Alberta and Abyssinia

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Robert N. Thompson and children at dinner table. Credit: Gilbert Alexander Milne and Co. Ltd./Library and Archives Canada, PA-148635

By David Webster

One textbook on Canadian foreign relations sums up the 1930s with the chapter title “Alberta, not Abyssinia.” Canada was more concerned with domestic politics affairs, not overseas crises such as the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (previously called Abyssinia) in 1935. “All these European troubles are not worth the bones of a Toronto grenadier,” in the words of University of Toronto professor Frank Underhill.

Those who look at Canadian foreign relations through the lens of people rather than government know that Canadians were highly engaged overseas. As scholars like Will Langford point out, we need to trace the history of right-wing transnational influences. Often, we see those non-governmental connections most clearly in countries seen as peripheral. Nassisse Solomon shows – and problematizes – how Canadians embraced Ethiopia during the 1980s famine.

Alberta’s contribution to Abyssinia in the 1930s came in the person of Robert N. Thompson, KCLJ, CMLJ, FGS, LLD, perhaps best known for his bizarre affirmation that “the Americans are our best friends, whether we like it or not.” Thompson grew up in Red Deer, Alberta. He was for a time in the 1960s the leader of Canada’s Social Credit party, that odd plant rooted in Western Canadian and Quebec politics from the Depression to the 1960s. And he was “Mr Africa” in Canada’s parliament while serving as MP for Red Deer.

Oddities like Bob Thompson’s years in Ethiopia tell us a great deal about Canadian engagement abroad. This story comes from the archives of Trinity Western University, where Stephen Hay generously went well outside his field to go through materials for me and allowed me to see Thompson’s Ethiopian presence as an influence on both that country and Canadian foreign relations.

Bob Thompson never led Social Credit to power in Canada. In fact, he eventually stopped being a Socred MP. Yet he spent a decade in the government of Ethiopia as a close advisor to Emperor Haile Selassie (reigned 1930-74). There, he pushed some of the policies of evangelical Christianity on a willing emperor and government.

Ethiopian guerrillas backed by British forces succeeded in freeing their country from Italian occupation by 1944. Thompson, in a military history of the campaign, insisted that Ethiopia was “the first to be freed.” He was Ethiopia-bound himself by 1944, a tale he recounted to journalist Peter Stursberg. (Stursberg’s remarkable oral histories conducted for parliament in the 1980s are a wonderful, much-overlooked resource at Library and Archives Canada – we need something similar today.)

In his telling he had a “secret mission” in Lisbon, then accompanied a boatload of Jewish refugees to the British mandate of Palestine. Perhaps. What we do know from written records is that was that he was bound for Ethiopia as a medical missionary. It was no longer possible to go to China, traditionally Canada’s major missionary field, as it has plunged into war in the 1940s and would soon come under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Thompson embraced the Sudan Interior Mission (now simply SIM), which was able to return as Italian forces surrendered.

“Here is opportunity for evangelism, for Bible Schools, for medical work, for Christian schools where future national leaders will be trained,” enthused The Evangelical Christian in 1945. “Homeless waifs not more than five or six years of age cry out pityingly on the streets, as they huddle at evening time under a few rags on the curb trying to keep warm.… There is a real famine of the written Word of God among them.[1]

This “famine” was filled by missionaries such as Thompson. Yet he was almost immediately seconded to serve Haile Selassie as an education advisor, despite lacking any training in education (Thompson was a chiropractor). He switched his Canadian air force uniform for an Ethiopian one, using his experience in the Canada-based Commonwealth Air Training Scheme to train Ethiopians and get in some flying himself. He worked with US air force colonel John C. Robinson, an African-American nicknamed “the Black Eagle of Chicago.”. The African-American presence in Ethiopia had been fraught, with a segregated Black air force squadron “lord[ing] it over the native Ethiopians even more-so than the fascists had done” and only Robinson allowed to stay, if we can trust Thompson’s memory as recounted in his unpublished memoir. Nor was there much more luck in an appeal for African-American teachers to come to Ethiopia published in Time Magazine.[2]

Canadians taught instead. Thompson recruited dozens from his home country. He ran Ethiopia’s first high school – named after Haile Selassie – then became superintendent of schools in Kaffa province. On the side, he wrote reports on evangelization prospects, rendering unto SIM what he thought was SIM’s, but leaving this out of his reports to the government. He ended his service as one of two top officials at the ministry’s offices in Addis Ababa.

Bob’s wife Hazel, invisible in the archival records, appears in his unpublished memoir. She supervised dorms, instructed chefs in meal planning, taught piano, and organized contests in room cleaning, and “hardly seemed to miss [Alberta’s] modern conveniences.” I’ve made the case elsewhere, in a book splendidly edited by Stacey Barker and Jill Campell-Miller, that “life stories” of Canadians overseas also need to be “wife stories,” seeing women rendered invisible by official archives. Hazel Thompson, a trained radiologist, made Thompson’s advising possible, much like (as Donica Belisle has pointed out) Mary Quayle Innis did for historian Harold Innis.

Education in Ethiopia was very much a family affair. While Hazel ran the home and raised the children, Bob recruited his brother Howard to be one of the first Canadian teachers in Ethiopia. Howard moved on to Washington to become educational attaché at the Ethiopian embassy, thus an official member of the Ethiopian diplomatic corps.

Susanna Erlandsson writes about how diplomatic politics is also personal politics, with family and wives especially being an integral part of diplomatic practice, It’s the same for non-diplomatic figures.

Bob and Hazel left government work to run a leprosarium, leaving the country in 1956 when their daughter required medical care. Henceforth, apart from a year that Bob spent teaching at the US evangelical outpost Bob Jones University, they lived in Canada.[3] Still, Bob toured with Prince Makonnen, who he called his “kid brother,” served as honorary Ethiopian consul in Canada, and helped the royal family when a military coup overthrew Haile Selassie in 1974. He retained an interest in Africa, where he went as Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s special emissary on at least one occasion, and was an active booster of the Nigerian federal government during the Biafra secession – unlike many Canadian leftists.

A white Christian evangelical who had served both Emperor and God seems an odd candidate to be Canada’s Africa expert in the revolutionary 1960s. Yet he was. “I had no problems racially associated with me,” he told Peter Stursberg. This is so often the Canadian self-image abroad. Though Thompson does not speak or write about race or racism, it is hard to imagine that racial divides were not often on the minds of his hosts. We can see them only by reading “against the archival grain” and noting the sense that Canada and Britain offered models and better government – an underlying, unspoken assumption of British colonialism. Media coverage of Thompson’s Africa travels on behalf of the Canadian government abound in racial stereotyping, which we recognize far too rarely when writing diplomatic history, with a few noble exceptions.

Canadian history needs to look beyond borders more than it does, a change already well under way. Historians need to dig for the offbeat stories in the out-of-the-way archives, and try to read to see the personal politics alongside the story that the archived subject wants told. We also need to be attentive to our citational politics, which is in itself a methodological intervention.  For Thompson’s story, this Alberta and Abyssinia story, is ultimately one about methods.

David Webster teaches Human Rights Studies at King’s University College, Western University. His next book will be Modern Missionaries: Canadian Development Advisors Overseas 1945-75.


[1] C. Gordon Beacham, “Rebirth in Ethiopia,” The Evangelical Christian (April 1945), 173-174, 204.

[2] “Teachers for Ethiopia,” Time, 7 Aug. 1944, p. 50

[3] Aubrey Wice, “Their Work in Missions Practice of their Faith” The Telegram [Toronto] 29 Oct. 1960, p. 49; RNT, “Leprosy Mission – Ethiopia,” 1955, TWUA, Thompson papers, box 17, file 1; Hazel M. Thompson and Robert N. Thompson, “Southern Leper Colony Progress Report No. 3” April 1956, ibid, box 2, file 11; memoir

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