Wednesday, August 16, 2006

South Africa Lessons

With the International Conference on AIDS taking place now in Toronto, I find myself reflecting on my experiences in South Africa. I made many trips to this wonderful country and hosted South African colleagues and friends here in Canada. The people had a great impact on me. I learned that they are a people of tremendous strength and optimism. Despite apartheid, aids, poverty, etc., people on the streets in the centres all over the country greet the world with smiles and a zest for life that is enviable. As I see their faces and hear their voices on TV, I am reminded of the lessons I learned in Africa. Interestingly, it was through the eyes of South Africans that I began to understand and appreciate who we are as Canadians.

On every encounter with the South Africans either here or in their country, our team was thanked for “our Canadian way.” The South Africans were deeply appreciative of the aid that we provided. They not only valued what we gave, but more importantly, how we gave it. The “how” was more important than the “what.” Canadian aid was different in that important way. I think this “how” is an important clue in defining ourselves as a nation.

Our Canadian way is often a quiet, gentle way. We do not have the loudest voice or the voice with the most power. Our Canadian way is sharing of information and providing help to determine how our methods and ways can be implemented in another culture. Our Canadian way is the acknowledgement that we, as Canadians, do not know the answers for the South Africans. We can share what we have done, and we can provide ideas and assistance, but ultimately, the decision must be theirs and theirs alone. Our Canadian way is the recognition that there are many ways in the world, and our way is just one. It is neither the best nor the only way. Our Canadian way is the acknowledgement that the learning involved in international projects is a two way street and that we learn just as much as the people that we assist.

I learned that Canada has an exceptional reputation in the world. Because our egos and our armies are not big, we are seen as tolerant people, able to see all sides to a conflict. Our open-mindedness comes from the fact that our people come from all over the world and that they hold on to their cultural and religious beliefs. We not only tolerate this diversity; we encourage it.

It was great to be part of these missions. I was so proud to be an ambassador for Canada, to be associated with all that it stood for. I would bring Canadian flag pins with me on my trips. No matter how many I would bring, I would run out. They were coveted by the South Africans because the Canadian flag meant something very special to them. They associated it with aid, with tolerance, and with a nation that is often called in to broker peace.

It has been a while since I have been to South Africa. I am not sure how our reputation is doing there. I am worried about our reputation in South Africa and in the rest of the world. During the last few months, the Canadian way has changed. We knew it was coming. Stephen Harper promised that things would be different. “We can create a country built on solid conservative values, not on expensive Liberal promises, a country the Liberals wouldn’t even recognize, the kind of country I want to lead.” (Stephen Harper, Leadership Convention Speech, March 19, 2004)

The changes have begun. If you have any doubt, just look at the front page news or turn on the television. We’re spending billions of dollars on military might that has no hope of winning a war. Bodies of our soldiers who have fought in wars are coming home daily. We have waded in with our American neighbours, picking sides and forming alliances against nations. Our traditional Canadian ways are morphing into something else, something that I am not sure that I could be really proud of.

It is not surprising that Stephen Harper was not at the Aids Conference. Our former Prime Minister’s commitment to solving some of the world’s most pressing issues is seen as “expensive Liberal promises.” Thank goodness there are other Canadian leaders at the Conference.

Mr. Harper has chosen this time to deal with northern sovereignty. Meanwhile, the world is noting his absence. Stephen Harper’s actions are changing the image of who we are and our reputation in the world. I do not want to follow.

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