There is a family of birds found mostly in Africa called honeyguides that will deliberately lead humans to bee colonies. After its human followers have found the hives and harvested the honey, the honeyguide will feed on the wax and grubs left behind.
Send a letter to your M.P.A few years ago, a colleague with vast experience in international development said that historically Canada's role in international negotiations was to be the world's honeyguide. Any nations unsure of what position to take on an important multilateral issue could look to Canada to lead them—inevitably—to the moral equivalent of the honey pot.
Many Canadians will reference Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and his concept of peacekeeping to illustrate the honeyguide metaphor. But we need not go back so far. Think of the ban on land mines and the 1997 treaty that bears the name of our capital city. Or the Montreal Protocol, an agreement that has led to the phasing out of ozone-depleting substances. Even on climate change, the Canadian government was one of the first in the world to ratify the climate change agreement that came out of Rio's 1992 Earth Summit.
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No more. Canada has more often than not become the nation that will destroy the hive rather than lead others to its gifts.
This week, Canada's new role is playing itself out in Durban, South Africa, the site of the United Nations climate change negotiations. South Africa, of course, presents another historical example of Canada playing the honeyguide, when Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative government joined other world leaders in imposing international sanctions against South Africa that eventually brought down its Apartheid regime. In a recent full-page ad Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other South African leaders from government, labour, and environmental groups have reminded Canadians of the leadership we once showed...and lamented how far we have fallen, especially with respect to environmental protection.
This is because of the shameful actions that the Canadian government is taking at the U.N. talks in Durban, pretending to negotiate while withholding secret plans to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, the only agreement that binds Canada to take action on climate change. The Canadian government's approach shows it is more interested in protecting the interests of oil and gas companies in the tar sands than protecting the planet.
It gets worse. In media interviews this week, South Africa's High Commissioner to Canada accused the Canadian government of pressuring other countries behind closed doors to join Canada in rejecting Kyoto. High Commissioner Mohau Pheko suggested that Canadian officials have even threatened to withdraw aid money from poor countries if they didn't follow Canada's lead.
Meanwhile, Canada's environment minister, Peter Kent, has challenged the notion that Canada and other developed countries should be helping poor countries to address the climate change impacts that we helped to created and that they are facing. As the South African leaders pointed out, "For us in Africa, climate change is a life and death issue. [D]ramatically increasing Canada's global warming pollution... exposes million of Africans to more devastating drought and famine today and in the years to come.", Minister Kent rejected any assistance we might provide to developing countries as "guilt payments."
Canadian governments of the past, Liberal and Conservative, would have understood that this is not about guilt. It is about taking responsibility for the damage we have inflicted upon others. It is a strongly held principle in international law, including climate change agreements signed in Rio, Kyoto, and Copenhagen. And it is where Canada as honeyguide would have ended up not so long ago.