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How Canada Helped Kill An Anti-Imperialist Hero

In the early 1960s, Canada and its colonial allies entered the newly independent Democratic Republic of Congo with an agenda, and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was in the way.

How Canada Helped Kill An Anti-Imperialist Hero
The Maple/Original Graphic.

By Cassandra Kislenko

It was the summer of 1960, and Canadian soldiers had just landed in the newly independent Democratic Republic of Congo as part of an unprecedented United Nations mission overseeing the country’s transition from Belgian colonial rule.

However, despite announcing themselves as a neutral presence, Canada and its colonial allies had an agenda – and the D.R.C.’s anti-imperialist Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was in the way.

A Canadian Terrorizes The Congo

The Congolese had been living under colonial rule since 1885, when Belgium’s King Leopold II used mercenaries to enslave the local Indigenous nations and establish the so-called “Congo Free State.” He extracted the region’s natural resources, chiefly rubber and ivory, killing an estimated 10 to 15 million Congolese between 1885-1908 and amassing a personal fortune in the process.

Canada was instrumental in the establishment of the Congo Free State. In fact, one of the first “explorers” to invade the Congo Basin was a Halifax-born imperial soldier by the name of William Grant Stairs. He accepted Leopold’s invitation to lead an excursion into the resource-rich Katanga region in northwestern Congo to, in Stairs’ own words, “(open) the expansion of English and other trade in supplying new markets for the goods of the world.”

William Grant Stairs/Wikimedia Commons.

Stairs’ target was the Yeke Kingdom, where King Mwenda Msiri Ngelengwa Shitambi’s forces had acquired muskets to resist European subjugation. Stairs’ men deceived their way into an audience with King Msiri, then murdered him and opened fire on his subjects as they fled.

Stairs then impaled King Msiri’s head on a pike and had it mounted outside the walled village as a warning against further resistance.

Writing about his violence, Stairs called the Congolese, “miserable, contemptible bushmen … the lowest form of man, upon whom the only weapon you can devise is one which inflicts a protracted, agonizing though certain death.”

This terrorism was integral in eliminating Indigenous resistance to Leopold’s Congo Free State. The Belgian government officially took ownership of the colony in 1908, renaming it Belgian Congo.

Today, Stairs is commemorated with a plaque at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Patrice Lumumba’s Blazing Entrance

With their colonial regime collapsing in 1960, Belgium was desperate to negotiate an economic foothold in the nascent Congolese government. The most prominent and popular face of Congolese independence was African nationalist Patrice Lumumba, who was elected the country’s first prime minister on June 24, 1960.

Lumumba had captured the hearts of both the rural poor and urban middle class by articulating their oppression through the language of anti-colonialism and class struggle.

Patrice Lumumba/Wikimedia Commons.

At a ceremony officially marking Congolese independence on June 30, Belgian King Baudouin gave a speech lauding independence as the “crowning glory” of Leopold’s genocidal mission.

Lumumba then took the stage unscheduled and delivered a scathing rebuke of not just the Belgians, but the actions and beliefs of all colonial powers, stating:

“No Congolese will ever forget that independence was won in … a persevering and inspired struggle … in which we were undaunted by privation or suffering and stinted neither strength nor blood."

The speech shocked colonial leaders, and cemented Lumumba’s legacy as a voice of anti-imperialism worldwide. Malcolm X called him “the greatest Black man to ever walk the African continent.”

However, Lumumba inherited a chaotic political situation. Belgian colonizers had made bureaucratic training, as well as most other formal education, virtually inaccessible to Congolese during colonial rule. In the power vacuum left by the Belgians’ departure, various militant ethnic and class-based factions were vying for control of the region’s infrastructure and resources.

When these tensions led to violence between newly empowered Congolese and remaining European settlers, Canadian media seized the opportunity to sensationalize. The Toronto Star ran the headline “New Congo Terror: Two Whites Slain,” while the Globe and Mail declared “Cannibalism Making Comeback” and stoked fear of “primitives on the loose.”

Lumumba’s new government was further threatened when Katangan leader Moise Tshombe declared that his resource-rich province would secede from Lumumba’s united D.R.C. and economically ally with Belgium. Fearing colonial interference, Lumumba asked the United Nations to mediate.

Canada’s ‘Peacekeepers’ Bring Racist Violence

The Canadian government proudly upheld Stairs’ white supremacist views when it volunteered soldiers for the UN peacekeeping mission.

Canadian Ambassador to Belgium Charles Herbert had remarked in 1957 that the Congo region was “inhabited by very backwards peoples, few of whom can have any conception of government,” and that it was “asking a great deal to expect a transition from tribal warfare and cannibalism.” Canadian Trade Commissioner A. B. Brodie maintained that Belgian colonization had made the Congolese into “healthier and more useful citizens.”

Lumumba had visited Ottawa on July 29, 1960 in the hopes of establishing bilateral trade relations, but Prime Minister John Diefenbaker deferred to the Belgians and rebuked him. Lumumba identified these sympathies, calling Canada “just another imperialist country.”

Upon arrival in the D.R.C., Canadian military officials requested their near-exclusively white regiments not bunk with any of the Black Congolese soldiers, saying it was “not a matter of the colour bar,” but simply “differences in customs and diet.” In the end, they were given barracks in a converted former whites-only schoolhouse.

Swedish UN peacekeeper in the D.R.C./Wikimedia Commons.

Once stationed, soldiers were constantly admonished for using racial slurs. They earned a reputation for drinking and brawling with locals, often in red light districts. Accusations of procuring sex workers, despite a formal ban on the practice, followed Canadian peacekeepers throughout the mission and future missions, in addition to accusations of sexual assault.

It didn’t take long for Lumumba to realize that the UN was favouring pro-Western and pro-capitalist factions in the conflict:

“How can you imagine that a hat painted blue is enough to eliminate the complexes of conservative officers from Sweden or Canada or Great Britain … Those countries sympathize with the Belgians because they have the same past, the same history, the same taste for our riches.”

Lumumba demanded the removal of white peacekeeping forces from the country, leaving soldiers from former colonies like India and Ghana. Colonial leaders called the demand “inverted racism” and refused.

With the UN mission looking more like an occupation, Lumumba considered support from the Soviet Union, which heightened tensions with colonial powers. Despite the presence of so-called peacekeepers, the D.R.C.’s situation was rapidly deteriorating.

Canada Betrays a Nation

Along with racism and accusations of sexual violence, Canada had earned a reputation for its close relationships with Congolese factions, something technically forbidden by the UN’s peacekeeping ethos.

Canadian Lt. Col. Jean Berthiaume had a particularly close rapport with Lumumba’s main rival, a Colonel in the fractious Congolese military named Joseph-Désiré Mobutu who was fomenting a coup against the new government.

In late 1960, Lumumba and his aides fled to Stanleyville (now Kisangani) to re-establish headquarters for his leadership. Hearing this, Berthiaume contacted Mobutu to give him the location and direction of Lumumba’s convoy.

Jean Berthiaume in 1986/Wikimedia Commons.

Mobutu’s soldiers acted on this tip and intercepted Lumumba on Dec. 1 as he travelled east, arresting him and his two closest associates, Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito, at gunpoint.

Mobutu imprisoned Lumumba, Mpolo and Okito, beating and starving them in what Lumumba called “impossible conditions.” The three were relocated to Katanga, where Tshombe decided on next steps while Belgians and Congolese collaborators tortured them.

On the night of January 17, 1961, Patrice Lumumba, Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito were taken to a remote location in the countryside. One by one, they were placed in front of a tree and shot to death by Belgian firing squads.

Belgian officers threw their bodies in a shallow grave overnight, digging them up and dissolving them in sulphuric acid the next morning so there would be no memorial site.

Indian and Ghanian regiments called attention to Berthiaume’s betrayal, but when confronted by UN officials, the Canadian military chose to “let the matter rest.” No action was taken against Berthiaume.

Africans Mourn, Canada Forgets

Lumumba’s death would not be confirmed until Feb. 13 of that year. When the news broke, protests erupted across the world, including a demonstration outside the United Nations headquarters in New York City attended by civil rights activist Maya Angelou.

In Montreal, African-Canadian students at McGill and Université de Montréal boycotted classes and took to the streets in a demonstration that linked Lumumba’s death to colonization and imperialism, and implicated Canada in both. They criticized Belgium and the UN for having “contributed to this savagery,” and held Moise Tshombe and Joseph Mobutu accountable for having “allowed themselves to be used as colonial stooges.”

In response, the Montreal Gazette ran an editorial blaming Lumumba for the “chaos” that struck his country and chastising the “bitter hatred” supposedly held by African leaders for the West. The editorial also claimed African states are “without a history” outside of colonization.

Meanwhile, the Montreal Star published an extremely racist editorial cartoon. The incident soon faded from Canadian consciousness.

A Colonial Legacy

The Congo Crisis continued for several years, with the UN forces numbering nearly 20,000 troops at its highest point. When the UN withdrew in 1964, the country was still mired in political violence after nearly four years of occupation.

In 1962, the snitch Berthiaume became the first Canadian since the Korean War to be made an officer in the prestigious Order of the British Empire.

Canada’s good friend Mobutu seized power in a military coup on Nov. 24, 1965. He quickly outlawed all opposition parties and independent trade unions, changed the country’s name to Zaire, and his own name to Mobutu Sese Seko.

Prince Bernhard of Lippe-Biesterfeld with Mobutu in 1973/Wikimedia Commons.

For 29 years, Mobutu’s one-party dictatorship hoarded the country’s resources for his own personal wealth in a regime known for its nepotism, kleptocracy, violent repression and ever-growing fleet of Mercedes Benz.

He was deposed in a 1997 coup d’etat by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, whose son would rule the country autocratically from 2001 until 2019, selling off the country’s resources to foreign mining companies.

In the past two decades, Canadian mining corporations like Barrick and Banro have come to dominate African mining, including a heavy presence in the D.R.C. As of 2019, there were eight Canadian mining companies operating in the D.R.C., generating a total of $6.1 billion that year, extracting minerals like cobalt, gold and lithium.

These companies pay Congolese workers exploitative wages in dangerous conditions, destroying the country’s environment and economy to provide goods for Western manufacturing and trade.

Just like William Grant Stairs would have wanted.

The historical research in this piece is based on Tyler A. Shipley’s Canada In The World: Settler Capitalism and the Colonial Imagination and Kevin A. Spooner's Canada, the Congo Crisis, and UN Peacekeeping, 1960-64.

Cassandra Kislenko is a non-binary settler journalist working and writing on Treaty 13 territory in Tkaronto. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.