Lewis' 2005 book Race Against Time is peppered with praise for Canadian diplomats, lauding Canada's role in fighting for gender equality at the UN, dubbing businessman-turned diplomat Maurice Strong "the ultimate ubiquitous internationalist" and exalting in "our own Lester Pearson " who negotiated with other Western governments the benchmark of 0.7% of GNP as the legitimate level of foreign aid for all industrial countries." Despite Lewis citing Pearson's name glowingly, the longtime diplomat, external minister and prime minister's foreign-policy record dripped with blood, as I detail in Lester Pearson's Peacekeeping: the Truth May Hurt.
Contrasting the 'left' reputation of Lewis in international affairs with his contentious history inside the domestic left reveals a great deal about the state of foreign policy discussion.
As head of the Ontario NDP, Lewis purged the Waffle (or Movement for an Independent Socialist Canada) from the provincial party in 1972. At the time many leftists criticized his role in expelling the Waffle from the party and some activists remain critical of Lewis for doing so to this day. In an article titled "On the 40th anniversary of the expulsion of the Waffle" Michael Laxer eviscerates Lewis for driving activists from the NDP. While his move to expel the Waffle continues to be debated, criticism of Lewis largely dried up as he shifted towards the international scene (as Brian Mulroney's ambassador to the UN, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director and UN Special Envoy for HIV-AIDS in Africa). Yet, I believe most progressives, if they understood the implication of his positions on Africa, would find more common ground with Lewis' domestic positions. On domestic policy Lewis has at times forthrightly criticized Canada's power structures, broadly supports labour against capital and would largely reject charity as a model of social service delivery/poverty alleviation.
But, there's at least some culture of holding politicians/public commentators accountable for their concessions to the dominant order on domestic issues so Lewis has faced some criticism. On Africa the situation is quite different. When it comes to the "dark continent" any prominent person's charitable endeavor, call for increased "aid" or criticism of a geopolitical competitor is sufficient to win accolades. In an article titled "Africa in the Canadian media: The Globe and Mail's coverage of Africa from 2003 to 2012" Tokunbo Ojo provides an informative assessment of the paper's coverage of Lewis. Ojo writes, "built into this moralizing media gaze is the 'white man's burden' imagery, and the voice of Canadian Stephen Lewis, a campaigner against HIV/AIDS, effectively symbolised this imagery in the coverage. Metaphorically, Lewis was framed as the iconic [19th century liberal missionary] 'David Livingstone' in campaigns against HIV/AIDS in Africa."
It is long past time the NDP confront its pro-imperialist, missionaries-as-good-guys past and present.
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