Governor General wraps up her African tour

Michaelle Jean recalls the very first question she faced from a Canadian journalist when she stepped off the plane on her first visit to sub-Saharan Africa four years ago.

SAL ISLAND, CAPE VERDE — Michaelle Jean recalls the very first question she faced from a Canadian journalist when she stepped off the plane on her first visit to sub-Saharan Africa four years ago.

“What’s the point of coming here on taxpayers’ money?” Jean says, recalling that exchange.

She knows people are asking the same question now as she wraps up another African tour in her final months as Governor General.

“So I said, ’Don’t you think Canadians care?’ I believe Canadians care, and they want to know what impact our co-operation projects and partnership projects with African countries have.

“They want to see how we are making a difference.”

That was 2006. Jean returned home Saturday from her third, and likely final, visit to the continent as Governor General.

The modus operandi hasn’t changed. Her delegations have included bureaucrats who take part in meetings with national leaders. There have been Canadians from various walks of life, ranging from business leaders hungry for contracts in the region; to human rights advocates working on health care, justice and transparency; to artists who set up cultural exchanges. They are accompanied by an RCMP security detail and military flight crew.

It’s not cheap.

The average cost of a trip over the past four years by the Governor General has been $730,000, according to calculations by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The bills haven’t been tallied up for this one yet, but her visit to eastern Europe last year cost $833,000, while trips to Haiti, Liberia and Norway all cost at least $123,000 — plus separate expenses like operating a Defence Department aircraft.

In a long, free-wheeling chat on the plane, members of her delegation described the value of this trip in terms a little harder to quantify.

They included a prominent Quebec judge, Louise Otis, who sat with the government of Congo to discuss a plan to help the country shake its ignominious distinction as the rape capital of the world.

It’s a cheap, simple idea that would see roving units move from village to village to collect evidence like DNA samples from some of the hundreds of thousands of women raped with impunity by armed militias. The idea is that if men start fearing prosecution, they might stop raping.

Ben Peterson, a free press advocate, got 700 students in Rwanda to speak out against a crackdown on newspapers by asking for a show of hands while the country’s foreign minister sat in the audience.

Lucien Bradet was busy talking business with the Congolese government, with new contacts he made in the president’s office.

He leads a group that has helped score contracts in Africa for Canadian companies that do fish-farming, pastry-making and government tax-collection kits.

Bradet is, to put it mildly, exasperated by Canadian attitudes about Africa.

With Africa registering some of the world’s biggest economic growth rates this year, endless mineral wealth in its soils, and a mind-boggling $1 trillion in estimated infrastructure contracts up for grabs in the next decade, he fears Canada’s leaders are asleep at the switch.

“It’s a shame that on Parliament Hill, Africa is seen as an aid receptacle and nothing else,” said Bradet, head of the Canadian Council on Africa.

“We have things to offer. Why are we leaving it to others — the Chinese, the French?”

China’s presence on the continent was hard to miss during Jean’s visit. Her delegation arrived from Kinshasa’s airport on a road being expanded by the Chinese. The next day, while she spoke to Congo’s parliament about women’s rights, a Chinese work crew outside was building a national monument.

The Chinese sent 13 major delegations to Africa in 2008 alone.

Canada has made only four high-level visits since Prime Minister Stephen Harper took office in 2006: three by Jean, and one where Harper, on his way home from a 2007 Commonwealth summit in Uganda, spent a half-day in Tanzania doing a photo op at a school and meeting the president.

Liberia’s popular leader, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, was humiliated when she came to Ottawa and was refused a meeting with Harper.

Canada has de-prioritized aid to the continent, and has only six trade commissioners for the 47 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

There are 33 African embassies in Ottawa, compared with 14 Canadian embassies in Africa.

Bradet says African diplomats are telling him, “What’s the point of being here (in Ottawa?). . . We like you, but we don’t see you. You’re not present. Where are you?”

The Governor General heard similar messages during her trip.

“People say they would like to see Canada play a bigger role,” Jean said on the plane.

In Rwanda, the government welcomed her apology over the 1994 genocide; then it expressed frustration over the absence of Canadian businesses.

That’s the thing that frustrates Bradet most.

Everyone knows about the continent’s problems but nobody talks about its progress. So people are aware of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, but not of its current stability, its emerging high-tech sector, and its economic-growth rates of 6, 11, and 5.5 per cent the last three years.

Among 53 African countries, there are about five conflict zones — half the number of a decade ago, says Bradet. Most African countries have balanced budgets which, he says, would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.

Bradet called Jean’s visit “one of the great moments in my battle” to deepen ties with Africa.

Her visit indeed made a bit of a splash. It earned her front-page coverage in every country she visited.

The president of Senegal accompanied her back to the airport for a second, unscheduled, news conference by her side.

Her meeting with the president of Congo lasted three times longer than scheduled; Joseph Kabila then arranged for a second private meeting over lunch, and he addressed women’s rights in a public toast after Jean spoke about the issue in parliament.

Jean spent most of her time, however, meeting with civil-society groups including a Canadian-funded centre that treats rape survivors in Congo.

Will all this help Canada win a few African votes in its quest for a seat on the United Nations Security Council?

“Anything that helps give Canada a good image helps us in any campaign we’re doing,” said a federal official who accompanied Jean.

There were also hints during Jean’s visit of one way Canada might step up its presence in Africa: by taking command of a UN peacekeeping force in Congo.

She didn’t make any announcement during the trip; there are whispers that Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie might lead a few dozen soldiers at mission command.

In her chat on the plane, the Governor General made some observations about the value of the peacekeeping effort in eastern Congo.

“We saw how much the military personnel of the (UN) and the civilians who work on development are working together,” she said.

“If (peacekeepers) pulled out tomorrow, it wouldn’t just be the security. It would be all the development work going up in smoke.”