Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




McKenzie, Francine


This dissertation is an international history of Canada and South African apartheid from 1958-1994. Based on multi-archival research and interviews with policymakers, diplomats, and pro- and anti-apartheid activists, it investigates how race informed the worldview of decision-makers and, in turn, shaped policy towards apartheid. By highlighting the formative role of racial perceptions in orienting Canada’s response to apartheid, this thesis addresses why Canada was so engaged on an issue seemingly peripheral to its national interests. In so doing, it bridges the gap between reason and emotion and offers a fresh approach to the field of international history.

This thesis argues that, for Canada, the struggle against apartheid was not about South Africa per se but defending the sanctity of the liberal world order—an ideological framework, or mental map, predicated on Western norms, rules, values, and institutions in which Canada had a real stake, geopolitically but more importantly, ideologically. The West’s association with Pretoria’s system of racial oppression threatened to undermine the legitimacy and appeal of this order. By using its influence to dismantle apartheid, Canada could preserve Western credibility and bring about a non-racial democratic South Africa that would fit within the liberal international fold. Canada’s approach varied over nearly four decades, but officials shared a similar worldview that shaped their attitudes about the dangers posed by apartheid to “multi-racial” cooperation and international order. This dissertation thus reveals how race and the liberal order are intertwined and that global politics is as much social as it is about power dynamics.

Summary for Lay Audience

In popular memory, Canada was on the side of the angels in the fight against apartheid—a system of legalized and institutionalized racial segregation that existed in South Africa for nearly five decades. Perhaps more than any historical episode since the Suez Crisis, so the story goes, Canada lived up to its values, reaffirming the country’s identity and support for social justice and racial equality. This dissertation draws on multi-archival research and interviews with leading policymakers, diplomats, and activists to answer two fundamental questions about Canada’s approach to apartheid from 1958-1994. First, how did global racial norms influence public discourses and identity? Second, how did these norms inform the worldview of decision-makers and, in turn, shape policy towards apartheid?

This dissertation is bookended by two events: Pretoria’s expulsion from the Commonwealth in March 1961 in which Canada played a decisive role, and the near-universal adoption of economic sanctions against South Africa twenty-five years later. Although policy evolved over thirty-six years, officials shared a remarkably similar worldview that shaped their attitudes towards apartheid and the risks it posed to international order. Ottawa’s perceptions of the situation in South Africa, and what was at stake for Canada, were not objectively determined but informed by “moral” emotions or intuitions. It shows how Canada became a diplomatic battleground in the struggle for legitimacy between the global anti-apartheid movement, the white minority regime, and its Western partners. Canadian engagement on apartheid was a two-way street in which it was as influenced, if not more so, by others. Consequently, this thesis explores why ideas gain traction or are resisted others and how apartheid became the totemic human rights issue of the day.

Available for download on Tuesday, December 31, 2024