The world mourns the passing of Nelson Mandela, one of history’s greats who dedicated his life to freedom, human dignity, respect and correcting injustices by using the weapon of reconciliation. Throughout his life, as leader of peaceful protests and armed resistance against the white minority’s oppressive regime in the racially divided country of South Africa, this activist and former president helped bring an end to apartheid and had become a moral compass for other nations.
With statements of sympathy and focus on the reflections of world leaders such as Barack Obama on “Mandela the legacy”, Canada in its true style of quiet, reserved, and unpretentious, and “refusing to assume the spotlight” diplomacy has once again been ignored internationally on its long standing history of taking initiatives on global issues involving human rights and injustice.
Canada’s on-going role as an ally, friend, protector and source of encouragement of global human rights is rarely recognized. This is specifically true as seen by its role in bringing to the world’s attention to the issue of apartheid, but also by publicizing the injustices of the former South African government.
The catalyst to this began as a grassroots movement by students, churches and unions which led to a “get tough” stance taken by Conservative government of John Diefenbaker. It all began in 1960 with Diefenbaker’s stand and deadlock proposal against continued South African membership in the Commonwealth.
Canada did little else to oppose apartheid until the late 1970’s. When asked in the House of Commons in 1964 whether the government would make representations to the South African Government to request clemency for Nelson Mandela and seven of his associates who had been found guilty of contravening the apartheid laws in the matter, the leader of the government the day responded that the:
“eight defendants … have been found guilty on charges of sabotage and conspiracy … While the matter is still sub judice it would, I believe, be improper for the government to make any public statement on the verdict or on the possible sentences.”
In 1977, Canada’s Liberal government announced trade sanctions and the end of support for commercial activities in South Africa. Canada also established a voluntary “code of ethics” for Canadian companies active in South Africa, and would require visas for South African visitors to this country.
A ramp-up of pressure on the South African government began with Mulroney’s 1985 push for the imposition of economic sanctions by the Commonwealth against South Africa’s apartheid government in spite of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher who opposed any sanctions. Mulroney went farther by leading the other Commonwealth heads of government to oppose apartheid, as Chairman of the 1987 Commonwealth summit and publicly condemned the Britain and the U.S. for their “do nothing” positions.
Sanctions continued until 1993, when Mandela asked Canada to lift them. In a recent interview, Mulroney stated:
“I made this a priority of the government and indicated to the cabinet that we would fight this at the United Nations, at the G7, at the Commonwealth and at the Summit la francophone. Because remember with the U.S. and U.K. out, Canada was the leading industrialized commonwealth player and G7 player who was in full support of Mandela…”
In gratitude for the Canada’s unwavering commitment to break up apartheid, Mandela’s first foreign visit, in June 1990, was to Canada. Mandela said this about Mulroney, he “acted against apartheid because he knew that no person of conscience could stand aside as a crime against humanity was committed.”
Over the years, this type of unpretentious stand taken by the Canadian government on many issues was done without a great deal of fanfare, and taken on the basis of simply doing right thing.
It was Canada that led the boycott of international forums that masqueraded as “hatefests” whose only motive was to vilify Israel and promote anti-Semitism. Most recently, it was Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird who spoke out against the Russian Government’s ban on same sex relationships.
Canada’s role in opposing injustice and as a champion of human rights has repeatedly been shown on the international stage, while receiving little if any recognition. For many, this may have led to a Rodney Dangerfield type of complex of “I get no respect”.
As a Canadian, I take great pride in our country’s rich legacy of supporting tolerance, and of speaking out on the international stage against human rights abuses and intolerance.