The tension had been mounting all week, but the increased police presence that Tuesday had added to the sense of anticipation and dread in downtown Kemptville. About thirty police officers were brought in to provide the necessary security. In addition to the three members of the Kemptville police force, an extra force of OPP officers had been drafted in from as far away as Brockville and Perth, and an unknown number of plainclothes RCMP staff were also on hand. It was called “the heaviest police security ever seen in town”. People were expecting trouble, without doubt.
What could have caused such commotion in sleepy Kemptville? Was it a radical fringe group coming to lynch the town Council? Was it a threatened terrorist attack, aimed at disrupting a secret meeting of national leaders? No, the focus of this extraordinary security exercise was…the Kemptville Rotary Club’s monthly meeting! To add to the absurdity, the security forces were gathered around, not the Town Hall, but the Bright Spot Restaurant on Clothier Street.
This was February, 1986, and the Kemptville Rotary had generated all this excitement by inviting as a guest speaker to their meeting, Glenn Babb, Ambassador to Canada from South Africa. Babb had been on a public relations tour of Canada for the South African Government, still imposing Apartheid on its people, and still five years from releasing Nelson Mandela from prison. The Ambassador had been due to speak at Carleton University, but such was the level of opposition there among both students and faculty, that he was forced to find a new venue. “No Free Speech for Racists” was the slogan there, as I well remember. Kemptville Rotary provided the invitation, and that was why news crews, protestors and security were meeting outside the Bright Spot that Tuesday night.
The Ottawa Rough Riders were represented by a few team members; students from various institutions, including North Grenville District High School, arrived to protest the presence of this representative of a racist regime. One high school student was asked if he thought the protest would achieve anything, and he revealed his understanding of the art of protesting by replying: “I hope so, if not we’ll just get a cold”. Kemptville Mayor, Ralph Raina, had received advice from security and political sources on preparing for and dealing with the kind of protest that was expected in town. But these fears were not to be realised, as acting Police Chief Bob Piché was relieved to report: “ I’m sure pleased with the way the protestors are conducting themselves, even the press”.
This was a premature judgement on Constable Piché’s part. In fact, the press caused more trouble than anyone else that night by sneaking into the Bright Spot, which had been closed to the press, through the kitchens. As a journalist was being forced to leave, another stood up and started taking pictures. He too was ejected by the owners of the restaurant who were heartily sick of the whole business even before it started. They had faced numerous complaints during the week because they were hosting the Rotary meeting, and later they reported that some customers that night had taken advantage of the protest, the media and the general confusion to leave the restaurant without paying their bills.
Outside in the cold, about fifty or sixty protestors continued to picket and march, with one or two counter-protestors calling for free speech for Babb. The organiser of the protest was Margaret Collins who explained to the media that she was not trying to have Babb banned from speaking, but simply wanted a silent protest against his Government’s racist regime. She was upset by the Rotary’s invitation to the Ambassador, as she felt it “would be seen to be legitimizing his country’s racist policies and to be showing him too much respect”.
Meanwhile, inside the meeting, Ambassador Babb was charmingly explaining to the meeting that his country was simply misunderstood by the world, and was not nearly as racist as people thought. He pointed out to the assembly that, not only was the majority in South Africa not oppressed, but that, in fact, there was no majority there at all. The main aim of his talk, it seems, was to encourage economic investment in South Africa. He emphasised the importance of South Africa as a bulwark against Communist expansion, and referred to the African National Congress which “believes firmly in socialism, communism and revolution for South Africa”. It may be an issue of hindsight, but the fact that the Ambassador received a standing ovation from the crowd is something that seems disturbing today.
The only record of Babb’s speech comes from a secret recording made by an undercover journalist at the meeting. It had been hoped that the Ambassador would speak to the assembled media afterwards, but, as one journalist put it, tongue firmly in teeth: “..but it seems he was upset by all the attention. Instead he was hurried into a waiting car and sped away down Prescott Street”. So ended one of Kemptville’s more colourful and exciting nights in living memory. A cartoon in the newspaper the following week was particularly good. It showed Ralph Raina in front of the Bright Spot. In one corner was a protest sign that said: “Guess who’s coming to dinner!”.