A photo of Canada's Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland speaking at the Brookings Institute in October of 2022.
Canada's Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland speaking at the Brookings Institute in October of 2022. Credit: Chrystia Freeland / Twitter Credit: Chrystia Freeland / Twitter

Speaking at a Brookings Institutions event in Washington, DC, deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland was asked about Western support for African countries. An attendee of the event, himself from Africa and an employee of the African Development Bank, asked about signalling from Western governments that African countries would not be receiving much support, with clear indications that Ukraine was considered an obvious priority. Freeland responded thusly:

“I think that is an excellent question, and something I am very preoccupied by. And I think I’m going to start actually by just gently interrogating two words you used, which is about ‘African countries falling into the hands of Russia,’ and ‘African countries backsliding.’

I think it’s not my job to sit in judgment about that. One of the sort of profound lessons, I think, of the war in Ukraine, is democracy can only be built by people themselves, for themselves. And a democracy can only be defined by people themselves, if they’re actually prepared to die for their democracy….So, part of what I certainly believe, is, the in-between countries, certainly the countries of Africa – this is a choice they need to make for themselves, and the people need to make for themselves.

…So, that would be kind of – my first point is, I really think a key idea we have to have is that we have to set aside paternalism , maybe even the paternalism of the ‘end of history thinking,’ and we really have to see the agency in citizens.”

This is a truly heinous reply. First, it completely eliminates the Eurocolonial history which shapes present circumstances – centuries of Europeans murdering, mutilating, enslaving, and raping Africans while stealing resources from the continent. Centuries. Second, since African countries took independence through the 1960s, Western countries have intervened in African democracies, supporting military coups and assassinating elected leaders. The Canadian government itself participated in the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader of the Congo.

Canada’s imperialist endeavours continue to this day. As we speak, the Canadian military is deploying equipment to Haiti, in response to weeks of mass protest against the Western-backed government. The history of Haiti is a history of Western colonial and imperialist brutality, perpetually opposed by the people of Haiti – and it is one in which Canada features prominently. The Canadian government helped plan the coup d’etat which overthrew the Haitian government in 2004. Since then, Canada has played an ongoing and significant role in the continued and intentional social, political, and economic degradation of Haiti.

Canada’s record in Africa is no better. Several Canadian mining companies operate in African countries, continuing centuries of colonial extraction and further propagating the fundamentally racist inequity of global capitalism. The Canadian military supports AFRICOM operations, AFRICOM being the US military Africa Command office. Canada played a significant role in NATO’s 2011 military intervention in Libya – in violation of UN Resolutions – the aftermath of which has seen open-air slave markets, unregulated migrant detention facilities, and countless human rights abuses unleashed in Libya.

The week after speaking in Washington, Freeland offered what some have called an apology, saying she did not mean to offend with her comments, and stating that Western countries need to step-up their engagement in Africa, and that they must recognize that current problems stem from the history of colonization. Freeland did not mention whether this recognition should include Western countries paying reparations for colonization and climate change. Perhaps she thinks reparations would be “paternalism.”

At this moment, there is a drought and threat of famine in the Horn of Africa. More than 36 million people face life-threatening hunger. There is repeated violence targeted civilians in the Tigray region in Ethiopia. There have been regular reports of massacres throughout the two years of the conflict so far. Flooding in Nigeria has impacted 33 of the country’s 36 states, displacing more than 1.3 million people and killing at least 600. The Canadian government has not made meaningful commitments regarding any of these crises.

When Ukraine was invaded, the government committed to accepting an “unlimited” number of Ukrainians. Not one Canadian government official has committed to accepting even a single African seeking refuge from inhumane or ihospitable inhospitable conditions they did not create.

Freeland’s remarks are either stunningly ignorant or stunningly disingenuous. In either case, they are undeniably racist. Africans have been fighting for self-determination against the deeply racist and violently anti-black Eurocolonial world order for literal centuries. For centuries, Europeans and Westerners have been killing them for doing so. To claim that more Africans need to die to demonstrate their desire for self-determination is mind-rendingly, inconceivably racist.

The most recently available data shows that in 2012, while $1.3 trillion were sent to developing countries through investments, aid, remittances, and all other sources, that same year saw $3.3 trillion extracted from those same countries.The global aid regime is a farce – forget having pivoted to offering aid, Western countries haven’t even ceased their rapacious looting of the global South. For Freeland to speak about ‘casting off paternalism’ in the context of this continued extractive inequity is absurd.

When Freeland eats chocolate made from cocoa beans that African children were forced to harvest on plantations in Western companies’ supply chains, does she feel those children should die for democracy?

When she logs into her laptop powered by a lithium-ion battery, developed using minerals mined by exploited African workers, at great cost to the health of themselves and their environment, does she feel those workers should die for democracy?

When Africans die from preventable illness, including COVID-19, in part due to Canada and other Western countries’ opposition to waiving intellectual property restrictions for vaccines and life-saving medical technologies, does Freeland count those deaths as being for democracy?

Chuka Ejeckam Photo (1)

Chuka Ejeckam

Chuka Ejeckam is a writer and policy researcher based in Toronto. The son of Igbo immigrants to Canada, Chuka grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His work focuses on inequity and inequality, drug policy, structural...