He pulled his broad-brimmed hat lower over his eyes to block out the setting sun and said, "We in this place have always respected Canada because you were never a colonial empire or part of the slave trade. It is why we want to work with you; why I wanted to bring you to this village."
That was in 2000, in the midst of some of the worst years of Sudan's civil war. The speaker was known then as Salva Kiir, the leader of the military wing of the Sudan People's Liberation Army. Today he stands as the popular president of the new Republic of South Sudan. He had taken my wife and I to his home village, which we understood to be a privilege.
Kiir's words, cogent at the time, now appear far more prophetic that when first uttered. Canada's recent move to share embassies with Britain as a cost-cutting measure would only confirm what Kiir has suspected for some time: Canada is in retreat from its previous vaunted influence in the African continent. This country's choosing a separate course from Britain and fighting apartheid in South Africa still stands out as a bellweather moment for Canada's reputation. We were seen as holding to an independent track, one that refused to let our deep history with Britain cloud our ethical judgment on something as important as human and civil rights.
Monday, some diplomatic personnel from the continent asked me directly if this country really cared what was happening to its reputation. I responded that I couldn't be fully sure. Nevertheless, it's not as though the Harper government hasn't received plenty of warnings over recent years.
The issue is really one of perception. Though a respected member of the Commonwealth, Canada has most often pursued an independent course when it came to harmonizing policies with either the Brits or even the Americans. Our diplomats weren't just respected worldwide for their professionalism, but also for their ability to seek new alliances instead of just favouring old ones. Those days now appear largely in the past. While the Harper Government might be promoting this as a savings measure, how it is being perceived, not just in Africa, but globally is that our best diplomatic days are now part of our history books as a nation.
No one who has worked for any time in Africa can afford to overlook the deep malignancy that still resides in the continent's leaders over colonialism and the slave trade. Such things form a deep and abiding reminder of difficult and humiliating centuries that these leaders believe kept Africa from becoming a true equal in the world of nations. Agree with that sentiment or not, that is the mindset across the board and every effective Canadian diplomat over the decades had to take that into account before they pressed for progress.
But it's not just about Africa. In the volatile region of the Middle East, to be overtly aligned with British or American interests is to invite security concerns for Canadians serving abroad. In choosing to side more with American policies, Canada has already lost its historic role as an independent influence. We were never powerbrokers in the region, but we were useful and respected whenever our efforts were required. That loss of independence cannot help but result in a loss of influence -- a sad testament to a country that once could achieve certain nuanced objectives without the need for either colonial or military partnerships.
Those of us who travel extensively, especially in conflict areas, have heard this repeatedly for the last decade: What is Canada doing? Alas, many of us, including some of our own present serving diplomats, no longer know how to answer that question.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once observed that, "the limits of my language means the limits of my world." If this indeed be true, then the Canadian international vocabulary has declined to ineffective levels that reflect a shrinking within ourselves.
Witnessing what has happened to Canadian influence in the 12 years since he initially uttered his praise for Canadian independence in his home village, would Salva Kiir still be capable of uttering the words? Not likely. We are not longer providing such inspiration for our historic friends or even our own citizens.