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.
At the time, Quebeckers were carving out a bigger place in the bilingualizing federal civil service. In 1970, Paul Gérin-Lajoie, a former Quebec education minister, began a seven-year tenure as CIDA president.
"Canada's foreign aid was mostly directed to Commonwealth countries such as India or Kenya," recalls Mr. Gérin-Lajoie, now 92. "As president, I felt it was my duty to compensate this deficiency and to fill the void in French-speaking Africa."
Within a few years, Canadian aid to Mali increased 30-fold, surpassing $3-million in 1973-74 and then doubling the following year. During its first 25 years, CIDA's aid was "tied" – largely limited to products and services procured in Canada.
For example, Hydro-Québec International and four other Canadian companies landed contracts worth $7.7-million out of the $9-million Mali spent building a high-tension power line from Bamako to Ségou.
Other Quebec companies, well equipped to communicate with Malians – including Bell Canada International, Tecsult (now Aecom), SNC-Lavalin and Transelec Common – snagged a great deal of work.
By 2003, international attitudes toward aid had shifted, and the federal government came to the conclusion that bringing goods and services from Canada was more costly and often less efficient than buying locally, so aid was un-"tied."
Still, since then, Canada has been a top-five donor to Mali, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
But the results have been mixed, Prof. Audet says. Montreal engineering firm SNC Lavalin has done irrigation work in Mali for a decade, but the aid expert calls that kind of contribution a drop in the bucket: "The scale and magnitude of the work done on irrigation and reforestation has not made a significant impact on agricultural production."
At times, CIDA has drawn similar conclusions. After contributing $40-million to three rail projects from 1977 to 1996, its evaluation concluded that the objectives had been "only partially met," failing to improve overall service in Mali.
There have been other bumps. In 1999, a contract for work on Mali's electrical system made headlines with reports that the winning bidder had donated $10,000 to Jean Chrétien's re-election campaign, and its president had bought land from a debt-plagued golf course with ties to the prime minister.
The Auditor-General concluded that CIDA had not exercised due diligence in awarding the contract.
Over time, Canada's aid evolved from largely bricks-and-mortar projects toward an emphasis on education, rural development and food production.Mali especially appreciated help in improving its administration, says Yves Boulanger, ambassador there from 1997 to 2001. "They were a bit suspicious of the French, to tell the truth," he adds, and wanted Canada's support in "touchy" areas such as fiscal openness and judicial policy.
Canada has helped Mali increase its revenues (tax collection has quadrupled since Longueuil-based CRC Sogema revamped the system seven years ago) and become more accountable. In the process, says Louise Ouimet, a CIDA officer in Mali who later returned as ambassador, it has earned a "voice at the table" in the country's affairs.
Ms. Ouimet recalls being approached in 2002 by Amadou Toumani Touré as the former general prepared to run for president. He "called me in and said, 'Okay, Louise, I'm going to put my candidacy up in the coming days, and here are the things I want to do.' "
His list included setting up an auditor-general's office much like Ottawa's and, after winning, he did. Canada's then-auditor-general Sheila Fraser visited in 2010, and later said she was impressed by "the way the office became known and supported by the public." In 2009, the watchdog had so irritated the authorities that he was thrown in jail overnight – and people rallied in the streets for his release.
In a continent known for dictators and conflict, Mali stood out for decades as stable and democratic after its 1991 coup paved the way for a popularly elected president. Ten years later, it made the transition from one elected government to another for the first time ever. By the early 1990s it was making effective democratic reforms, says Huguette Labelle, a former CIDA president and now chair of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.
"It's always stood out as the kind of recipient that Canada should be dealing with," says Richard Beattie, CIDA's director for Africa and the Middle East from 1990 to 1995.
This is why it remained a top target for aid even after the cuts of the mid-1990s and the 2009 decision to focus bilateral assistance on only 20 countries.
Développement international Desjardins stuck with Mali for similar reasons and saw tangible results. More than two decades ago, the not-for-profit microfinancing arm of the Quebec-based Desjardins co-operative banking movement started helping Nyèsigiso, a local savings co-op that ran a handful of counters housed in shacks with no electricity around Ségou. Since 1996, it has also been assisting Kafo Jiginew, which offers financing to farmers.
Now, with close to 700,000 clients, the two co-operatives account for 42 per cent of the country's bank accounts.
Desjardins management consultant Alain Beauregard has seen the difference this has made. Before being repatriated in December because of the unrest, he spent five years in Mali overseeing the creation of a computer network linking Nyèsigiso branches
Previously, merchants outside Bamako had to travel to the capital by bus at night, carrying huge sums of money and ever fearful of being robbed. Now, they can withdraw what they need in the city.
"We take these sort of transactions for granted," Mr. Beauregard says. "But this gives them peace of mind."
Prof. Audet worries that the civil war may drag on and undermine the work Canada has done, and Ms. Ouimet agrees: "I think we should go back with a co-operation program soon," the former ambassador says, to reduce the risk that Mali's key institutions "lose momentum."
If Canada pulls back indefinitely, warns Ms. Labelle, the Transparency International chair, "you could have a much greater destabilization of that whole region."
Mr. Fantino, despite his government's resistance to military participation, seems to agree. The minister told a recent international-donors conference that aid is "critical" to avoiding social unrest in southern Mali – "a stable south means more efforts can be concentrated on the security situation in the north."
Back in Sainte-Élisabeth, Mr. Houle certainly has no intention of giving up on Mali – and he has not forgotten Sanankoroba's plea to become self-sufficient, free of the kind of assistance that amounts to little more than damage control.
The mayor has visited his village's twin five times, his luggage bursting with books, and still marvels at how willing its residents were to give back in 1998 when they heard the Great Ice Storm had left much of Montreal and its surroundings cold and in the dark.
"They bled themselves to collect about $100 going door to door," he says. "We just couldn't believe it." Half of Mali's population lives on less than a $1.25 a day.
Now, Mr. Houle wants to go back as soon as he can, and see Sainte-Élisabeth's red tractor at work. With luck, it could be on its way within a month or two. Thanks largely to Sainte-Élisabeth's generosity, Sanankoroba has increased agricultural production so much that its children no longer need to work the fields all day. School enrolment has gone from 300 in 1985 to 4,000 today.
But looking to the future, Mr. Houle does worry that the civil war will turn into a prolonged guerrilla conflict, as in Afghanistan. Without an enduring peace, Sanankoroba's progress, along with everything else Canada's billion dollars has bought, remains at risk.