Cabinet docs explain Trudeau's inaction on a humanitarian crisis
SEAN MALONEY | July 16, 2008 |
The Nigerian Air Lines DC-3 transport-turned-bomber approached the makeshift airstrip at Uli in the breakaway state of Biafra. One of the two mercenaries piloting it found the radio frequencies employed by a multinational fleet of relief aircraft, a number of which were sitting on the runway, ground crews sweating in the night unloading food and medicine. "Hello, hello, Uli. This is Genocide calling," the pilot taunted on air. And then the bombs began to fall. Sometimes they missed, but one night a blue Super Constellation transport belonging to an organization called CANAIRELIEF was caught by a bomb and blown up. Another crashed on a night approach, killing Canadians Don Merriam, Ray Levesque, Vince Wakeling, and Garry Libbus. They were one of 10 crews killed, shot down by Nigerian fighters or destroyed in accidents, that gave their lives to support the people of Biafra from 1968 to 1970.
Forty years ago, a bloody military coup in Nigeria triggered ethnic conflict between the Muslim-dominated north and the Christian-dominated east — a cynical power play for Nigerian oil resources with an ethnic conflict superimposed — that killed an estimated two million. Under the leadership of Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, a new state called "Biafra" emerged as a Christian enclave, prepared to resist something akin to what Rwanda would experience two decades later. Humanitarian groups from Canada, the U.S., Sweden, Portugal, West Germany, Ireland and France flocked to the cause.
It was Canada's first encounter with an African relief effort. Pierre Trudeau, however, rhetorically replied "Where's Biafra?" when asked by the media what role Canada would play. As recently declassified documents show, his newly elected government looked askance at Biafra — the situation had too many parallels to Quebec. Could Canada be seen to be supporting a secessionist state while denying independence to Quebec? The Lester B. Pearson government had approved the use of two transports to deliver food and medicine to Biafra, but these plans were now scrapped.
Indeed, Canada, the great peacekeeping nation, decided not to play a role. Declassified cabinet documents dissembled: "Canada should not take a decision about the proposed peacekeeping or observer force . . . care should be taken that the impression is not conveyed that Canada is not interested in Nigeria." Cabinet privately expressed its prudence: "The civil war has been fought in a primitive and brutal fashion, in jungle terrain . . . It might be disastrous to commit Canadians to an unfamiliar environment . . . "
But the pressure was on. The plight of the Biafrans was worldwide news, in part because Ojukwu shrewdly employed the services of a Swiss public relations company to garner support. In time an international collection of church groups funded an airlift unlike anything ever seen. Operating from the Portuguese island colony of SÃ£o Tomé and Principe, a motley collection of aging multi-engine propeller planes, Super Constellations, DC-4s, DC-7s, and C-97s, flown by an equally motley collection of pilots from around the world, nightly braved the Nigerian air defences to keep Biafra alive and fighting.
The Trudeau government's lead man on Nigeria was the secretary of state for external affairs, Mitchell Sharp. As he recounted in his memoirs: "The government appeared to be insensitive to the slaughter . . . Day after day the newspapers and television carried pitiful pictures of youngsters with bloated stomachs." The Trudeau government initially chose to use the Red Cross as a vehicle to alleviate suffering, but didn't realize that Nigeria carefully manipulated its activities so it couldn't effectively support Biafran relief. Indeed, the organization Médicins Sans Frontières was born from this state of affairs.
The Canadian International Development Agency had relations with Nigeria but wasn't interested in Biafra. Ivan Head, Trudeau's foreign affairs adviser, declared that since no other African country supported Biafra, Canada shouldn't either — despite the fact Tanzania, Zambia and even Rhodesia did.
The Presbyterian Church of Canada and Oxfam Canada, brought together by Toronto philanthropist Jack Grant, decided to do something about the humanitarian situation. Combining resources, they formed CANAIRELIEF and acquired five Super Constellation transports. Ironically, one was named "Kebec," to reflect the large amounts of cash raised in that province. The dangerous night relief runs from SÃ£o Tomé into Uli and Uga started in January 1969. Canadian crews kept flying the lumbering transports, even after a Nigerian MiG-17F fighter shot down a Swedish Red Cross DC-7B, killing its crew.