s brutal regime in Uganda should be discussed along with southern Africa. But, six years earlier the Trudeau government passively supported Amin’s British-backed putsch against independence leader Milton Obote, who nationalized some Canadian companies. The government responded to inquiries from opposition MPs in parliament about developments in Uganda and whether Canada would grant diplomatic recognition to the new military 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.
African countries should not fall for Justin Trudeau’s friendly rhetoric. Until Canada begins to act like a friend, rather than a neocolonial power, it doesn’t deserve Africa’s votes for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.