Canadian History Since 1867
Dr. D Wright
Wednesday, April 1st, 2015
Apartheid South Africa was a regime of economic, social, and political segregation in which the country’s white population wielded complete political control over the country’s affairs. African and “coloured” citizens were disenfranchised, had limited mobility rights, and had limited economic autonomy. The regime faced opposition from the outset, which progressed to more intense and concerted international efforts in the latter half of the 20th century and culminated with its fall in 1994. This fall was precipitated by concerted international efforts and pressures applied via sanctions and political isolation, actions that were consistently supported and advocated for by Brian Mulroney and John Diefenbaker’s Canadian governments. Though mainstream historical thought sees Canada as a central arbiter in the fight against apartheid, there is a dissenting historical narrative that contends that Canada’s role in combating the regime was purely rhetorical in lieu of meaningful action. This narrative suggests that Canada sheltered the regime for the purpose of protecting vested economic interests. This essay will argue that the Canadian government’s active, firm, and meaningful stance against Apartheid South Africa ultimately contributed to ending the regime.
Shortly after the passing of Canada’s Bill of Rights, John Diefenbaker headed to the 1961 Prime Ministers Commonwealth conference in London; the most controversial topic discussed was South Africa’s Apartheid policies. India, Malaysia, and all of the commonwealth countries under black rule strongly opposed South Africa’s admittance to the Commonwealth. On the other side of the table were the countries of the “white commonwealth”, led by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, which were strongly in favor of its admission. Under Diefenbaker’s leadership, Canada was the only nation of the white commonwealth to actively oppose South Africa’s admittance. Seeing the gridlock between the two factions at the conference, Diefenbaker offered a compromise that reaffirmed his opposition to Apartheid while breaking the Conference’s political stalemate. Canada proposed that South Africa not be denied membership but that membership in the commonwealth should be made conditional upon each country reaffirming the precept of racial equality for citizens. Under these conditions, South Africa wouldn’t be openly denied entry, but would have to change the structure of its racially constructed regime in order to gain membership. South African Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd subsequently saw that South Africa would be unable to obtain membership without changing Apartheid policies and left the conference, withdrawing his request for membership. Canada distinguished itself as an international leader and reaffirmed its strong belief in human rights by forcing South Africa’s exit from the conference.1 When all other liberal democracies of the white commonwealth were turning a blind eye to the racial injustice of the regime, Canada orchestrated the first of many exclusions of South Africa from the international affairs. Upon his return from the conference, Diefenbaker explained that his actions were motivated by the principles enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and that he believed those rights to be universal, saying, “To the leaders of South Africa I say this, we were carrying out internationally in the commonwealth, the policies which we had adopted for Canada, and represented our viewpoint in Canada, in the culmination, culminating in the Bill of Rights.” 2This principle-based policy was a watershed moment internationally, and served as a precedent for Canadian actions in the future. This first act of principled-based opposition served as an inspiration to future Prime Minister Brian Mulroney when his government undertook the most active…