Listen Now

Vice-Regal Diplomacy

If Canada wants stronger relations with Africa, our Diplomat-in-Chief needs more help from the government. By David Hornsby.

By: /
17 May, 2013
By: David Hornsby
Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Assistant Dean of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Governor General David Johnston is about to arrive in South Africa to mark the end of an Africa tour that also saw him visit Ghana and Botswana.  The trip has been largely touted as an opportunity to reinforce the close bonds that Canada maintains with these three African states.  Indeed, Canada has a positive history in each as a real partner for development and not guided by colonial intentions.  Many don’t realize the advantage that brings for Canada when operating on the continent. This is reflected by the fact that as our aid priorities have shifted and trade investment has become focused elsewhere, we have permitted these relationships to decline. I have written elsewhere about how Canada’s role in South Africa is in need of serious repair because of this and a number of low level diplomatic spats that have been permitted to fester as a result of political disinterest, on both sides.  So in that sense the GG’s visit is also about mending fences and sending important signals that Canada still cares and values these relationships. 

Indeed, deploying the GG as our Diplomat-in-Chief to these three countries is of symbolic value and real importance as it suggests a tacit agreement by the government that bilateral ties are worth (re)affirming.  It is also a safe way to advance Canadian interests without actually having to commit to anything.  If we consider Canadian diplomacy and foreign policy, GG visits are rather limited in their ability to actually commit to anything.  This is because the GG maintains no real authority to negotiate, announce, or even commit the government to undertake any initiatives.  Indeed, the Canadian government treats state visits as missions-lite, or charm offensives: a delegation that includes a handful of MPs, business elites, and prominent civil society and education leaders, is sent to explore opportunities for cooperation, and to reinforce the efforts undertaken by our hardworking (and under-appreciated) diplomats.  These sorts of missions hold real potential for opening up greater opportunities for bilateral cooperation or even just awareness-building, which can lead to more trade and investment, but they are rarely used by the government to formally confirm commitments for cooperation.

The use of the GG and state visits as a form of diplomacy is a not a new thing.  Johnston’s predecessors, Adrienne Clarkson and Michaelle Jean, were also rolled out on state visits to reinforce diplomatic relations.  In this vein, vice-regal institutions in Canada have become part of pushing Canadian values not only at home, but also abroad.  But what is interesting is how Johnston is utilizing this role much more extensively, with a clear “soft diplomacy” strategy that emphasizes trade, security, education, and innovation.

Canada’s typical use of state visits differs from how other countries use them.  The UK deploys the Queen as part of an explicit strategy to advance its economic and political interests abroad – it tends to make state visits much bigger and more ambitious than Canada.  The Queen’s state visits to the United Arab Emirates and Oman in 2010, which were combined with a larger delegation of government, business, academic, and civil society participants, saw a number of large trade deals signed.  Perhaps, this highlights a conundrum for state visits as part of Canadian diplomacy – our head of state is shared with about 16 other countries, and we have never actually sent her on a state visit for Canada. Deploying her representative instead arguably waters down the gravitas of the event. 

Despite this rather awkward diplomatic reality, the presence and interest of the GG in coming and representing Canada is incredibly positive, and it raises our profile. Hopefully, this will result in improved relations – political, economic, and otherwise.  But it seems that whilst vice-regal diplomacy is a great tool in the realm of symbolic politics, its lasting impact is only truly felt if additional attention is then given to the political and economic issues that make up the heart of the relationships.  This requires the support of the Prime Minister and the interest of the Foreign Minister. Vice-regal diplomacy can be great for reinforcing and reinvigorating relations, but unless a soft power strategy is backed up with hard political and economic commitments, the GG’s efforts have little chance of making a lasting difference.

In that context, cause for concern emerges.  This is the second state visit by a GG to South Africa in 7 years.  Michaelle Jean came in 2006 just around the time things went into serious decline, politically and economically, between our two countries.  In that period, there has only been a smattering of brief ministerial visits, and no visits by the Prime Minister or Foreign Minister. In fact there has not been a Canadian Foreign Minister visit to South Africa in over 15 years. Most tellingly, Minister Baird will also be in Africa during the time of the GG’s visit, but he will not be joining the official delegation for any part of the trip to Botswana or South Africa instead sending along parliamentary secretary, Deepak Obhrai.  In the realm of symbolic politics, that says a lot. 

Don’t get me wrong – the symbolism of the GGs visit is important, especially for middle power countries like Canada that don’t have the economic or political resources to be everywhere all the time. But if the intent is to rebuild Canada’s relationship and image with important African states, like South Africa, deploying the GG needs to be part of a grander strategy that involves a steady role out of political and economic diplomatic initiatives; it needs to be part of an African Engagement Strategy, which Canada has sorely lacked for a long time now.

So what meaning should we take from this vice-regal visit? It could signify that the Harper Government is ready to recognize the importance of Africa in advancing our foreign policy interests, and has deployed our Diplomat-in-Chief to smooth the way for a greater engagement with the continent and important countries therein. If that’s the case, we should take it to mean that we are in the midst of a very important moment for the future of Canada-Africa relations. Or it could be another exercise in symbolic politics that is just meant to smooth any ruffled feathers. Only time will tell, but I remain optimistic and hopeful. 

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter