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Canada’s Former Prime Ministers Deserve Our Respect and Support

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By Samuel Getachew  

Hard to believe Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is still Canada’s Head of State. It’s almost comical that we, as a Canadian society, allow ourselves to be represented by a governor general that is a representative of the Queen of England. It’s tragic that we pay particular attention to these representatives once they leave office as if what they did was more significant than our prime ministers.

Canadian Prime Ministers deserve our respect and support as much as an overseas monarchy or their representatives.

Let us focus on former Governor General Michaëlle Jean, for instance. By the time she vacated the position she held, the Canadian government had announced a foundation in her name with an allocated stable budget in the millions. The crown-in-council decision called for the organization to advocate for culture and education and “creativity among youth from rural, northern, and/or poor communities in Canada.”

How about former Canadian prime ministers? How come there is no foundation named for Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney, John Turner, Kim Campbell, Jean Chretien or Paul Martin from the federal government? Are they less important than a symbolic former governor general?

I once had a private audience with Prime Minister Joe Clark as I was in the process of successfully nominating one of his old classmates from Dalhousie Law School, Bruce Alexander, for an honorary degree from Queen’s University. I was an admirer of the former prime minister having grown up in a country (Ethiopia) that he was instrumental in helping during the infamous famine of 1984. Mr. Clark was foreign minister for the Mulroney government during this time. He was also the first foreign minister from the western world to visit Ethiopia. I can still picture him visibly upset when shown images of Ethiopia famine victims by CBC’s Brian Stewart while he was at Bole International Airport.

From advocating for the end of apartheid in South Africa to making Canada a welcoming nation for refugees from Guatemala, El Salvador, and many other nations around the world, Mr. Clark commands a great deal of respect around the globe. His voice is still needed and yet it’s not being used enough – either at home or abroad. Mr. Clark can speak with a rare authority when he speaks on international affairs.

I also once met Mr. Mulroney as he was being honoured by the Ukrainian government for his efforts in making Canada the first western country to recognize its independence. I was attending a Preston Manning Centre event and both of us were in the Chateau Laurier Hotel. Whether one supported the policies of the Mulroney years or not, he was seen as an honourable man in the world. As an Ethiopian, I take to heart his action on Ethiopia’s famine in 1984. Stephen Lewis, then Canada’s UN ambassador, remembers when he received an early phone call from an emotional Mulroney asking how he, as prime minister, could help. Like thousands of other Canadians, Mr. Mulroney had watched destitute people dying before his eyes on his television screen and he wanted to help.

He asked Lewis what the world was doing to help. When Lewis replied there was nothing yet planned, the prime minister sprang into action. Mr. Mulroney, with the help of his able UN representative, sparked a response that was “nothing less than a Herculean effort on the part of all member nations,” Mr. Lewis is quoted as saying. Millions of lives were saved and for Stephen Lewis, “Mulroney knew more about and cared more for Africa than any Canadian leader before or since.” What a missed opportunity it has been for Canada not to have used him in the renaissance of Africa (which China is taking advantage of) while Canada plays catch up.

Jean Chretien also made an impression to the world via The Mine Ban Treaty (1997). So did John Turner, Paul Martin, Kim Campbell and Stephen Harper.

American Presidents are afforded a private office and staff once they leave office, to help them advocate for a cause and launch a foundation of some sort. Given this, most presidents have become official ambassadors in the world while promoting American values. Bill Clinton has focused on women’s health; George W. Bush has advocated for people living with HIV/AIDS in Africa; Jimmy Carter has focused on human rights and democracy.

Are we in Canada using our former prime ministers for good in the world? Are we using them to advocate for basic Canadian values here at home and abroad? No, we are not. Are we, as a nation, too poor to give them a foundation to help them launch a Canadian voice in the world? No, we are not.

It’s time for Canada to step up and recognize our former leaders and use their expertise, both in Canada and around the world. It’s the right thing to do for them – it’s also the right thing to do for the world.

– Samuel Getachew is a Toronto columnist and regular contributor to the Huffington Post.

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