[The Ambiguous Champion: Canada & South Africa in the Trudeau & Mulroney Years]

Article excerpt

Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997, xiii, 466pp, $24.95 paper

It is hard to remember now, so faded is the memory of John George Diefenbaker (so clownish his place in the media-driven political consciousness), how large he loomed to those who toiled in political opposition in South Africa in the lamentable 'sixties. But when the National party's tame press demonized him at the beginning of the decade as a renegade and a turncoat, we knew that meant he must have done something very right.

What that 'something' was, Linda Freeman has now called into question. What did we think he'd done? As we saw it then, Canada, in the personification of Diefenbaker, was the first of the Old Commonwealth (aka white Commonwealth) countries to side with the institution's new non-white majority on the crucial issue of apartheid. In South Africa, Sharpeville had come and gone, and the South African leaders were bent on pushing through parliament the series of cornerstone measures that underpinned apartheid and were ramming through a referendum aimed at declaring the country a republic. It was this last that gave the Commonwealth majority its excuse to engineer South Africa's expulsion, and, in the key vote, Diefenbaker went along with them. For this, he faced astonishment and occasional fury from his own civil service, his own caucus, and his own party, and intense irritation from the British, who regarded him, as they did his country, as a pipsqueak who had forgotten his proper loyalties. It was, as Linda Freeman says, a 'remarkable' event.

We remember him fondly for it. The mere act of breaking racial solidarity on the crucial matter of South Africa gave comfort to all dissidents, black and white alike, within the apartheid laager. If Canada could do it, we reasoned, so could others. And in the contending visions of oppositionist South Africa - the racial inclusiveness of the African National Congress and the Black Power militancy of the Pan-Africanist Congress - small incremental gains took on a symbolic significance far beyond what was sensible. No wonder that when Nelson Mandela finally came to Canada as a free man, as a guest of that other unlikely revolutionary, Brian Mulroney, he was able to say, with bland sincerity, that Canada's 'support sustained us, gave us comfort even in our darkest days.'

Now comes Linda Freeman to tell us, persuasively and very likely correctly, that the symbol was an empty one, that it was gounded not in principle or even in geopolitical calculation but in hypocrisy and self-doubt. The legend of Canadian trenchancy grew out of shadings and half-truths; buried in the forthright statements of principle were hidden acts that undercut the fine words. Canada's own self-image was insincere and self-deluded. Canada did less than almost all the Scandinavian countries, less than single states in the United States, to help South Africa's blacks win their freedom. Canadian business not only co-operated with apartheid, but actively worked to support it, underpinning the support with the loony notion that white South Africa somehow represented a bulwark of 'Western civilization' and anti-communism (nowhere seeing that they were in fact the enemies of both).

All this is correct, no doubt. And yet ... it doesn't do to devalue the currency of symbolism. True enough, a reality of inaction and deviousness underlay Canada's fine political rhetoric. And yet for those of us who were there, the symbolism alone had its own reality. We believed Canada really had broken ranks. …