Liberals, Tories wrangle over Canada’s role at Durban I

Speaker Peter Milliken refused to be drawn into the continuing squabbles between the Liberals and Conservatives in the House of Commons over what the truth is about Canada’s participation in the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa eight years ago.

Irwin Cotler

Milliken affirmed that it’s up to the procedures and house affairs committee to decide, if it sees fit, whether the claim made in a Conservative flyer sent last month to households in Liberal ridings with significant Jewish populations that the Liberal government of the day “willingly participated in overtly anti-Semitic Durban I” is factual.

On Nov. 30, MPs voted 151-137 in favour of a motion presented by Liberal Mount Royal MP Irwin Cotler that the flyer represents a breach of parliamentary privilege. The week before Milliken decided that a “prima facie” breach had occurred and that Cotler’s reputation and ability to perform his parliamentary functions have been hurt.

Mount Royal, where about 30 per cent of the electorate is Jewish, was one of the ridings where the flyer was mailed. Cotler, however, is not mentioned in the flyer.

The committee was set to hold its first hearing on the matter Dec. 8, when Cotler was scheduled to make a submission.

The matter took a new turn on Nov. 30, when National Post columnist John Ivison wrote that former Israeli ambassador to Canada Alan Baker disputed Cotler’s claim that the Israeli government had asked the Canadian government to remain at the 2001 Durban conference.

Baker said Israel asked Canada to withdraw, but after Ottawa directed the delegation to remain, Israel asked the Canadians to do what they could to tone down the conference’s final resolution.

The Jewish community denounced the conference as a platform for anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Baker, who described himself as the head of the Israeli delegation at Durban, is quoted as saying that Israel asked Canada, the United States and some European countries to withdraw from the conference. Cotler, as well as the signatories to a Nov. 23 open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, say Canada stayed at the conference at the request of the Israeli government. Cotler, a Liberal MP at the time, was a member of the Canadian delegation.

The next day, Manitoba Conservative MP Candice Hoeppner rose in the House to charge that the Liberal Party has been “caught red-handed misleading Canadians about its record on Israel,” citing Baker’s contradiction of Cotler’s claim and asked for an apology.

Cotler then rose to make a “correction” for the parliamentary record.

He stated that Baker did not head the Israeli delegation at Durban. “The person who headed the delegation was Rabbi Michael Melchior, then a deputy foreign minister of Israel, who publicly commended the Canadian government for staying in Durban to combat the anti-Semitism there. That is a matter of public record and that can be verified.”

Cotler also noted that Hedy Fry, who headed the Canadian delegation and continues to sit as a Liberal MP from Vancouver, “has said that she was never contacted by Mr. Baker and never was asked to leave Durban.”

Cotler stressed that the Canadian delegation “made its own independent decision to stay… willingly to combat the anti-Semitism in Durban. This was publicly commended by the Israeli government.”

He added that other governments, besides Israel, and non-governmental organizations also asked Canada to remain in Durban.

The Tory flyer makes comparisons between the Conservatives’ and Liberals’ record on Israel, anti-Semitism and terrorism. It boasts that the Harper government “led the world in refusing participation in [the] Durban II hate-fest against Israel” earlier this year. The flyer has not been withdrawn from circulation.

On Dec. 2, Ivision reported on his interview with Rabbi Melchior, who said he directed the Israeli delegation from Jerusalem. Rabbi Melchior said the Israeli government, then led by prime minister Ariel Sharon, did not ask Canada or any other delegation to leave Durban. Apparently, it did not explicitly asked Canada to remain either. “Not necessarily to stay, but it was important for us that Canadians led the battle in Durban against any anti-Semitic resolution.”

Cotler said in an interview with The CJN that the turnout for the vote on his motion – on a Monday night – drew an unusually high turnout, and that Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff cancelled his scheduled address to major donors to the party at a Montreal event in order to be present. Harper was also present. The motion had the support of all of the opposition parties.

Cotler said the Conservatives are “trying to undermine my credibility,” because his staunch support of Israel and Jewish concerns contradicts their assertion that the Liberals’ are soft on such issues.

But Pierre Poilievre, Harper’s parliamentary secretary, contended that the  “Conservative party has reversed the Liberal policy on the Middle East.”