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July 30, 2018

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North American Studies and History

I wrote “Awakening Africa”: Race and Canadian Views of Decolonizing Africa as a contribution to an edited book, Dominion of Race: Rethinking Canada’s International History. This edited collection emerged from a 2013 workshop held at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, where a number of Canadian scholars came together to discuss how race was understudied as a factor shaping the history of Canadian foreign policy. The research for this article was derived from archival evidence drawn from government records at Library and Archives Canada. In the 1950s and 1960s, the direction of Canadian foreign policy was very much in the hands of a few key individuals – the foreign policy élite. This research showed that race did influence how diplomats, political leaders, and even the public understood the policy options Canada pursued as it developed international relations with newly independent African nations.

It never fails to surprise me, as I am reviewing old government documents (usually memos and letters) from the 1950s and 1960s, to see how frank, open, and critical bureaucrats would be when writing to one another. Of course, I am sure they weren’t thinking at the time about the historian who would be reading their words 70 years later. Today, their writing provides incredible evidence for my work. But, it gives pause to think about the contemporary period. I imagine that historians 70 years from now will find documents that are quite sanitized; people today write with a much greater sense (fear?) that their words can easily become public. I am always amazed by the scale of correspondence – often thousands of documents on a subject. Again, today, I wonder how much of this survives the email trash bin.

Currently, I am working on a larger study of the development of early Canadian international relations with English-speaking African countries, as they emerged from colonial status to become independent nations. In particular, I want to examine how understandings of race shaped how those responsible for Canadian foreign policy understood the process of decolonization. My work will focus on comparing Canadian relations with countries in West and East Africa, such as Ghana and Kenya. In Kenya, where there was a much larger and established white settler community, I expect to find that Canadian officials, and perhaps even the wider Canadian public, were much less open to the idea of African independence.

After reading this article, I hope that people recognize that we all approach our understanding of the world with a certain set of preconceptions, and these subconscious (and sometimes conscious) ideas can really shape the decisions we make. This is true for all of us, but for those in positions of authority and power – government, business, bureaucracy – decisions shaped by particularly racialized beliefs can have tremendous impact, maybe at times entirely unintended.

Along with a number of my colleagues who participated in the Harvard Weatherhead Center workshop on race and Canadian foreign policy, I hope this work serves as a historiographical influence on future directions in Canada’s international history. There are lessons to be learned from these documents by those in government who influence and determine Canada’s current global affairs attitudes and policies.

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