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Brian Mulroney and Stephen Lewis on principled leadership in foreign affairs

Canada’s role in anti-apartheid struggle

Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney arrives at the University of Toronto (all photos by Jon Horvatin)

Canada needs more principled leadership in foreign affairs, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and former UN Ambassador Stephen Lewis told a symposium on Canada’s role in the struggle against apartheid held by Massey College and the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History on April 10.

For the occasion, Mulroney and Lewis delivered a spell-binding exposition on how they defied the foreign affairs bureaucracy, Margaret Thatcher and the U.S. and British governments to give Canada a leadership role in the fight against South African apartheid.

Mulroney said that when he came into office in 1984, he was not happy with Canada’s dealings with South Africa, which consisted largely of ignoring its racist policies.

He recalled a conversation with South Africa’s Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu where he asked the outspoken apartheid opponent if a middle power like Canada could have influence on the issue. The archbishop replied that the Canadian government could translate morality into political action, and Mulroney said he immediately afterward called his foreign affairs minister Joe Clark and the clerk of the Privy Council and told them that the campaign against apartheid would be the Canadian government’s highest foreign policy priority.

photo of Stephen Lewis at lecternFor Lewis, a former Ontario NDP leader appointed by Conservative Prime Minister Mulroney to be ambassador to the United Nations during the 1980s death throes of apartheid, the campaign was without dispute Mr. Mulroney’s finest hour.

“Nothing will sully that legacy,” he said.

Lewis recalled Mulroney’s address to the UN General Assembly in 1985, when the Prime Minister decided to restore a sentence that External Affairs had wanted removed from his speech: “if there is no progress in the dismantling of apartheid, our relations with South Africa may have to be severed completely”.

“You have to have been in the General Assembly to appreciate what happened when those words were uttered”, commented Lewis. “I was at the UN for four glorious years. I had never seen anything like it before, and I never saw anything like it afterwards. It was an extraordinary moment. It was, for all the African delegations, a moment of hope.”

Mulroney, for his part, praised Lewis for “articulating a Canadian vision of the world [at the UN] that had never been heard before.”

Both speakers also commented on other matters in Canadian foreign affairs.

“If I had been Prime Minister in 1994, there’s no chance that Canada would have stood idly by and watched what happened in Rwanda”, said Mulroney.  “We had made a difference in Ethiopia, we could have made one in Rwanda”.

 Lewis added: “We’ve removed ourselves from debates on significant international issues, whether it’s genocide in the Central African Republic or climate change. We don’t even have an influential voice in defining the next set of Millennium Development Goals. It’s sad.”

Both speakers received standing ovations from an audience of students, academics, former cabinet ministers and a governor-general, the Rt. Hon. Adrienne Clarkson. (See a photo gallery of the event.) The transpartisan composition of the panel – introduced by Hon. Bill Graham and moderated by Professor John English – was noted several times as Canada’s ideal approach to international policies.

Economist Brett House, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, told the panel during question period: “Today, you've made it respectable to be nostalgic for the ‘80s.”