07/14/2011 11:32 EDT | Updated 09/13/2011 05:12 EDT

Sudan-Canada Relations: A Political Lapse

The coming out party for the newest nation on earth sported a stellar cast... well, almost. Canada, despite all its other efforts, took a more reserved stance.


The coming out party for the newest nation on earth sported a stellar cast ... well, almost. It was South Sudan's big moment, a time when it could attempt to direct its own future and effectively put the bloodshed, slavery, economic suppression, civil war, and the lack of formal recognition behind as vestiges of a troubled history.

There were celebrations everywhere, including in Canada, where South Sudanese Canadians and their supporters held celebrations in cities across the country as their own way of showing solidarity with what was clearly a very big day.

In Juba, south Sudan's burgeoning capital, luminaries gathered from around the world to extend support and the long-awaited diplomatic recognition. It wasn't quite the A-list of guests but it was pretty close. There was no U.S. President Obama or UK Prime Minister David Cameron (two Western nations that perhaps had the most invested in the peace's final outcome), but their replacements were impressive.

Obama sent Susan Rice, his ambassador to the United Nations and long-time human rights defender for Southern Sudan, and Colin Powell. The Brits sent their foreign minister. Even United Nations Secretary Ban Ki-moon showed up, as did numerous European officials and African presidents.

Canada sent the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs Deepak Obhrai -- a seasoned observer of the region and someone with many African connections. I worked with Obhrai on Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee and regard him as a friend, but the fact he was merely a parliamentary secretary didn't go unnoticed.

"We hoped your country would at least send its foreign affairs minister ... others did," a high-ranking South Sudanese official said to me in a call from Juba near the end of their big day. I believe he had a point.

It should be made clear that successive Canadian governments have hardly been bystanders during the two decades leading up to this birth. Along with other nations like the Americans, the British, and partnering countries like Kenya, Uganda and South Africa, Canada performed a diplomatic midwifery role that was noted and appreciated.

And the ultimately successful 2005 peace talks between north and south the led to this moment were generously supported by Canada. Since coming to power in 2006, the Harper government has invested over $800 million to humanitarian and peace efforts in the country -- continuing the practice of both the Chretien and Martin Liberal governments

Why, then, the disenchantment from the Southern official on the phone? The answer is fairly straightforward: political recognition.

For years, even prior to the 2005 peace signing, Southern leaders had been feted and trained in Western capitals, from 10 Downing Street to the White House. Western officials reckoned, correctly it seems, that the Southern military leaders were in the process of morphing into civil society administrators the closer peace came. Sudanese were trained by diplomatic officials in the nations they visited and that instruction took hold and paid off once it became apparent that the South's opportunity to become its own distinct nation was emerging.

But Canada, despite all its other efforts, took a more reserved stance. Canadian Sudanese citizens have frequently expressed their frustration to me that despite their repeated please, no significant leader from the South was permitted entry to this country. It was an omission that became more glaring the more the possibilities of independence became obvious. Furthermore, there was the frustration expressed by Sudanese across the country whenever I spoke to their associations that Canada was reticent to send its ministers to the South regularly, even though other nations had developed such a practice.

One American diplomatic official described it to me as the "incremental" kind of culture that appeared to cripple Canada's opportunity to politically engage that "runs rampant through your foreign affairs bureaucracy." This is, again, what the Southern Sudanese leader spotted during the independence celebrations.

Responding to this trend, mentioned in Toronto Star writer Andrew Chung's impressive coverage of independence celebrations, Foreign Affairs spokesperson Priya Sinha responded: "Canadian workers live and work in Juba, and the Government of South Sudan is represented in Ottawa." That is absolutely correct, although the southern presence in Ottawa is negligible. But the point was missed again. Why have Canadian political leaders been so hesitant to establish personal relations with southern leaders when their Western counterparts were doing so? And why the reticence to bring the highest southern leaders to Ottawa? It's a diplomatic signal not missed by the southern Sudanese leadership.

Canada's efforts for two decades in Sudan have been consistent and often overlooked, but it is this failure to connect political leadership between this country and south Sudan that has left a perplexing gap. It can clearly be resolved, but it will take more than the visit of a parliamentary secretary on the biggest day in the South Sudan's journey to make it happen.