A South African Airways plane on the tarmac at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.
A South African Airways plane on the tarmac at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. Credit: Pranav Bhatt / Flickr Credit: Pranav Bhatt / Flickr

Recently, Canada put ten African countries on a no-fly list due to the outbreak of the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2. But, European nations with more confirmed Omicron cases have been spared from the travel ban.

Simultaneously, the federal government introduced a rule requiring Canadians in those ten African countries wanting to return home to take a COVID test in a third country. Upon receiving criticism, Ottawa justified the move by saying people could contract a virus on the long flights.

The president of the African Community Association of Calgary, chair of the Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity and the NDP foreign affairs critic have all labelled Canada’s anti-African COVID-19 measures racist. South Africa’s high commissioner, World Health Organization (WHO) officials and major media have also portrayed Ottawa’s moves as discriminatory.

While some may consider the recent discriminatory COVID-19 measures an anomaly motivated by extreme public health concerns, they are reflective of longstanding attitudes towards Africa. 

In the high profile 1993 “Somali Affair,” for instance, Canadian soldiers tortured and killed a 16-year-old Somali boy in an incident that exposed significant racism among those deployed to Somalia. In describing the intervention Corporal Matt Mackay stated, “we haven’t killed enough N– yet” while another Canadian soldier sent to the Horn of Africa called the mission, “Operation Snatch Nig-nog.”

Decades earlier, Canada’s ambassador to Belgium responded to an External Affairs discussion of African independence with a racist outburst. In the internal 1957 debate, Charles Hébert argued against a suggestion from a colleague that the Congolese people would be ready for independence in two decades. He wrote that the Congo “is inhabited by very backward peoples few of whom can have any conception of government … it is inconceivable that, 20 years from now, these people should be asked to assume direction of their own affairs through a grant of self-government.”

Pointing to white supremacist attitudes of Canada’s deployment to Africa, Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation details how Canadian officials established a formal structure to recruit McGill, University of Toronto and other graduates into the British colonial service. The 1923 “Dominion Selection Scheme” was explicitly justified as “Taking Canada into Partnership in ‘The White Man’s Burden.'”

Today one of Canada’s most flagrant examples of anti-Black policies is directed at Haiti. During a recent webinar on “Anti-Blackness in Canadian foreign-policy: What is the Haiti Core Group?” Jean Saint-Vil (Solidarity Quebec Haiti) and Jemima Pierre (Black Alliance for Peace) detailed the racism in Ottawa’s policy towards a country born in revolt against racial slavery. Through an alliance of ambassadors in Port-au-Prince, Canada has heavily shaped Haitian affairs since participating in the overthrow of an elected government in 2004. Last week, the Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, which regroups many Haitian civil society and political organizations, criticized Ottawa’s role in undermining Haitian sovereignty and democracy. 

In a recent CBC article titled “Haitian commission sends message to Canada, U.S. — stop meddling in our government,” Haitian activist Monique Clesca complained that the Core Group recently selected the leader of the country through social media, writing that “A tweet put Ariel Henry in power.”

Canadian foreign policy is not only habitually anti-black. It’s also regularly anti-Indigenous. Two years ago, Ottawa supported the economic elites and Christian extremists who overthrew Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, Evo Morales. The Trudeau government offered diplomatic, financial and technical support to the Organization of American States’ effort to discredit the presidential election results, which stoked opposition protests and legitimated Morales’ ouster. 

In Guatemala, the hemisphere’s other majority Indigenous nation, Canadian diplomats backed mining interests that ran roughshod over Maya Q’eqchi’ communities. The Canadian embassy privately described Indigenous land defenders as “invaders” during confrontations between Canadian companies in Guatemala and Maya communities. These violent confrontations included the rape of 11 women, perpetrated by individuals the survivors described as mine company security.

As journalist Cassandra Kislenko detailed recently, Canadian policy in the region has long been anti-indigenous. Two Canadian warships bolstered a dictator in El Salvador who massacred tens of thousands of largely Indigenous peasants. In 1932 the Skeena and Vancouver were deployed to protect Canadian and British economic interests against what Prime Minister RB Bennett labelled “communist Indians.” After enabling the horrific killings, Royal Canadian Navy commander Victor Brodeur proclaimed, “it is one of the outstanding characteristics of the Central American Indian that he is incapable of saving money … he spends it at once in the nearest cantina.”

During this period, policy makers sometimes expressed the colonial logic underpinning Canadian foreign policy. In Orienting Canada: Race, Empire, and the Transpacific, University of Victoria Professor John Price cites a 1951 speech about the war in Korea and the Cold War by Lester Pearson in which the External Affairs Minister told the Canadian Club: “We are faced now with a situation similar in some respects to that which confronted our fore-fathers in early colonial days when they plowed the land with a rifle slung on the shoulder. If they stuck to the plow and left the rifle at home, they would have been easy victims for any savages lurking in the woods.”

As was the case during the Korean War, settler colonialism influences Canadian policy towards China today. In criticizing two MPs’ participation in an event I moderated titled “Free Meng Wanzhou,” Conservative shadow minister for diversity Raquel Dancho said “All Canadian MPs need to stand with our Five Eyes partners and other like-minded allies to push back on Beijing’s intimidation tactics.” The U.S.-Canada-Britain-Australia-New Zealand Five Eyes intelligence arrangement is stoking conflict with China. They all recently announced a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Beijing Olympics.

But what is the Five Eyes we hear endlessly about regarding China? Is it a solidarity network for European settler states? Is it a coincidence that the only four countries that originally voted against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) are part of the Five Eyes. What else connects the Five Eyes?

Where I was born in Uganda, for instance — there are more English speakers than New Zealand, so why isn’t it part of the Five Eyes? Or Nigeria? Or India? Why not wealthier countries like Japan and South Korea?

Hopefully criticism of Canada’s Africa-only travel ban will open a window to broader reflection around the racism shaping Canadian foreign policy.

Bianca Mugyenyi

Bianca Mugyenyi is an author and the director of the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute. She is the co-author with Yves Engler of Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and...