Most Canadians now know the answer to the question general Romeo Dallaire once asked thanks, unhappily, to one of history’s great man-made tragedies. Yet for half a century before the 1994 genocide, some Canadians, especially Quebec Catholic missionaries and certain federal civil servants, were close to Rwanda, a country where the elite spoke French. It might have been better were they not, for many of these old Rwanda hands made themselves handmaidens of an ethnic Hutu dictatorship that ended up planning and executing the near-extermination of the country’s Tutsi minority.

Once the Rwanda Patriotic Front defeated the genocidaires and formed a new government, dramatic changes in both countries followed. In Rwanda, pro-Hutu foreigners became persona non grata — an understandable reaction.

In Canada, government policy was less predictable, to say the least, characterized as it was by absurdity and insult. Never mind the thousands of Rwandans, many of them genocide survivors, making their homes in Canada or the many Rwandan-Canadians prominent in Rwandan public life, like the governor of the Bank of Rwanda and the president’s chief of staff. From 1994 until very recently, under both Liberal and Conservative governments, Canada inflicted two remarkable humiliations on Rwandans.

First, the ruling RPF remained on an official list of terrorist parties banned from Canada. (Curiously enough, Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress similarly remained banned for some years after his release from prison.) While Canada, like the rest of the world, recognized the RPF government, maintained an office in the country and contributed small amounts of aid, and while the president of Rwanda himself visited Canada, other government officials were arbitrarily denied entry. Yet until last year, Canadians didn’t even need a visa to visit Rwanda. Rwandans protested this bizarre situation for years without success. Some Canadians speculate that old Canadian friends of the Hutu extremists have somehow continued to sabotage all things Tutsi. But no one really seems to know, and no one tells.

Such rumours were reinforced by a second and even more notorious practice of the Chrétien, Martin and Harper governments. To enter Canada, Rwandans had to identify their ethnic background: Were they Hutu or Tutsi? Put yourself in a Rwandan’s shoes. Ethnic divisiveness was precisely the policy that led to the genocide. Extremists in the Rwandan Hutu government launched the genocide against the Tutsi and those Hutu who rejected ethnic extremism. For years both Rwandans and Canadians pleaded for an end to this astonishing Canadian policy until they were finally heeded by Stephen Harper. No one could fathom how Canada could justify such blatant racism.

And who really knows why the Harper government has now rescinded both policies? Better late than never, no doubt. But what does it mean?

Are these signals that Canada is interested in improving relationships with Rwanda — a tiny nation that, against all the odds, has made itself a serious player both in Africa and internationally. Whatever its blemishes, this is a nation on the move, a miracle of reconstruction beyond any rational expectations. Other Africans visit Rwanda and their jaws drop; why can’t their countries be more like Rwanda?

Next fall Africa’s temporary seat on the Security Council falls open. It is likely that Rwanda, with the backing of the entire African Union, will be elected to fill that position.

There are two sweet ironies in this development. Here’s the first. Rwanda will hold that seat during the fall of 2014, exactly 20 years since the genocide. The last time it held that seat was also exactly 20 years ago. At that time, unbelievably enough, Rwanda was represented at the United Nations Security Council by the very Hutu extremist government that was in the process of annihilating its Tutsi fellow citizens.

Here’s the second. When Canada sought a seat for itself on the Security Council in 2010, it was resoundingly defeated. Maybe if we asked nicely, next time Rwanda would slip us the secret of its success.

Canada’s abject failure to win that seat was a humiliation for Canada and a slap in the face for Stephen Harper’s foreign policy. Not least was his attitude towards Africa, marked at best by ignorance and indifference. It first froze development aid and has now gone further and cut its aid program. It has arbitrarily defunded some of our best NGOs. And in lieu of programs to reduce poverty and accelerate development, it is throwing its weight behind Canadian mining interests, whose record abroad can generously be described as mixed. Those Canadians who understand and care about Africa have rarely been so discouraged.

Then why have those long-standing irritants to Rwanda been removed? Did they have a larger significance beyond righting two terrible wrongs? If they were intended to send some kind of positive signal, Rwandans haven’t heard them. Yet I’m confident Rwanda would be receptive. For all its impressive progress, the country remains very poor. Its resources are as scarce as its needs are enormous. Canada is in a position to help meet some of them, including, for example, the mountain of technical and vocational expertise that Rwanda needs and that Canadian community colleges, for example, are well-equipped to provide.

But Rwanda is hardly counting its Canadian chickens. After all, aid has now been terminated completely. Moreover, despite Canada ending those discriminatory policies, the Rwandan government still feels its legitimacy is not yet accepted by Ottawa. They sense a continuing lack of good will and, as one official puts it, “a bad taste in everything between us.”

It’s hard to know, though, whether this phenomenon is about Mr. Harper and Rwanda or Mr. Harper and Africa. When in 2009 his government peremptorily cut off almost aid to eight African countries, Rwanda was one of them. This week the second shoe fell. Reliable if unofficial reports indicate that five African countries, among the very poorest in the world, will now lose all Canadian aid, however meagre it’s been. Rwanda is again among them. No doubt this isn’t about Rwanda itself, but is rather just another step in the government’s inexplicable policy of marginalizing Africa. So for Rwanda, it could well indicate that holding out hope for better relations with Canada is a mug’s game.

Why should Canada care about Rwanda at all? Because of history, perhaps? Because fate — aided and abetted by all those nations and churches who were guilty of sins of commission or omission during the genocide — has made Rwanda the very incarnation of man’s inhumanity to man?

Because during the genocide the Canadian government was among those missing in action? Because when deputy defence Minister Robert Fowler urged the Chrétien government to send reinforcements for Mr. Dallaire’s pathetic UN force, the response was that “Canada doesn’t do Africa”? Because of Canada’s shameful post-genocide treatment of Rwanda, noted above? Because there’s so much to do and it would be the easiest thing in the world for Canada to do some of it?

Or is the simple truth exactly what it seems? Perhaps Canada still does not do Africa.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.


Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...