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Gerald Caplan

Our Rwandan betrayal Add to ...

Earlier this month the RCMP arrested a 37-year old Rwandan man, Jacques Mungwarere, in Windsor, Ont., and charged him with genocide during the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi in his home country. Barely days before, a Canadian court sentenced another Rwandan, Desire Munyaneza, to life imprisonment for his role in the same genocide.

The two cases reflect a fact of Canadian life that few Canadians are actually aware of: For the past 50 years, before, during and since the genocide, Canada and Rwanda have been closely linked in a remarkable number of ways. Large numbers of Rwandans have studied, lived, worked and made lives in Canada, while countless Canadians have been associated with Rwanda, General Romeo Dallaire being only the most prominent.

Yet in its moment of supreme need, during the 100 days in 1994 when the Hutu leadership organized a systematic conspiracy to annihilate the country's entire Tutsi population, the Canadian government largely abandoned the Tutsi to their terrible fate. Why this happened has never been investigated in a proper way, and one of the world's leading historians of the genocide, Linda Melvern of Britain, wants to know why. So do many others of us.

Rwanda became independent of Belgian colonial rule in the early 1960s and Canadians have been closely involved with the country ever since. Canada was actually the most influential middle power in Rwanda until the genocide, largely through the work of French Canadians. Francophone officials in both Foreign Affairs and CIDA knew the Rwandan government well and treated it well. Although few Anglophones knew much about the tiny country, "Rwanda was considered the jewel in the in the crown of countries receiving Canadian aid," according to Professor Howard Adelman, and in fact was the highest recipient per capita in the world of such aid.

The main university in Rwanda was founded by a Quebec priest and funded by Canadian aid, and Canadians, many also Quebec priests, became intimately involved in the training of Rwanda's elite until the very eve of the genocide.

 

That very closeness blinded many of those involved to the ugly truths about president Juvénal Habyarimana and his government, which they so lavishly praised. In reality, it was a Hutu dictatorship with the minority Tutsi suffering grievous discrimination in every aspect of society. As a result, most Rwandans with whom Canadian government or church officials came into contact with would have been part of the Hutu ruling class. It seems apparent that the Canadians who worked with Rwanda largely accepted the racist ideology of the Hutu regime and closed their eyes to the persecution of the Tutsi. There were honorable exceptions, however, including prime minister Brian Mulroney, who was critical of the president, and human-rights advocates Ed Broadbent and William Schabas, who exposed the government's increasingly murderous treatment of Tutsi.

Yet despite the close ties between the two countries, the Canadian government - by 1994 under Jean Chrétien - refused to answer the pleas of its own soldier, General Dallaire, for substantially more troops once the genocide erupted, nor did it react to the crisis by urging the United Nations to intervene more forcefully. The Canadian government knew perfectly well what was happening. It had Dallaire. It had General Maurice Baril heading up the military component of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York. It had James Orbinski running the Médecins Sans Frontières mission in the heart of the killings. It had deputy defence minister Robert Fowler strongly urging greater Canadian intervention. Yet except for some minor (if important) logistic help to Dallaire's military mission, Ottawa did little.

Why? Fifteen years later, we still don't know. Linda Melvern reminds us of several harsh truths in the newly published, revised version of her classic study A People Betrayed: The role of the West in Rwanda's genocide. There is no question of the reality of the genocide (despite a growing chorus of deniers); almost a million Tutsi were mercilessly slaughtered. Rwanda was abandoned by virtually all the players who should have intervened, and who are therefore responsible in part for that slaughter. Most of those players still refuse to acknowledge their role or seek to account for them.

We're talking here of France and the Roman Catholic Church, both actively complicit in enabling the genocide, the United States, Britain, Belgium, the UN Secretariat, the UN Security Council, the Organization of African Unity, and, yes, Canada. Of these, only the United Nations, Belgium and the OAU have commissioned proper studies, all of which came down harshly on their sponsors. (I wrote the OAU's report.)

From France: a refusal to acknowledge a jot of responsibility and a whitewashing study. From the Church: no acceptance of responsibility, no apology, no investigation of itself. From Washington: dishonest apologies and no investigation. From Canada: silence.

Melvern is tireless in demanding from each of those who either betrayed or abandoned Rwanda that they must set up a serious independent commission to investigate the role each country or institution played. The government of Stephen Harper has formally acknowledged the reality of the Turkish genocide against the Armenians in 1915, and has apologized to both Chinese-Canadians and native Canadians for injustices against them perpetrated by the Canadian governments of their time. Maybe they will continue this admirable record by allowing the truth of our abandonment of Rwanda to be discovered.

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