Imagine if the media only reported the good news that governments and corporations wanted you to see, hear and read about. Unfortunately, that is not far from the reality of reporting about Canada’s role internationally.
The dominant media almost exclusively covers stories that portray this country positively while ignoring or downplaying information that contradicts this narrative. The result? Canadians are ignorant and confused about their country’s role in the world.
In a recent example of benevolent Canada bias, The Globe and Mail reported uncritically about a trip international development minister Marie-Claude Bibeau made to the Congo. In a story last week headlined “Canada commits $97-million to Congo under feminist foreign-aid policy,” The Globe reported that “Canada has committed nearly $100-million to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to support women’s economic empowerment, protect street children and provide humanitarian assistance.”
A week earlier Canada’s paper of record decided a relatively insignificant Canadian project to help miners in eastern Congo was front-page news. “New gold standard emerges for Congo’s miners, Canada’s jewellery buyers,” detailed an Ottawa-funded initiative to promote legal exports and to standardize the price paid to scale miners.
While Partnership Africa Canada’s “fair trade” gold initiative is an interesting project and the international development minister’s announcement was newsworthy, the narrowness of the two articles gives readers the impression Canada helps improve the lives of people who live in a country where 87 per cent live on less than $1.25 a day. But, an abundance of evidence suggests Canada has actually impoverished the central African nation.
What follows is a brief outline of the context within which the good news about Canada’s role in the Congo should be seen:
Over a century ago Royal-Military-College-of-Canada-trained officer William Grant Stairs participated in two controversial expeditions to expand European influence over the Congo. In 1887, Stairs was one of ten white officers in the first-ever European expedition to cross the interior of the continent, which left a trail of death, disease and destruction. A few years later the Halifax native led a 1,950-person mission to conquer the resource-rich Katanga region of the Congo on behalf of Belgium’s King Leopold II. Today Stairs is honoured with a street, island and multiple plaques, even though he was openly racist and barbarous and added 150,000 square kilometres to the Belgium’s King’s monstrous colony.
During this period Hamilton, Ontario’s William Henry Faulknor was one of the first white missionaries to establish a mission station in eastern Congo. Between 1887 and 1891 Faulknor worked under the ruler of the Yeke kingdom, Mwenda Msiri, who would later meet his death at the hand of Stairs. Faulknor’s Plymouth Brethren explicitly called for European rule (either Belgian or British) over Katanga and like almost all missionaries sought to undermine local ways.
Following Faulknor, Toronto-born Henry Grattan Guinness II established the Congo Balolo Mission in 1889. Congo Balolo Mission missions were located in remote areas of the colony, where King Leopold’s Anglo-Belgian Rubber Company obligated individuals and communities to gather rubber latex and chopped off the hands of thousands of individuals who failed to fulfill their quotas.
Faced with the violent disruption of their lives, the Lulonga, Lopori, Maringa, Juapa and Burisa were increasingly receptive to the Christian activists who became “the interpreter of the new way of life,” writes Ruth Slade in English-Speaking Missions in the Congo Independent State. Not wanting to jeopardize their standing with Leopold’s representatives, the Congo Balolo Mission repeatedly refused British-based solidarity campaigners’ appeals to publicly expose the abuses they witnessed.
In the 1920s the Canadian trade commissioner in South Africa, G.R. Stevens, traveled to the Congo and reported on the Katanga region’s immense resources. In de-facto support of Belgian rule, a Canadian trade commission was opened in the colony in 1946. In response to a series of anti-colonial demonstrations in 1959, Canadian Trade Commissioner K. Nyenhuis reported to External Affairs that “savagery is still very near the surface in most of the natives.”
Ottawa backed Brussels militarily as it sought to maintain control of its massive colony. Hundreds of Belgian pilots were trained in Canada during and after World War II and through the 1950s Belgium received tens of millions of dollars in Canadian NATO Mutual Aid. Canadian Mutual Aid weaponry was likely employed by Belgian troops in suppressing the anti-colonial struggle in the Congo.
Immediately after independence Canada played an important role in the UN mission that facilitated the murder of anticolonial Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in 1961. Canadian Colonel Jean Berthiaume assisted Lumumba’s political enemies by helping recapture the popular independence leader. Lumumba was handed over to soldiers under military commander Joseph Mobutu.
Canada had a hand in Mobutu’s rise and Ottawa mostly supported his brutal three-decade rule. Then, Canada also helped get rid of Mobutu.
Ottawa supported Rwanda and Uganda’s invasion, which ultimately drove Mobutu from power. In 1996, Canada led a short-lived UN force into eastern Zaire (Congo) designed to dissipate French pressure and ensure pro-Mobutu Paris didn’t take command of a force that could impede the Rwandan-led invasion. As Rwanda has unleashed mayhem in the Congo over the past two decades, Ottawa has backed Kigali.
In 2002 a series of Canadian companies were implicated in a UN report titled “Report on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and other Forms of Wealth in the Congo.” Ottawa responded to the report by defending the Canadian companies cited for complicity in Congolese human rights violations.
At the G8 in 2010, the Canadian government pushed for an entire declaration to the final communiqué criticizing the Congo for attempting to gain a greater share of its vast mineral wealth. Earlier that year Ottawa obstructed international efforts to reschedule the country’s foreign debt, which was mostly accrued during Mobutu’s dictatorship and the subsequent wars. Canadian officials “have a problem with what’s happened with a Canadian company,” Congolese Information Minister Lambert Mende said, referring to the government’s move to revoke a mining concession that First Quantum acquired under dubious circumstances during the 1998-2003 war.
With about $4.5 billion invested in the Congo, Canadian mining companies have been responsible for numerous abuses. After a half-dozen members of the little-known Mouvement revolutionnaire pour la liberation du Katanga occupied Anvil Mining’s Kilwa concession in October 2004 the Canada-Australian company transported government troops who killed 100 people. Most of the victims were unarmed civilians.
In recent months a number of individuals have been killed at Banro’s mines in eastern Congo. Over the past two decades the secretive Toronto-based company has been accused of fuelling conflict in a region that’s seen incredible violence.
Of course one cannot expect a detailed history of Canada’s role in impoverishing Congo in a story about a government aid announcement or a 1,300-word article about an initiative to standardize pay for some of the world’s most vulnerable miners. But, The Globe‘s failure to even mention the broader story reflects its bias and helps to explain why Canadians are so confused about their country’s role in the world.