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Blog: Tony Clement and South-Africa Apartheid

Skeletons in the Closet for Some Canadian Conservatives

by Geordie Gwalgen Dent

Blog: Tony Clement and South-Africa Apartheid

Well...not exactly.

A rumour has been going around for a number of years.   It claims that Toronto-raised Tony Clement supported the Apartheid South Africa government for his involvement in a speaking engagement of Glenn Babb.

But is it true?

Babb was the South African Ambassador to Canada for 17 months in the mid-1980's.  He was quoted in Canadian media hundreds of times lobbying intensively in support of the Reagan Administration's policy of "constructive engagement" rather than sanctions.  He's best known for stirring up controversy comparing Canadian treatment of First-nations with South-African treatment of Blacks.

According to a 1986 article in the Toronto Star, "Babb insisted Canadians did not fully understand the degree to which his government has gone in easing restrictions against South Africa's black majority." The reality was that at the time brutal political violence was erupting in South Africa's black townships and only minor apartheid laws were being repealed. Many black leaders and children were being beaten, fire bombed and murdered.

Arriving as ambassador in August, 1985, Babb dismissed Bishop Desmond Tutu's popularity and accused reporters of exaggerating violence in his country.

The U of T Controversy

Six months later Babb was invited to speak at the University of Toronto by the International Law Society as part of a debate with a Montreal professor on the applicability of international law to South Africa's internal policies.  An earlier U of T talk with Babb was cancelled when a ceremonial mace was thrown at him.

An immediate outcry erupted from students and faculty.  While many in the University fell behind the mantra of freedom of speech to allow Babb to speak, others pointed to Canada's laws on anti-hate discrimination.  The invitation from the Law Society was rescinded when 4 professors launched a legal challenge noting that Babb "represents an unlawful government under repeated UN declarations" and that his ability to speak would have been an open invitation to "present criminal views".

Cathy Laurier, a Graduate Student Representative from U of T's governing council was one of many people against allowing Babb to speak:

"Our society does recognize limits on free speech. We do not give criminals the right to advocate their views freely. Apartheid has been declared by the United Nations to be a crime against humanity," she wrote at the time. "Babb's sole purpose is to defend the apartheid regime by embarking on propaganda tours, all at a time when the South African government has imposed a blackout on news coverage from that country."

Laurier was not the only one who felt that allowing Babb to speak would be tactic support for the apartheid regime.  Other journalists noted at the time that Babb was "leading a campaign...in high schools, universities and community halls across the country...to press Ottawa to abandon its strong stand against apartheid."

Clement and Alan Riddell

But, for whatever reason, Tony Clement (a U of T law student at the time) and Alan Riddell, (a future Conservative candidate in Ottawa) were adamant about allowing Babb to do so.  They felt that the rights of a South African pro-apartheid politican were so important to defend that, in the face of strong opposition, they went out of their way to ensure that Babb was able to speak.  Immediately after the Law Society declined the invitation they formed an 'ad hoc' committee to reissue the invitation.   

To be fair, both Clement and Riddell emphasized that they viewed apartheid as reprehensible in the press. But for some reason they made it a point of ensuring that Babb was able to spread his message of support for the apartheid regime claiming that "participating in a debate" was part of "ideals of Canadian freedom of speech".  It is unclear why both of them focussed their energies on this particular issue.

Babb ended up speaking at U of T debating U of T law professor (and future interim Liberal leader) Bill Graham.  Three hundred people protested outside.

At the time, many Conservatives supported the apartheid regime as a number of Canadian companies were heavily invested in South Africa's cheap black labour markets.   Hundreds of millions in imports were coming into Canada from the regime.

Babb's message did ultimately did not stick; the Mulroney government followed a number  of other countries and finally imposed strong sanctions against South Africa later that year.  Babb was replaced as ambassador.

Still, pro-apartheid elements of the Conservative party remain to this day.

Rob Anders

Though Nelson Mandela's legacy has been questioned by a number of writers (go here and here for some good analysis), Rob Anders, a Conservative MP from Calgary, has repeatedly attacked Mandela, referring to Mandela as a terrorist in 2001.  Anders also heckled Mandela in the House of Commons when Mandela visited years later and was the only MP to vote against him receiving an honorary degree.

In the wake of Mandela's death with a number of prominent Conservatives preparing to attend his funeral, Anders doubled down, again referring to Mandela as a terrorist.

Anders has also made transphobic remarks and stated that NDP Leader Tom Mulcair had hastened the death of former leader Jack Layton.  

Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai, challenged Anders' view immediately following his latest comments against Mandela shortly after he had died.

There was no word or sanction from the Prime Minister...or Tony Clement.


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