It’s been a rough month for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s foreign policy, with three controversial incidents churning up stormy sentiments among Canadians as well as some overseas.
First there was Harper’s statement that he welcomed Egypt’s “return to stability” after the ouster of president Mohammed Morsi, a surprise to pro-democracy Egyptians, as well as human rights advocates and imprisoned Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy.
Then criticism roiled over a Washington speech by Foreign Minister John Baird, who referred to the body of water between Iran, Iraq and the Gulf states as the “Arabian Gulf” rather than the long-accepted Persian Gulf, and sparked a demonstration by irate Iranian-Canadians.
And on Tuesday, Harper and his chief spokesman, Jason MacDonald, were slapped with a libel notice by the National Council of Canadian Muslims after it said MacDonald described the group as having “documented ties to a terrorist organization such as Hamas.” The council had earlier criticized the inclusion of a Toronto rabbi on Harper’s recent Mideast trip because the rabbi had introduced and praised two controversial American anti-Muslim campaigners who spoke in Toronto.
The council’s complaint was backed by a bevy of prominent human rights groups, including the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims, Amnesty International and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
“We’re asking for an unqualified apology and retraction for the damage that has already been done to our reputation,” said the council’s executive director, Ihsaan Gardee. “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.”
The PMO has not responded to the libel notice. In an emailed response, it told the Star that “as this matter may be the subject of litigation, we have no further comment.”
The recent commotions followed Harper’s trip to Israel and the Middle East, in which he staked out a position firmly on Israel’s side, and linked criticism of Israeli policies with a “new anti-Semitism.” It won praise from supporters of the Israeli government, and a blast of criticism from those who condemned it as a departure from a balanced foreign policy.
Others see the recent incidents as a kickoff to the 2015 election, when the Conservatives hope to widen their voter base. “It’s a secret handshake for supporters,” says Steven Staples, president of the Rideau Institute. “Most people wouldn’t pick up on it, but it’s intended for his party base. It’s all about the election.”
But the direction of the government’s foreign policy is not new, says Paul Heinbecker, a former Canadian diplomat and author of Getting Back in the Game.
“They are becoming more confident about being in government, but not necessarily better informed,” he says. “They are definitely changing the face of Canadian foreign policy.” And, he added, not in a good way for winning credibility abroad.
In Egypt, in spite of Harper’s positive words, there is little stability to boast of, says Cairo-based journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous, a fellow of the Nation Institute.
“The situation right now is one where clashes between protesters and police take place on a near-daily basis accompanied by mass arrests and people being killed on the streets, security forces and army soldiers are increasingly targeted in attacks by militants, charges are being brought against scholars and activists and journalists are thrown in prison, including a Canadian who has been in solitary confinement for a month.”
On the home front, too, criticism has reached critical mass in the past week, with ethnic communities and human rights groups on the attack.
The PMO spokesman’s alleged remark that the Muslim council had terrorist ties is “particularly troubling in the wider context in which outspoken voices of dissent both inside and outside of government have faced serious repercussions when they advanced views unpopular with the government,” said Alex Neve, who heads Amnesty International Canada.
“That has led to a growing climate within many circles whereby voices are being silenced.”
But Baird’s renaming of the Persian Gulf in a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce earlier this month also ignited the Iranian-Canadian community, which held a protest Tuesday, to demand an apology.
“Over the centuries historians and geographers have always referred to this Gulf as the Persian Gulf,” wrote Reza Moridi, Ontario’s minister of research and innovation, adding his voice in a statement urging action to “rectify this oversight.”
In his speech, Baird reiterated the regions he had visited, saying he had “put in the most time in places such as the Arabian Gulf, China and Southeast Asia.” But on Tuesday, his spokesman, Rick Roth, said that the description doesn’t signal a change in Canadian policy on the contentious gulf.
“Canada does not have a policy on the official geographic name of this body of water, which is bordered by six Arab states as well as Iran,” he said in a statement.
The U.S. as well as Canada has wavered on the name, which has become a political issue in Washington and the Middle East.
“Canada seems to be aligning itself with Saudi policy in the region,” says Roland Paris of University of Ottawa, a former foreign affairs and Privy Council adviser. “The Saudis view Iran as the mortal enemy and are increasingly active from Pakistan to Lebanon in a struggle to counter Iranian influence.”
(By Olivia Ward)