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Canada’s aid to Mali evolved from largely bricks-and-mortar projects toward an emphasis on education, rural development and food production. (Alain Beauregard)
Canada’s aid to Mali evolved from largely bricks-and-mortar projects toward an emphasis on education, rural development and food production. (Alain Beauregard)

What Canada means to Mali, and Mali means to Canada Add to ...

The bright-red Massey Ferguson tractor should have left the Port of Montreal last week. But instead of being en route to the sorghum and millet fields of sub-Saharan Africa, it sits in a snow-covered barn between Montreal and Trois-Rivières, waiting for peace and stability to return to Mali.

The $40,000 machine is a gift from the 1,560 residents of tiny Sainte-Élisabeth to Sanankoroba, the village in southern Mali they “adopted” 28 years ago. Canada World Youth brought young people from both countries to spend the summer of 1985 working in town. Then they headed off to Africa, and the Canadians came back with tales of living conditions so dire – farmers breaking ground with pickaxes, families with little to eat – that Sainte-Élisabeth decided it had to do something, from one farming community to another.

“ ‘Help us free ourselves from humanitarian aid’ – that is what they asked us,” Mayor Mario Houle recalls. Over the years, residents have raised money to buy plows, carts, cattle and donkeys, and to finance projects proposed by Sanankoroba.

The red tractor is just their latest donation – much as the $13-million in emergency aid pledged recently by International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino is far from the federal government’s first contribution to Mali’s cause: Ottawa has spent more than $1-billion there in the past 25 years.

For weeks, vivid reports of the uprising in northern Mali and the destruction caused by rebels while in control of historic Timbuktu have held the public’s attention. Now, with French forces having pushed insurgents back to mountain strongholds, the world watches to see how severe the ensuing humanitarian crisis and guerrilla war will be.

The House of Commons debated Canada’s response this week, with opposition leaders criticizing the Harper government’s “mixed messages”: It resisted French President François Hollande’s repeated requests for troops, and put a short leash on the C-17 cargo plane it lent to the effort.

Yet this remote, landlocked nation of just 15.8 million has remained a leading recipient of Canada’s foreign aid while much of Africa has been cut off. Canadians have helped to finance and build some of Mali’s biggest infrastructure projects – railroads, dams, communications – as well as reforming institutions, services and financial systems.

Why is Mali a priority? Except for a few mining concerns, not many Canadian companies have commercial interests in this country so poor it is 175th of 187 nations in the United Nations’ Human Development Index. And why has so much of Canada’s work there been carried by Quebec businesses?

The reasons have deep roots in the familiar politics of Quebec’s ambitions and federal efforts to rein in and co-opt them. Yet it’s hard to say how much benefit the aid has brought either nation.

There are some obvious reasons for the Quebec connection: Mali was a French colony until 1960, and so shares a linguistic bond. As well, members of Quebec religious communities such as the Pères Blancs (White Fathers) have been in western Africa for decades.

But the special relationship had its genesis in the wake of Expo 67, when a high-flying Quebec began to reach out to the world just as Canada was trying to develop a foreign policy independent of the Commonwealth.

With Ottawa keen to isolate the increasingly independence-minded province, francophone Africa was an important place to be.

In 1968, the year the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) was created to administer foreign aid, Ottawa sent diplomat Lionel Chevrier to woo western Africa’s impoverished former French colonies.

The implicit message: Canada had more to offer than a sovereign Quebec ever could.

“We were very concerned about the claims that Quebec could be given international status as a state,” says Gordon Riddell of his experience as Canada’s ambassador in the region from 1969 to 1972. “One of the political objectives was certainly to try to counter this.”

Strangely, Quebec did not object. “[Ottawa’s] agenda coincided with the province’s willingness to establish diplomatic relations with the Francophonie,” says Université du Québec à Montréal professor François Audet, who heads the Canadian Research Institute on Humanitarian Crisis and Aid.

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