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The Hypocrisy of the Political Photo-Op

When Nelson Mandela came to Canada in June 1990, and was preparing the speech he would present to Parliament, he asked Gary Bedell, a senior protocol officer from External Affairs assigned to him, if he would have the speech translated into French. Of course, replied Gary Bedell, who sent Mandela’s speech off to be translated. Right away the contents of his speech were leaked, revealing a passage calling for “more rights and freedoms for aboriginals in Canada”. Prime Minister Mulroney’s office went “ballistic”, and ordered Bedell to have the passage removed, and to offer Mandela money if necessary.

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As Bedell put it, “Prime Minister Brian Mulroney called me personally to make certain I had accomplished the task. It was not normal for the prime minister to telephone a protocol officer directly. When I told him everything was arranged, he replied, “How much did it cost?” Mandela had obliged but needless to say had not charged anything.

But Mandela was confused. He had thought he and Canada were on the same page concerning human rights. He was partly right: he and Canadians were on the same page, but not he and Canadian politicians. In fact, Canadian politicians have generally always been an obstruction in the battle for human rights.

Yet it was these very politicians who headed off to South Africa this week for their Photo Op, hoping to give the impression that they too believe in human freedom and all that this term implies. They don’t. The ones who stood behind Mandela, who fought to get him out of prison and who continued to fight against apartheid were our trade unions, the many NGOs, our church groups, the countless south African exiles and the tens of thousands of other Canadians who did believe in human rights. They made up an effective anti-apartheid coalition that persuaded our politicians to eventually act.

But the Canadian politician whose presence in South Africa is truly puzzling is our own prime minister, Stephen Harper. It is a matter of public record that the goals of Nelson Mandela and those of our PM have always been, and continue to be, poles apart.

harperIf Stephen Harper possessed, in some tiny remote part of his heart, a desire for human rights that Mandela fought for all his life, why has he killed so much funding to so many groups fighting for a better democracy? Why has he silenced our scientists? Why did he cut the childcare program that mothers fought so hard for and for so long? Why has he secretly killed more than 200 labour laws, in his various omnibus bills, that were intended to help workers organize? Why has he allowed such a high child poverty rate to continue since becoming prime minister? It is difficult to find an occasion when Harper has even talked about the existence of child poverty and plans he might have to correct this. Then there’s the whole aspect of dissent: Why are Canadians who fight for a better quality of life and a better world treated as terrorists? Mandela too was called a terrorist when he was fighting apartheid. That’s why he was in jail for 27 years. So he would connect with this very quickly.

And yet here is our PM, heading off for South Africa, hoping the world will believe that he too, as did Mandela, has respect for human rights. It just doesn’t seem right.

But it bears repeating that change has come about only when the people themselves have become engaged and fought for it. And their biggest obstacle has always been and continue to be our politicians, who keep on being subservient to business interests at the expense of the rest of us.

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