Design a site like this with
Get started

Canada for Africa: New Directions for Examining Historical Relations  

“Canada is a natural partner for Ethiopia and other African countries. Through our shared priorities of creating economic growth, promoting peaceful democracy and gender equality, and fighting climate change, we can find innovative ways to grow businesses and create opportunity for Canadians and Africans. I look forward to continuing to work together as we tackle global challenges and create a path forward for everyone.” [1]      
The Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada

On February 10, 2020, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) released a summary statement about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s successful visit to Ethiopia.[2] The prime minister’s visit to Ethiopia was described as part and parcel of Canada’s strategic pursuit of partnerships across the continent. In light of Africa’s young and fast-growing population, rapid economic growth, and focus on climate action, Canada was seeking “natural partners” across the region. To this end, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Sahle-Work Zewde to discuss how the two countries could work closely to “advance democracy and gender equality, find innovative solutions to climate change, and increase trade and investment.”

Canadian commitment to these shared priorities was articulated as mutually beneficial to the growth of both nations. While it was obvious that the timing of this particular visit coincided with Canadian interests in winning a coveted seat on the UN Security Council, the gestures made were symbolic and signaled the possible resumption of an interrupted legacy of past diplomatic relations between the two nations. Thus this recent Canadian visit to Ethiopia is both of contemporary political pertinence and historical significance.

The Prime Minister’s visit coincided with the 33rd African Union (AU) Summit held in Addis Ababa. Whilst Canada is an accredited permanent member of the multilateral organization, this was the first time that a Canadian prime minister attended an AU meeting. Invested in tackling issues of socio-economic development and governance facing the continent, the AU has served as a gateway to establishing relations with the member states since its inception in 2002. Mr. Trudeau thus capitalized on the opportunity to meet and interact with several other prominent leaders from across the African continent through his single visit to a key nation on the African continent. Comprised of 55 member states from the continent, the AU is the legal manifestation of the preceding Organization of African Unity (May 25, 1963- May 26, 2001).[3]

The diplomatic overtures of the current Canadian prime minister to both Ethiopia and the other members of the AU echo those of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson in the 1963-67 period. Canada’s expressed interest in the African continent, premised on shared interests and mutually beneficial goals, was first articulated when the OAU headquarters was instituted in Addis Ababa by the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Canada’s reignited interests in Africa are of contemporary relevance, but they also have much historical resonance.

While official (macro level) diplomatic relations between the two regions has peaked and waned since the 1960s, it is clear that there have been numerous meso and micro level relations sustained over the decades. Yet, those multifaceted relations have not yet been fully explored. Building on my past research, my current work aims to further explore archival evidence from the 1984-88 period to document a clear-cut historical trajectory of Canada-Africa relations premised on intersects in Canadian foreign policy objectives and African nation interests. Characterized as the “veritable golden age of Canada-Africa relations” by political scientist Stephen Brown, the 1980s marks a period of significant Canadian investment into establishing relations with the African continent as a whole.[4]

“Caught in the grip of a drought that has lasted for more than three years, millions of Ethiopian farmers and herdsmen are dependent on food grains and other emergency assistance provided by the international community. AID’s Food for Peace program is supplying more than 64,000 metric tons of wheat, corn, sorghum, and instant corn-soya milk for famine relief in addition to other U.S. assistance designed to supplement and upgrade medical and nutritional services for the drought victims. Many refugees have come to relief camps as a last resort after trying for as long as possible to survive on their own.” Photo by David L. Rhoad via US National Archives & Records Administration,

1984 was the year that the world rallied together to combat famine on the African continent. There were 21 African nations afflicted by severe drought and famine during this period, and the death tolls were staggering. From the outset, that historic crisis was framed as a concern, not only for the Canadian government, but also “for the people of Canada.”[5] Widespread engagement was the objective, and under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s leadership, members of parliament along with citizens across the country were mobilized into action.[6]The moral imperative for Canadians to act in social cohesion had broad-based appeal during this former period. Public enthusiasm matched the government’s commitment, yielding exemplary results. Thousands of Canadians gave of their time, money and expertise in the name of humanity. As a result, Canada was the largest per capita donor in this period.[7]

When delving deeper into the particularities of the former period (beyond an examination of the headlining international Band-Aid/ Live-Aid phenomenon), Canadians from all walks of life coalesced in a socio-political movement that sought to both eradicate famine on the continent and forge long-term sustainable partnerships between Canadians and Africans. The partnerships forged between Canadians and Africans during this period are worthy of further exploration. National engagement with the challenges of the African continent has dissipated considerably since this ephemeral and hallmark period. However, when closely examining key priority areas for Canadian government funding in the region, it is clear that present day relations with the continent are predicated on the continuation or resumption of past relations with a myriad of macro, meso and micro actors.

Members of Parliament of Canada and Results canada visit a water point in Sire woreda, Oromia, Ethiopia ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2014/Sewunet.

At present, there are several Canadian businesses, institutions, civil societies and other non-government groups that have longstanding ties to “social justice projects” across the African continent. Outside of Canadian resource interests on the continent, most of these relationships are understudied occurrences. However, these existent relationships are exemplars of Canadian ties to the continent that are largely unhampered by official relations. Some of those partnerships also created pathways for the migration and settlement of peoples from the continent (particularly Ethiopia and Eritrea) in Canada during the 1980s. Thus the underlying premise of this post is to illustrate that there is value in examining the historical trajectory of the existent relationships to uncover what has worked in the past, what continues to work, as well as what has not worked.  

Advancing global engagement has been identified as a key priority at several Canadian institutions. Further exploration of Canada-Africa relations between 1963 and the present is in alignment with the mandate (strategic plans) of several Canadian schools to incorporate the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) in research. In alignment with this objective, through the implementation of a case-study approach, more historical case-based analysis need to occur to understand the breadth of Canadian engagement with countries on the African continent.

As global powers continue to shift, African studies is of the utmost importance in enhancing international cooperation, economic inclusion, and social cohesion in ways which positively impact both local and transnational communities. The world is ever more interdependent, and our approaches to research areas centered on the nations of the global south needs to acknowledge and appraise this fact. Implementing community centered perspective will also be key facet of this research. By documenting various multi-scale relationships that have existed between the two regions in the past, funding bodies should prioritize supporting the creation of knowledge repositories which have the ability to inform the best-practice approaches of contemporary policy makers and researchers.

[1] Prime Minister of Canada, “Prime Minister Concludes Productive Visit to Ethiopia to Promote Partnerships”, February 10, 2020,

[2] Ibid.

[3] “25 May 1963 – On 26 May 2001, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was legally transformed into the African Union (AU)”, NTI: Building a Safer World,; “About the African Union”, African Union,OAU%2C%201963%2D1999

[4] Stephen Brown, “Canadian Aid To Africa” in Canada-Africa Relations: Looking Back, Looking Ahead, Edited by Rohinton Medhora and Yigadeesen Samy, Waterloo: CIGI (The Center for International Governance Innovation and Carleton University): 181.

[5] Joe Clark, Canada, House of Commons, Debates, 7 November 1984, 28.

[6] Ibid.. *During the peak of famine relief efforts, the Canadian government was truly in-tune with the nation’s pulse. Indeed, political scientist Kim Nossal later asserted that if populism in politics is measured by a willingness to involve as many “ordinary people in the policy process as possible or practicable,” then the “Mulroney government had an evident populist streak.” Kim Nossal, “Opening up the policy preference: Does Party Make A Difference?” Diplomatic Departures: The Conservative Era in Canadian Foreign Policy, 1984-93, Edited by Nelson Michaud and Kim Richard Nossal, (UBC Press: Vancouver, 2001): 283.

[7] Andrew Cohen, “Bold Action Urged on Ethiopian Aid”, Financial Post, May 16, 1988. David MacDonald Collection, LAC.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: