Is Canada finding it hard to stomach some of the Commonwealth members?

October 10th, 2013

By Ray Rivers

BURLINGTON, ON. One thing for sure about civil war is that it is never that – civil.  Whether we look back to the US civil war, Northern Ireland, Russia’s Chechnya, Rwanda, Syria or Sri Lanka, these conflicts were/are bloody and deadly.  There is something deeply personal about these family feud conflicts which engenders a certain zeal and passion, bringing out the worst in human-kind, and making human rights the first and last casualties.   So even after the fighting is over, the war continues, as the victor seeks to extinguish the lingering flames of revolution. 

Tamil Tiger – the political disruption has been going on for a long, long time. Canada now has the largest number of Tamil’s outside Sri Lanka.

Our prime minster is right to be outraged with the magnitude of what is still going on in Sri Lanka. But the conflict in that country is complicated, as is always the case.  Sri Lanka is a bilingual nation, not unlike Canada, and the Tamil quest for independence should make us all appreciate how close we came back in 1970, when our own terrorist Tamil Tigers, the FLQ, threatened the unity of this nation.  Recall that Trudeau, too, had been criticized for violating human rights by introducing the ‘War Measures Act’ which effectively disposed of the FLQ.   Like Sri Lanka, our issues of national unity also have their origins in the ashes of a well-meaning British colonial rule.

 Canada, as a modern developed nation, has a dominant position in the British Commonwealth and is also a significant source of funds for the organization.    So what we do and what we say should matter.  And if it doesn’t, perhaps we are not saying it effectively.  Leadership is about getting others to follow you, and so far Mr. Harper is alone in boycotting the next Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka. So what is behind his strategy?

 If we take Harper’s statement at his word, that this is all about human rights, then why was he just in Malaysia, concluding a big deal with those human rights violators.  In fact, if he were really that pious about human rights he might want to avoid the US, which is still operating its former torture facility in Cuba.  And, perhaps he needs to reflect on his own ‘glass house’ before casting stones, since it is likely the UN will be weighing in on human rights offenses alleged by our own aboriginal population.

 But will it make a difference?  Will Sri Lanka stop its human rights violations if the PM boycotts the meeting?  Trudeau and Mulroney played a key role in eliminating Apartheid in South Africa by engaging the rest of the membership, showing leadership and being there.  Can we really improve human rights in Sri Lanka by ‘taking our ball and staying home’?

 One of the purposes of the Commonwealth is to deal with issues like this between and within member nations.     There are committees, such as the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, where joint action, as was the case of South Africa, could be initiated.  Options include sanctions and expulsion of the delinquent nation form the Commonwealth.  If anything, the PM’s presence, not his absence, is what is most needed.

The Commonwealth of Nations: Has Prime Minister Harper given up on this lot?

It may be poor advice from the bureaucrats at the foreign affairs office which is driving the PM in this confusing and ill-conceived direction.  Or it might be something else – such as political opportunism.  The Tamil-Canadian population has grown to over a quarter of a million since the early 1980’s, making Canada home to the largest number of Tamil Diaspora.   The majority of this immigration settled in and around Toronto, an area the federal Conservatives would love to own after the next election.   And this PM is not afraid to use Canada’s international policy to try to attract voters to his party, as we have seen by his unquestioning support of Israel’s war actions since he first came to office. 

 Then why not just quit the British Commonwealth all together?  If Harper is saying he’d rather stay home than be at the table with a single errant Commonwealth member, then why not just quit the British Commonwealth all together?  There will always be errant members.  But Stephen Harper is unlikely to do that, the staunch monarchist that he is.  After all he renamed our military ‘Royal’, replaced the maple leaf with old British motifs, stuck the Queen’s picture in all our foreign embassies, and is loath to remove the oath to the Queen.   So perhaps the Commonwealth is just not good enough for our revisionist PM.  Perhaps he’d prefer to bring back the good old British Empire. 

 Ray Rivers, born in Ontario earned an economics degree at the University of Western Ontario and a Master’s degree in economics at the University of Ottawa.  His 25 year stint with the federal government included time with Environment, Fisheries and Oceans, Agriculture and the Post office.  Rivers is active in his community; has run for municipal and provincial office and held executive positions with Liberal Party riding associations.  He developed the current policy process for the Ontario Liberal Party.

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3 comments to Is Canada finding it hard to stomach some of the Commonwealth members?

  • Tony Pullin

    Mr. Rivers says “Leadership is about getting others to follow you, and so far Mr. Harper is alone in boycotting the next Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka.”
    What would Mr. Rivers have said if Mr. Harper chose NOT to boycott the next Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka? No opinion here, just curious as to what the alternative article would have been.

  • Brenda Oliver

    Good Points, Ray!

  • Navigator

    I disremember Trudeau having very much to do with the South African apartheid issue, although I do remember Mulroney gaining much credit for his stands. I wouldn’t bet on Harper not pulling out of the Commonwealth group. It really does not do much except act as an excuse for bureaucrats to take expensive trips around the world on somebody else’s dime (kind of reminds you of our Senate). I have no doubt that the visibility is for consumption of the Tamils at home. However, it took the Tories a long time to learn this strategy from the Liberals, so let them go with it for a while. Also, it is hard to understand why you think the PM’s support of Israel is in the same vote-grabbing category considering that there are only about 300,000 Jews in this country and around one million Muslims. I think on that one he is standing on principle.