Listen Up! Using immigrants and refugees as political trophies is just plain wrong

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Hugh Mackenzie
Huntsville Doppler

Not the Canadian way

In an article I wrote recently, I mentioned my belief that Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, was a strong and highly visible member of the Trudeau Cabinet and that it would not surprise me if, in due course, she sought to become Prime Minister. This week, she signalled pretty clearly that this is what she has in mind as well, and she did it in a manner that was a huge mistake and potentially dangerous. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has every reason to be looking over his shoulder.

Yesterday, a young Saudi Arabian woman arrived in Canada, having sought refugee status here, because she believed her life was in danger from dominant male members of her family who felt she was “dishonouring” them. Chrystia Freeland thought it was a wonderful idea for a photo op and took full advantage of it. About that, according to CBC Radio, a former Canadian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia said this: “If the government insists on ‘milking’ her arrival in Canada, it could put the young woman in danger.”

Canada, as it should be, has always been at the forefront of welcoming refugees seeking asylum status.

Some may remember the time when Prime Minister Stephen Harper, returning from the G-8 Summit in St. Petersburg, diverted his government plane to pick up refugees in Cyprus. While there are no figures yet available for 2018, in 2017, Canada opened its arms to 47,800 asylum seekers. I wonder how many of them were personally welcomed by a Minister of The Crown. But then, that was not an election year.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is in danger to a much higher degree than she may have been if Minister Freeland had just stayed out of the picture. It is true that the young woman’s plight went viral, since she barricaded herself in a Thailand hotel room, refusing to go back to Saudi Arabia. Had she done so, she quite likely would have been subjected to Sharia Law and possibly be executed by now. At best, she would have been told to whom she would be married and obedient to. It is good that she came here. But her entry into Canada could and should have been handled differently.

Saudi Arabia is already unhappy with Canada and they have retaliated simply because our government was critical of them on a human rights issue. To see a Saudi citizen given asylum in Canada because her life in her homeland was at risk will “dishonour” the Saudis from their point of view. To see a senior member of Canada’s government visibly sanctioning the accusation will infuriate them.

So what? one might say. Who cares if the Saudis are pissed off at Canada? Well, there is a ‘so what?’, and it is not so much about Canada as it is about Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun. One need go back only a decade to remember the horrific “honour killing” near Kingston, Ontario, where four members of the Shafia family were murdered by their parents and brothers. That was right here at home! And, of course, there is the small matter of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was often critical of the government in Saudi Arabia. He was chopped to bits quite recently, in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul, Turkey. Clearly, they are not known to be kind to people who tarnish the image they wish to portray to the world.

Chrystia Freeland’s appearance with Ms. al-Qunun was nothing more than political football. There was simply no other reason for it. It put a larger target on the young woman’s back than was already there and it will make ensuring her safety in Canada much more difficult. Photo ops happen all the time in politics, but this one was a serious mistake. It is too much to hope that Mr. Trudeau will remember that when he shuffles his cabinet tomorrow.

Canada has always been generous when welcoming immigrants and refugees seeking asylum. In 2017,
286,000 people were granted permanent residency here and it is projected that one million immigrants
will come to Canada over the next three years. We rank ninth in the world for the number of new
residents we welcome. But we have always done this under the radar with little fanfare. In my view, we
should keep it that way. Using immigrants and refugees as political trophies is just plain wrong. It is not
the Canadian way.

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16 Comments

  1. S. Derek Shelly on

    It is sad to say the least in that Ms. Freeland does seem to be putting herself in the forfront of this case and I agree that it was truly a photo opportunity for her. I too had a lot of respect for her, but felt it somewhat diminished yesterday.

  2. Hugh this is now the liberal way.Trudeau welcomed the first Syrians at Toronto when they arrived. The ones who came to Huntsville were not welcomed the same by the way.
    Photo ops are the way not substance in Government

  3. Hugh – and everyone else on the Facebook comment thread, so quick to judge.

    This story isn’t about a photo-op for Chystia Freeland (who is doing a great job I might add). It is about promoting hope to women who are currently stuck in situations that Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun was able to escape. Freeland has been a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women.

    A number of countries came to Rahaf’s aid, Canada acted the fastest. And it isn’t just a bandaid that was provided, it was a long-term solution. Any country would have wanted to “showcase” this level of support. Her story made world news – it is human nature of there to be follow up. I don’t see any issue with documenting that publicly as it is our job to set an example for the rest of the world as leaders in democracy and acceptance.

    Instead of spreading your speculations of ill-intent, you could have focused your article on how proud we should be to be apart of a country that has reaffirmed its commitment to refugees and asylum seekers on a national scale.

  4. Hugh: You describe the scene at the airport as a “political football.” I regard it as an embarrassment. The usually composed and professional Ms Freeland embarrassed herself–and the rest of us– by trotting out this unfortunate young woman like she was a new puppy found under the Christmas tree. The minister’s giddy spectacle for the media will make it more difficult for this teenager to establish a normal life in this new culture and climate—not to mention elevating security concerns. The media and politicians should leave this newcomer alone and focus on the wider issues facing all refugees. But don’t count on it. Only in Canada you say. Pity.

    • On this I agree with you Mr. MacKenzie. I keep wondering why we are being so blatant abut our distain of the Saudis. Don’t get me wrong I have a lot of distain for what they do, how they live, choices they make. Our decision to take this young woman in, okay…good. And so we should. But to flaunt it. Poor taste. Canadians are better than that.

  5. I must be naive not to see what everyone but Ms. Aben sees. I admit that there is a bit of politicking being done but no grandstanding or Machiavellian undertones are evident.
    I have a hard time trying to understand how Rahaf will not be able to seamlessly fit into our society. She is visibly different but then again so are First Nations people and they fit in, don’t they? Give the poor woman a break and let her live a life that only we in Canada can give her.

  6. I can’t believe how hard people work to find ways to complain about what is basically very good news. This woman would have been murdered as an ‘honour’ killing had this not happened. Such murderers have even taken place in Canada. Well done Canada!

  7. Hugh ~
    Could not disagree more. The time has come to openly confront authoritarian oppression, of women, of human rights, of core freedoms by China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran and others. The young Saudi woman’s identity was public long before her plane departed Thailand. If human rights and the rights of women to not be oppressed and controlled in feudal societies are not front and centre, what is? Minister Freeland deserves immense credit. I am disappointed that in defiance of the traditions of John Diefenbaker, Bill Davis, Brian Mulroney, you would tip toe through the tulips rather than proclaim our support for human and feminist rights openly and with pride!

    • Hugh Mackenzie on

      Hugh, You know me well enough to be aware that I am that I am fully and openly in support of human and women’s rights and that confronting it where it exists, is important. There is not one word in my article to suggest otherwise. The point of my column was that this vulnerable young women was used for what I believe were political purposes, in a manner that increases her exposure to danger from a country with a reputation for retaliation. This unnecessary exposure, with a Minister of the Crown, will escalate the protection she will need and will limit her ability to fully enjoy the freedoms that Canada has to offer. I do not believe you would have condoned putting this young woman at further risk and using her as a prop, when you were so ably serving Prime Ministers and Premiers.

      • Having read Hugh’s article and the many people who have challenged it; I am filled with thankfulness. I am thankful that we live in a country where we have the freedom of speech to disagree with each other publicly; I am thankful that a journalist has provoked our thinking about morality; and I am thankful we were able to help one of the millions of oppressed women in this world. This is the truest sign of a beautiful society and it makes me proud. Keep on arguing…the conversation taking place here is worth having.

  8. This article correctly points out that the case of this woman went viral while she was seeking refuge in Thailand. In other words it was international news and covered the world over. Naturally the country that accepted her as a refugee was also covered globally. This was not a situation where it was possible to fly “under the radar” as this article would suggest.
    So, I am hard pressed to understand why Canadians and the Government of Canada should not be proud of our values, who we are and the actions we take.
    The official welcoming of this women to Canada was symbolic of our values and commitment to gender equity.
    Well done Minister Freeland.

  9. The Liberals would be wise to run Freeland as a candidate in the next election. She would be a very presentable and formidable candidate who would be hard to assail. In sharp contrast to Trudeau who is lugging a ton of baggage and getting worse.
    How likely is that to happen?
    As far as this photo op goes in the circumstances it was just too tempting to pass it up.
    I’d call it a bit crass.

  10. Greg Reuvekamp on

    Senator Segal above states the time has come to confront authoritarian and despotic regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. The time to do this was actually 15+ years ago, when Zahra Kazemi (a Canadian citizen) was tortured and killed in Iran, and when Bill Sampson (another Canadian) was framed and tortured in Saudi Arabia. The Liberal government in power at the time failed both of these citizens, especially so in the case of Mr. Sampson, where Liberal minister Don Boudria saw direct evidence of his torture and did nothing.

    I’m happy to see that this woman has been rescued, but the overall record of the Liberals on these files remains empty words and not much more.

  11. Ms. Freeland has been a critic of Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women for some time. Her compassionate reaction in coming to Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun’s aid – as well as her warm, personal welcome – should be praised rather than viewed as suspect.

    The fact is that Canada’s welcome is a newsworthy and photo-worthy event that provides concrete evidence of Canada’s commitment to human rights. The thoroughness of the Saudi regime in silencing opponents has significantly increased since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman came to power in 2017. Why should Canada kowtow to that? Fear of ‘pissing them off’ is not reason enough to shut up.

    Yes, there are countless others who deserve to be saved too but right now we should be happy about saving this one young woman. We don’t always get an opportunity to save a life but we did in this case and why shouldn’t it be documented?

    Might it also be a bit of politicking? Maybe, but that knife can cut two ways and the reaction of some to this story shows that it is jut as likely to outrage the right as it is to inspire the left.

    This is good news. Let’s celebrate it.

  12. Ms. Freeland is indeed a courageous woman. When working as a Reuters journalist in Moscow, she was instrumental in helping American Bill Browder escape from the certain imprisonment and death that befell his young Russian lawyer named Magnitsky. That incident resulted in the US Magnitsky act sanctions on Russia. In this case, it is possible that by showing her support (as an influential government official) for the young Saudi woman, it will make anyone seeking revenge much more cautious. After the Saudi regime (that claims to want human rights reforms) severely damaged their reputation with the brutal Khashoggi murder, they should want to more cautious now. In both cases, Ms. Freeland chose to “Light a candle rather than curse the darkness”. The world needs to light a lot more candles.

  13. Hugh Segal, in his post yesterday, reminded us of the fact that post-1945 Canada has had a fairly robust tradition of ‘openly confront[ing] authoritarian oppression, of women, of human rights, of core freedoms.’ For example, most Canadians today are likely oblivious to the fact that it was Canada’s prime minister, John Diefenbaker (mentioned by Segal as part of this tradition), who at a crucial time in the history of the Commonwealth, took the lead role in opposing the readmission of the white-supremacist Republic of South Africa as a member of the Commonwealth in December 1961 because of its racist apartheid system. (see shot clip from CBC Archives of an interview with the Prime Minister at the pivotal 1961 Commonwealth Conference in London).
    Of course, what has dramatically changed since 1961, as is revealed in this CBC interview with Prime Minister Diefenbaker, has been the revolution in and the democratization of accessibility to technology in reporting on and responding to unfolding international events – and with that, the art of mastering the narrative and the image for consumption and interpretation on world-wide social media as demonstrated this past week with the claims and counterclaims of ‘political trophies.’
    https://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/south-africa-out-of-the-commonwealth

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