Canada’s African adventure takes a colonial turn

, by SAUNDERS Doug

What do we call the thing Canada is doing in Africa?

It involves our largest corporations, the federal government, public- and private-sector aid agencies, and sometimes the military. And their activities are increasingly connected, sometimes by choice, often by force of circumstance.

This week saw Ed Fast, the Minister of International Trade, touring some of the scores of city-sized mining, oil and infrastructure developments that Canada is creating in Nigeria and Ghana, and the development and aid activities that we’ve brought in to surround them. He’s the third cabinet minister to visit those countries since October.

If you follow his steps, you realize Canada is no longer simply “doing business” or “providing aid” in Africa. What we’re doing is something that bears a striking resemblance to the things Britain and France were doing in Canada two centuries ago.

First came the exploiters, in search of mineral wealth. Though most Canadians don’t realize it, Canada is now the largest foreign mining operator in the continent, exceeding even China: We have almost $25-billion in investments in hundreds of huge projects. Our petroleum companies are gigantic players, too. And along with those miners came the people building roads and dams and buildings: Our engineering firms are among the largest on the continent.

Then came the trouble. The taking of resources is a rough business that tends to occur among vulnerable populations. It involves spreading money around, often paying off key people to acquire rights and win the co-operation of local groups. This is inevitably a political process, and it’s often dirty. As a result, Canadian companies can’t seem to keep out of trouble in Africa.

This week, we learned that a Calgary oil company, Griffiths Energy International Inc., had paid a $2-million bribe in a resource deal with the government of Chad [1]. Two weeks earlier, a detailed report from Human Rights Watch [2] evealed that a mine in Eritrea owned by Canadian mining company Nevsun Resources had been built in part by unpaid forced labourers provided by the Eritrean government [3]. And Quebec engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, one of the largest contractors in the world, faces continuing criticism for the huge sums it paid to Moammar Gadhafi and his family in exchange for contracts worth billions, including the construction of a prison.

And that’s just January: There have been scores of other humanitarian, political and ecological storms kicked up by Canadian companies in Africa. While their investments have created immeasurable fiscal and employment benefits, their mining colonies and drilling towns have too often become centres of scandal.

So then came the government. Even though Ottawa had shifted its foreign-aid focus away from Africa a few years ago, the government has come back in force, with a new large-scale aid strategy in which its agencies work with resource companies, alongside charities and private aid groups, in a way that, in the words of International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino, “addresses social and environmental issues of extractive sector development” and helps countries “use resource rents and investment to spur economic diversification in local communities, often focused on agricultural and agribusiness development.” It makes some sense: Canada ought to be providing this sort of aid to the people it’s contacting – sometimes beneficially, sometimes otherwise – with its resource-taking activities.

But the end effect is that Canada has landed in Africa in a big way: tearing up the land, building new towns, creating roads and pipelines and airports, and bringing in new forms of government and administration to create new economies and enforce human rights and democratic standards.

This bears a strong resemblance to what the military calls counterinsurgency: To make the local population tolerate your forceful acts and embrace your cause, you win over their hearts and minds by building roads, schools, water supplies and better farms. In the process, though, you become something like a colonial government.

Canada, not yet fully free from its own years as a colony, is far from comfortable with this role. We ought to find some other name, and some other shape, for our African project.

Doug Saunders