Canada stood tall in 1990 when, only four months after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela spoke to the House of Commons and thanked us for supporting the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa.
He didn’t speak as a head of parliament or state. Even the term “foreign dignitary” would have been a stretch at the time. Mandela began by noting that he was not allowed to address parliament in his own country.
With such a great outpouring of tributes, eulogies and accolades for the freedom fighter since his death last week, it didn’t seem appropriate to thrust contemporary politics into the moment. There is a point, however, that deserves to be made about the changing face of Canada.
Would Canada, in 2013, have dared to challenge the policies of its chief allies, the U.S. and Britain, and strike out on its own with trade sanctions against South Africa?
Would Stephen Harper as prime minister exercise the principled conviction of his Conservative predecessor, Brian Mulroney, in defence of basic human rights?
And would Mandela, had his emancipation occurred 20 years later, still have seen fit to visit Canada and thank Canadians for taking that stand?
Canada took the road less travelled 30 years ago, developing and advocating a firm but
nuanced policy toward a country that had been a Commonwealth partner.
Mulroney hadn’t distinguished himself as a human rights champion before he got elected.
Once in office, though, he made opposition to the racist regime in South Africa his highest
external affairs priority: “I was resolved from the moment I became prime minister that any government I headed would speak and act in the finest traditions of Canada.”
It is those traditions, so closely aligned with perceptions of national pride and identity, that are now in question.
While the Harper Conservatives factored international human rights issues into its foreign policy earlier on, those priorities have been largely subverted by economic goals, most notably in pursuit of oil exports.
“On climate, Canada is a rogue state,” SFU professor and former Tory adviser Marc Jaccard said last week.
Last month, an Environics poll found that Canadians give their country a lukewarm rating for protecting human rights at home and abroad. Large majorities feel discrimination continues against minorities, including Aboriginals.
This is not the same Canada that Mandela thanked.
We Say editorials represent the viewpoint of The Daily News and are written by publisher Tim Shoults, city editor Tracy Gilchrist, or associate news editors Dan Spark and Mark Rogers.