Educational Aid for French Africa and the Canada-Quebec Dispute over Foreign Policy in the 1960s

Article excerpt

IN JANUARY 1968, TO THE DISMAY of the federal government of Canada, the government of Quebec accepted an invitation to send provincial representatives to a meeting in Libreville, Gabon, of education ministers of France and the French African states. After centuries of relative isolation, the French Canadian people had begun to take an interest in other French-speaking peoples around the world, and in the late 1950s and early 1960s that interest grew. At the same time, the government of Quebec began to assert its right to represent French Canadians internationally, thereby challenging federal exclusivity in foreign affairs and, in the federal view, posing a threat to Canada's national unity. Quebec's aspirations forced the federal government to defend its own interests, touching off an intense struggle over responsibility for foreign affairs that lasted throughout the 1960s, complicated by support from France for Quebec's aspirations, and peaked in the years after Charles de Gaulle, president of France, made his famous 'Vive le Quebec libre' speech in July 1967.

The literature addressing Quebec's attempts to foster an international identity for itself in the 1960s focuses overwhelmingly on relations between Quebec and France and the effect they had on Canadian foreign policy and on relations between the federal and provincial governments.(f.1) Little importance is attached to the competition between the federal government and Quebec over contacts with the French- speaking countries of Africa in this early period. The literature overlooks the fact that Quebec's aggressiveness in pursuit of membership in la francophonie in the late 1960s was motivated in part by its failed attempts to establish direct relations with French African countries earlier in the decade.(f.2)

In April 1961, the federal government announced funding of $300,000 for a programme to provide educational assistance to the countries of French Africa. For most of the 1960s the programme was Canada's principal form of contact with the newly independent French African states. It was also a programme that the government of Quebec felt entitled to direct and for which it was willing to assume large responsibilities. Because education is the preserve of the provinces under the Canadian constitution, officials in Quebec thought that Quebec should bear the responsibility and take the credit for educational assistance to French Africa. Believing that the government of Quebec was the 'national' government of Canada's French Canadians, these officials thought Quebec had a special interest in relations with other French- speaking states, and the educational assistance programme became the vehicle through which to establish initial international contacts. Quebec's desire for a prominent role in the programme, however, challenged federal responsibility for foreign affairs and the ability of the federal government to represent all Canadians internationally. The conflict that resulted was the first skirmish in a long battle between the federal and provincial governments over relations with the international French-speaking community known as la francophonie.

The origins of the Canadian educational aid programme for French Africa lay in the gifts the government of Canada planned to give to the various states of the French community on the occasion of their independence from France in 1960 and 1961. Until then, Canadian external aid had been overwhelmingly devoted to the developing countries of the British Commonwealth. By the early 1960s, however, Canadian officials were beginning to recognize Canada's interest in helping to maintain the Western orientation of the new states of French Africa. They also began to listen to the many French Canadians who were openly critical of the focus of Canadian aid on the Commonwealth. External aid to French Africa came to be seen as a means for the Canadian government to demonstrate its commitment to keeping communism at bay while simultaneously responding to the needs of French Canadians. …