Chapter 10: The importance of being Canadian - Carol Off
“Imperialists: All honest, polite, peaceable, charming people”
Gustave Flaubert, The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas
Carol Off’s essay The Lion, The Fox and the Eagle102 attempts to analyze, appraise and define the role of Canada and Canadians in international affairs through the two major crises in Rwanda and Yugoslavia. This very Canadian approach to the subject - Canada is always trying to prove it is more than a US appendage - immediately relegates Africa and African to supporting roles for two of the author’s heroes, Romeo Dallaire, “the lion” and Louise Arbour, “the eagle”. Her third hero, “the fox”, is Lewis MacKenzie, commander of UN peacekeepers in Yugoslavia. Simply by her take on the subject, Carol Off proves the tenacity and the pervasiveness of the literary convention in which Africa is the testing ground for European character.
She starts right off in Chapter 2, entitled Into Africa, with a long epigraph from Conrad about “strong, lusty, red-eyed devils” and “violence”, “greed” and “hot desire”. The reader is left with little doubt about the author’s state of mind. She then proclams that “Heart of Darkness is not so much a place as a frame of mind, a journey into the darkness of the soul as it finally arrives at a place where there are no explanations for anything. Romeo Dallaire entered such a place (Rwanda) in the fall of 1993.” Conrad never strays far from Carol Off’s portrait of Canadians in Africa. The quotes and images she borrows widen the gulf that her heroes valiantly, selflessly, but vainly, endeavour to bridge.
In November 1993, Dallaire and his troops “sensed the darkness closing in”. As they try to understand what is happening, she opines that the only thing they “could sense was what Conrad described as ‘the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention’”. Later the reader learns that Dallaire’s mission that had “tried and failed to stop the dark, random forces of hate and evil” had begun “to morph into something more sinister”. The gulf is made so frightful and wide that those who try to bridge it or, to use a less fashionable but more accurate vocabulary, to take civilization across it, are doomed to fail. Indeed, if Conrad did not exist, somebody would have had to invent him.
Like so many others now and in the past, Carol Off waxes lyrical every time she mentions the beautiful African countryside. For Off and her Roméo Dallaire, “Rwanda is extraordinarily beautiful”. The country is “covered by lush green hills”. The vegetation is “deep-blue green” and the “delicious humid climate” has a “perpetual breath of spring”. Dallaire and his Canadian assistant Major Brent Beardsley thought “they were in paradise”. As goes the tradition, so goes Carol Off. The majesty and the beauty of the landscape is inversely proportional to the evil it hides, and that evil in all its details inevitably appears a few lines or paragraphs after her descriptions of Rwanda’s bucolic surroundings.
To portray the evil, Carol Off recycles many of the images and relationships established by her predecessors who wrote during in the heydays of slavery and colonialism. The Africans’ eyes she imagines are bloodshot, and the ground is slick with blood. The Africans’ nature is linked to the climate and the land in which they live. For example, she describes the steamy mist that “swirls around the blue-green landscape, creating and otherworldly quality” that results in spiritualism being “deep in the fibre of the country”. It is not surprising for a Canadian writer to make these links. English Canadian literature abounds with nativist clichés attributing the courage and energy of Canada’s youth to the country’s cold and rugged climate and geography.
Carol Off astonishingly uses cannibal imagery in her descriptions. Setting the stage for her hero Dallaire, she writes that Dallaire would have been better prepared for his mission if he had read the report of the 1993 International Commission - that one again - and if he “had known even half of what was being cooked up in Mrs. Habyarimana’s kitchen in spring and summer of 1993”. Obviously, she would never use the cooking image when talking about political leaders and their wives such as Aline Chrétien, Laura Bush or Cheri Blair. Why then do they come to mind in books on Africa. Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman was rightly denounced for talking about Africa in that way during his promotional tour for Toronto’s Olympic bid; so should Carol Off.
A book that so cravenly glorifies two representatives of Canadian institutions in Africa easily falls into the trap of treating African institutions with contempt, be they modern or ancient. This is a very old habit that Off does not attempt to shed. Religion is superstition, governments are despotic, and European institutions adopted by Africans are mere caricatures.
African Christianity is without a doubt the institution that has been, and is still, the most widely belittled and, according to Hammond and Jablow, “debased” in the popular literary tradition 103. Though it is admitted that Africans have adopted the rituals of Christianity, they just do not seem to have grasped the meaning. Carol Off expands on this notion when she writes that “an overlay of rigorous paternalism imposed on the citizenry by the Roman Catholic Church reinforced what was already a system of blind obedience to authority”. It would follow that Rwandans are not real Catholics for Ms. Off since Christianity is only an “overlay”, that cannot resist the onslaught of primal forces. The ancestral traditions of “blind obedience” thus sweep away the poorly stuck “overlay” of our excellent Christian traditions, which seem to be innate among Europeans.
Carol Off gives free rein to her imagination when she describes the Easter Mass on April 3, 1994, just three days before the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were assassinated.
It’s a country of devout Christians, and they filled the churches. The priests broke bread for Communion and told the congregations Jesus Christ had risen: salvation was theirs. Within the next few days, these Christians would dutifully follow the orders of the government to kill their neighbours - brutally and without mercy - whether they were men, women or babies. Many of the priests would actually help. Not salvation but the apocalypse was upon them.
The author was not in Rwanda on Sunday April 3, 1994. She has no idea what the priests did or what they told parishioners. It is clear though that her goal is to belittle the way Rwandans have adopted Christianity. Furthermore, what better way to trivialize the assassination of two African presidents, which she calls a “plane crash”, than to tell a terrible tale about what she imagines went on in the churches and in the minds of the faithful three days before the assassination.
As is the wont of most English Canadian journalists, Carol Off uses her references to the Catholic religion in Africa to take a few shots at Québec Catholicism. She uses puns and irony to make fun of the Latin motto Father Georges-Henri Lévesque had given to Rwanda’s National University in Butare when he founded it in 1963. The motto Illuminatio et salus populi or “God is my light and my salvation” given by a Quebec priest who supported the Hutus, is contrasted to “darkness” and the “apocalypse” that Carol Off posits as reality. She draws parallels between Quebec nationalism and the Quiet Revolution - Father Georges-Henri Lévesque was among the lead thinkers - and Rwanda’s social revolution of 1959 that people liken ideologically to the genocide they describe in 1994. Shortly before he died, Father Lévesque denounced this type of post-facto guilt by association that targeted him and others.
As pointed out earlier, since the earliest contacts between Europeans and Africans, and especially during the nineteenth century and the beginning of colonialism, European literature was terribly simplistic about African chiefs. All were power hungry, dishonest, conniving, contemptible, even laughable, except when they agreed to march to the imperial drum in which case they were well looked upon. Once again, a gulf separates Europe from Africa. These descriptions of contemptible African chiefs helped to vaunt the efficiency, moral standards and universality of the people and institutions from the imperial motherlands. With the stage so carefully set, it was easy to take the next step and support the empire’s noble colonial mission of civilizing those backward peoples.
Carol Off walks blindly down this road. When President Juvénal Habyarimana took power in 1973, according to Off, he “was out of the classic African-dictator mould”. Please expand Ms Off! She then adds that it was the Cold War and “any number of despots could find, and cultivate, foreign patrons who would help them hold onto power.” In other words, the imperial powers were being hoodwinked. The late Rwandan president was incapable of doing anything of any worth. He always “pretends” and is always deceitful. At the request of so-called donor countries, Habyarimana “pretended to pursue economic and political reforms”. When he went to Arusha in August 1993, to sign peace accords, he took part in “a grand ceremony attended by the major leaders of Africa - none of whom believed the peace agreement would work - and by members of the international community, who breathed a sigh of relief that the worst of the Rwandan crisis was over.”
This passage should be read carefully because it reveals the author’s deeper thoughts. First, the African leaders do not seem to be part of Carol Off’s “international community”, even though leaders from Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa are present. Her “international community” appears to include only the “white” countries from Europe and America, just like when Europe began to colonize Africa. Secondly, according to Carol Off, the African leaders signed the agreement but they did not believe a word of it. The accusation is more serious than it appears. She is saying that the leaders were lying and deceiving the members of the “international community”, who, as we all know, are selflessly devoted to Africa’s well-being.
President Habyarimana is nothing but a puppet controlled by his “Lady Macbeth”, Mrs. Habyarimana and her entourage of “red-eyed devils” - taken directly from Conrad. As in the 19th century, holding an African leader in contempt is the best way to show contempt for the Africans who live under him, but in this particular book it serves other purposes. It helps belittle the assassination of Habyarimana and of his Burundian colleague on April 6, 1994, which for Carol Off was a mere “plane crash”. If anyone dared described 9/11 as a “plane crash” into the World Trade Centre, they would likely be committed to an asylum or be thrown in jail. It also facilitates the difficult task Carol Off has of exonerating Louise Arbour for stopping Michael Hourigan’s investigation into the shooting down of President Habyarimana’s plane, the only such investigation undertaken by the Tribunal. 104
Carol Off has only fine words to describe the Rwandan Patriotic Front leader Paul Kagame, who is like the traditional ally of nineteenth century colonialists. Paul Kagame is “brilliant”, a “great military tactician”, thanks mainly to this American training at the US Army and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. His always “polite and well disciplined” troops are part of a “liberation army” that comes to the rescue and ends the genocide. To help her Canadian and American readers to better grasp the war and who is waging it, she disingenuously alludes to the Second World War and the fight against Hitler. Thus when she depicts the RPF as a “liberation army” ending a “genocide”, she knows that she has sealed her case. Once again in characteristic English-Canadian style, she is tickled to see France and a French-speaking African country brought to their knees by an English-speaking army trained by the British and the Americans.
Africa and especially Rwanda are pedestals on which she defines and exalts the Canadian heroes in her tale. The further Rwanda is made to appear from Canada, both geographically and culturally, the more valiant are her heroes. Ms Off lets her imagination fly in this area.
She introduces Roméo Dallaire as a military man “staring down the tunnel of a long, dull finish to his career” when, one fine day, somebody offers to appoint him commander of a mission to a country in central Africa. We’ve seen that before: the dull life in the mother country versus adventure in Africa. Carol Off’s Dallaire knows absolutely nothing about the geography or the history of this “African country no one needed or cared about”. Ignorance about Africa is made into a quality, something to be proud of, whereas it should be reason enough to be refused the job.
We learn that her Dallaire is “smart, hard driving”, “trim, handsome”, with “boundless energy”, a “lion’s courage” and “rigorous morality”. He “learned his code of social justice from his parents, whose defining experience had been the Second World War”. Of course what better school could he have had considering the parallel Carol Off wants to make between Nazi Germany and Habyarimana’s Rwanda. Her exaltation - and imagination - knows no bounds. At one point she portrays Dallaire “marooned in the middle of a country he was hardly able to find on a map a year earlier, with only his Nato training and a personal sense of right and wrong to guide him”, at a time when “sinister darkness” is closing in on him. It is curious how the sense of right and wrong seems to be innate for these Canadians. In Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, Gil Courtemanche attributes the same high moral qualities to his hero in Rwanda, Bernard Valcourt.
Louise Arbour is the eagle of the tale and the success story in Carol Off’s book. She has the same sterling moral character as Dallaire. She is also “pretty”, with a “quick wit”, “efficient”, “competent”, and has an excellent legal training, especially since she practised mainly in Ontario. All these qualities enable her to successfully carry out her mission to eliminate the “culture of impunity” that reigns in the “heart of Africa”. Despite the enormous gulf, despite the Tribunal’s shambles, corruption, incompetence and inefficiency that Off takes pages to describe, Louise Arbour brilliantly brings order to the court and successfully pursues the noble mission with the help of other fine Canadians, such as Pierre Duclos. Duclos is the former Sûreté du Québec investigator hired by Louise Arbour who had been identified by Québec’s Poitras Commission as the policeman who initiated the fabrication of evidence in the Matticks Affair. 105
Boasting about Louise Arbour, who became a Supreme Court Justice before being appointed UN Human Rights Commissioner, undoubtedly makes Canadians feel good. Moreover, Louise Arbour surely appreciates getting the credit. She graciously granted Carol Off several long interviews. The purpose of all the flattery is not quite so guileless however. While lauding Ms. Arbour, she quietly slips in shameless comments about how Africa is different and how, in this different world, Saint Louise Arbour is fully justified to “operate somewhat differently from other courts” - read European courts - and to give herself the “flexibility to hold suspects without charge”.
Africa is so different that we are expected to understand and accept that “due process, as understood in North America and Europe, would have made it almost impossible [for Ms Arbour] to arrest the prime suspects”, or the “big fish” as Carol Off likes to call them.
102 Carol Off, The Lion, The Fox and The Eagle, A story of generals and justice in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, Vintage Canada, 2000.
103 Hammond and Jablow, op. cit. p. 131.
104 See chapter 6.
105 See Chapter 13, note 7.