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Supporters of Andry Rajoelina cheer at a rally in Antananarivo, Madagascar, March 18, 2009, as they hear that Madagascar's highest court has accepted the army's decision that the toppled president's rival should replace him.Jerome Delay/The Associated Press

The Conservative government's new strategy of "economic diplomacy" is largely just a formalization of what its diplomats have already been quietly doing on the ground in places like Africa.

While the government complains that its diplomats in "tweed jackets" should be buying "business suits" and devoting themselves to trade deals, the reality is that Canadian diplomats have been focusing on business and trade for years already, under heavy pressure from Stephen Harper's government.

A good example is Madagascar, where the biggest priority for Canadian diplomats is to protect a mammoth $5.5-billion nickel-cobalt mine, which is 40-per-cent owned by Sherritt International Corp. of Toronto.

Diplomats from other countries have been fighting hard to restore democracy to the politically turbulent country, which was rocked by a coup in 2009. But for Canada, the battle for democracy has taken a back seat to the business interests of the Toronto-based mining company.

In their visits to Madagascar since the coup, Canada's diplomats have spent much of their time lobbying the government to ensure that Sherritt secures an operating license for its mine. The post-coup government had hinted that it could reconsider its approval for the project, and the company wanted Ottawa's help – which it got.

Foreign Minister John Baird has signalled the new business priority in his choice of countries to visit in Africa. He has focused largely on leading economies such as Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and Algeria, where Canadian energy and mining companies are eager to do business.

"Canada is keen to explore opportunities to realize the full economic potential of trade with Kenya and the East African Community, especially for Canadian natural resource companies, which are becoming leaders in the Kenyan mining and oil and gas industries," Mr. Baird's office said after he visited Nairobi this year.

Mining is the biggest Canadian industry in Africa, with more than $30-billion in Canadian investment, and has become a key focus of Canadian diplomacy in the continent. Canadian ambassadors and mid-ranking diplomats are often prominent at African mining conferences, and Canadian foreign-aid money has begun flowing into partnerships with Canadian mining companies in Africa.

But this can conflict with Canada's other official goal: democracy and human rights. For example, Canada has strongly supported the Toronto-based gold mining company, Iamgold Corp., in its massive gold project in Burkina Faso. But the project is sending hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes and royalties to Burkina Faso's authoritarian and opaque government, which came to power in a 1987 coup.

Similar questions can be asked in other corners of Africa, where Canadian mining companies are major investors in autocratic countries such as Eritrea, Mauritania and Zimbabwe. If the new policy requires Canadian diplomats to support these mining projects above all else, will Ottawa in effect be propping up authoritarian regimes?

The business focus, meanwhile, will make it difficult for Canada to become a leader in its traditional foreign priorities – such as peacekeeping, political diplomacy and foreign aid – which Canada has always emphasized in the past.

The Harper government has virtually ignored the United Nations peacekeeping efforts in Africa, refusing to send more than a few dozen troops to major UN peacekeeping missions in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The government has also dismantled its Sudan Task Force, which co-ordinated its peace-building efforts in Sudan. And on foreign aid, Ottawa has focused on a list of "priority countries" in Africa, most of which are also targets for Canadian business investment.

On the political front, meanwhile, Canada is increasingly seen as neglecting the African continent, with only 15 Canadian diplomatic missions in the 54 African countries.

South Africa, for example, has publicly complained about Ottawa's apparent lack of interest in the country. Last year, in an inadvertent snub, Canada failed to send any diplomats to the 100th anniversary celebrations of the African National Congress, the liberation movement of Nelson Mandela that fought apartheid and became the ruling party when democracy arrived in 1994.

"Canada today has a tendency of stepping back, and we want Canada to be more forward-looking," said Membathisi Mdladlana, the South African high commissioner to Canada, in an interview this week with South Africa's state broadcaster.

"Knowing that they participated in the anti-apartheid movement in the past, we want them to participate in the development of the Republic of South Africa," he said.

If the Harper government begins to see Africa as a place of economic opportunity, however, it could potentially make Africa a higher priority for Canadian foreign policy. Under the government's new policy of "economic diplomacy," South Africa is listed among the target countries for Canadian diplomacy.

Edward Akuffo, who studies Canada-Africa relations as a political science professor at the University of the Fraser Valley in B.C., said the long-standing Canadian neglect of Africa is rooted in a traditional perception of Africa as a continent of poverty and crisis, where Canada lacks any national interests. This has led to cuts in Canadian diplomatic missions in Africa in recent years.

"The slashing of Canada's diplomatic representation in Africa by the Harper government appears to be a natural consequence of the deeply held perception among the Canadian public that the African continent is poor and conflict-ridden, and therefore it would likely be immoral to pursue economic opportunities there," he wrote in an analysis for the Canadian International Council this month.

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