The announcement last week that CIDA was being folded into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade provoked its strongest reaction in Quebec. Let’s see about creating a Quebec Ministry of International Co-operation blurted out Jean-Francois Lisée, Quebec Minister for Intergovernmental Affairs.

For Montreal-based Alternatives, the major international affairs NGO, putting international development under the authority of diplomats spells the demise of international solidarity networks once fostered by CIDA.

For those of us who remember its origins (I worked at CIDA in its early days), seeing the loss of an independent CIDA being lamented in Quebec evokes an earlier time, when Canada spoke mostly English abroad. The Harper government would be surprised to learn CIDA was invented in 1968 in large part to give Quebecers a bigger role in Canadian foreign policy.

In 1967, Charles de Gaulle, President of France, made himself a star of Canada’s centennial year. When he spoke the words Vive le Québec, Vive le Québec Libre, from the balcony at Montreal City Hall, he put the simmering Canadian national unity crisis on front pages around the world. 

Canadian foreign policy took a hit in the face. Was Canada at heart a British outpost oppressing French-speaking Quebecers? Would France support the Quebec independence movement? Would French-speaking Africa?

The Quebec sovereignty movement could only succeed by gaining international recognition, that was a given. Would the inability to reflect the cultural and linguistic duality of Canada abroad contribute to its break-up?

The first days of the Canadian International Development Agency were consumed by what in Ottawa was seen as the unity crisis. In the spring of 1968, Liberal party heavyweight, former Minister Lionel Chevrier was brought out of retirement, a plane was chartered, and the CIDA Chevrier Mission headed for Africa to establish a Canadian international development assistance program in the French-speaking countries of the continent.

CIDA represented a re-branding (in today’s terms) of the External Aid Office (EAO) that had been under External Affairs since 1960. Canada’s efforts in what became international development assistance (or aid) dated back to the dismantling of the British Empire after World War II.

British outpost or not, Canada along with Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa in 1950 joined Britain in what was called the Colombo Plan, to provide assistance to the Indian sub-continent after independence. Early programs were administered by the Department of Trade and Commerce in the spirit of Cold War anti-communism.

CIDA was born just as official languages legislation was being adopted, and bilingualism was being introduced into the public service. Its second president, Jean Paul Gérin-Lajoie, named in 1970, was one of the most important figures in Quebec political life. He had been the legendary education minister during the Quiet Revolution.

CIDA’s first president was Maurice F. Strong, a 37-year-old financier based in Montreal, brought in to run EAO by the Liberal government headed by Lester Pearson. Strong had a vision of Canada as a champion of international development; he wanted CIDA to be independent of the External Affairs mandarins who had run EAO.

Lester Pearson understood that building co-operation abroad was something Canadians could do together, in both languages. Before he left his party and government to Pierre Trudeau, Pearson had decided it was time to give a unilingual Canadian public service a decent burial.

Post retirement, Lester Pearson went to work with the World Bank and produced a report: Partners in Development. A belief grew that Canadians could lead the international policy debate around development.

A memo to the Trudeau cabinet submitted by External Affairs Minister Mitchell Sharp (but drafted by Strong) suggested that international development could give Canadians a sense of national purpose.

In the spirit of the centennial celebrations, CIDA made sense. Canada could define itself and its place in the world, not just as British, or as the American waterboy, but as a leader in international co-operation.

It would be nice to be able to say it was all a great success, but the failures over the ensuing 45 years matter as well. As CIDA expert Stephen Brown pointed out, successive governments kept giving CIDA conflicting and contradictory instructions and mandates — and then blaming CIDA when things did not work out. 

The decade plus shooting war in Afghanistan saw CIDA money diverted into a futile defence, diplomacy and development strategy borrowed from the U.S. Marine Corp.

The desire to use CIDA money as a slush fund to promote Canadian exports, or build diplomatic ties had been difficult to resist for years. Advocates for international development and co-operation were increasingly isolated outside government in the NGOs, and international solidarity movements.

No one ever mistook Conservative CIDA Ministers Bev Oda and Julian Fantino for champions of international co-operation.

From a modest beginning sending teachers abroad, bringing students to Canada, funding multilateral lending agencies and development banks, and Canadian civil society organizations such as CUSO, CIDA grew into an agency that satisfied too few, and left many more looking for improvements.

Independent or not, the CIDA story will go on being written, and a new generation of Canadians will eventually get to try again, and may get it more right than wrong. Whatever the Harper Conservatives may think, building a network of trust around the world is even more necessary today than in 1968, because issues such as climate change, environmental protection, poverty reduction, meeting basic needs, and ending militarism, can only be met and resolved through international co-operation, not just commerce, or diplomacy.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Paulo Filgueras/United Nations Development Programme