In Africa, Canada’s ‘economic diplomacy’ is nothing new – by Geoffrey York (Globe and Mail – November 27, 2013)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

JOHANNESBURG — The Conservative government’s new strategy of “economic diplomacy” is largely just a formalization of what its diplomats have already been quietly doing on the ground in places like Africa.

While the government complains that its diplomats in “tweed jackets” should be buying “business suits” and devoting themselves to trade deals, the reality is that Canadian diplomats have been focusing on business and trade for years already, under heavy pressure from Stephen Harper’s government.

A good example is Madagascar, where the biggest priority for Canadian diplomats is to protect a mammoth $5.5-billion nickel-cobalt mine, which is 40-per-cent owned by Sherritt International Corp. of Toronto.

Diplomats from other countries have been fighting hard to restore democracy to the politically turbulent country, which was rocked by a coup in 2009. But for Canada, the battle for democracy has taken a back seat to the business interests of the Toronto-based mining company.

In their visits to Madagascar since the coup, Canada’s diplomats have spent much of their time lobbying the government to ensure that Sherritt secures an operating license for its mine. The post-coup government had hinted that it could reconsider its approval for the project, and the company wanted Ottawa’s help – which it got.

Foreign Minister John Baird has signalled the new business priority in his choice of countries to visit in Africa. He has focused largely on leading economies such as Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and Algeria, where Canadian energy and mining companies are eager to do business.

“Canada is keen to explore opportunities to realize the full economic potential of trade with Kenya and the East African Community, especially for Canadian natural resource companies, which are becoming leaders in the Kenyan mining and oil and gas industries,” Mr. Baird’s office said after he visited Nairobi this year.

Mining is the biggest Canadian industry in Africa, with more than $30-billion in Canadian investment, and has become a key focus of Canadian diplomacy in the continent. Canadian ambassadors and mid-ranking diplomats are often prominent at African mining conferences, and Canadian foreign-aid money has begun flowing into partnerships with Canadian mining companies in Africa.

But this can conflict with Canada’s other official goal: democracy and human rights. For example, Canada has strongly supported the Toronto-based gold mining company, Iamgold Corp., in its massive gold project in Burkina Faso. But the project is sending hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes and royalties to Burkina Faso’s authoritarian and opaque government, which came to power in a 1987 coup.

Similar questions can be asked in other corners of Africa, where Canadian mining companies are major investors in autocratic countries such as Eritrea, Mauritania and Zimbabwe. If the new policy requires Canadian diplomats to support these mining projects above all else, will Ottawa in effect be propping up authoritarian regimes?

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