|CanWest News Service|
OTTAWA – As Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier begins his first Middle East tour, Canadian Muslims have written off trying to engage the Harper Conservatives on the troubled region.
The Canadian Islamic Congress says it has been continually snubbed by the Conservative government and says it has abandoned trying to influence Canada’s efforts to play a role in the Middle East peace process until the next federal election in Canada.
“We gave up on having a constructive dialogue with the current government on any foreign policy issue,” Mohammed Elmasry, president of the CIC, said in an interview Tuesday as Bernier began a six-day trip that was to start today in Saudi Arabia.
Bernier has also sandwiched in a two-day trip to India before doubling back to the Middle East where he will end his tour with two days in the West Bank and Israel starting Sunday.
It has been a year since Bernier’s predecessor, Peter MacKay, visited the troubled region. For the most part, MacKay avoided trouble in a part of the world that is a political minefield for rookie international statesmen such as himself and Bernier, not to mention some seasoned politicians.
Bernier kept a low profile on the eve of his first major international trip, declining interviews and, as far as Canada’s leading Islamic group is concerned, they don’t care if Bernier is ever heard from again.
The CIC says that the two men who have served as foreign ministers in the Conservative government have refused to meet members of their organization.
“We tried to communicate our position on Afghanistan, on the Middle East on U.S. interference in Lebanon, the threat of the U.S. on Iran,” said Elmasry. “It is either following the lead of the U.S. or it doesn’t have a policy of its own.
“Either way, it is really bad for Canada and for the people of the area.”
After nearly two years of being snubbed, the CIC says it will cool its heels on trying to lobby the government until the Conservative minority is defeated in Parliament and Canadians go to the polls.
“This government right now is on the last leg of its life. We hope that we have an election sooner than later in ’08,” said Elmasry.
In the meantime, the group says it will concentrate on the two Toronto-area ridings and Vancouver Quadra, where federal byelections are scheduled for March 17 to fill vacant seats in the House of Commons.
If the Conservatives hope to one day win a majority, they must make in-roads in Canada’s major urban centres. Muslim and Arab groups have threatened in the past to campaign against the Conservatives over what they view as a tilt towards Israel and an abandonment of Canada’s role as a neutral player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The issue came to a boil in the summer of 2006 when Canadian Arabs and Muslims reacted angrily to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comments over Israel’s decision to bomb Lebanon in pursuit of Hezbollah terrorists.
“It’s now beyond (being) pro-Israel. It doesn’t have a clear policy for any foreign issue,” said Elmasry.
In a prepared statement before he departed earlier this week, Bernier said he was bringing a message of Canadian support to both sides in the conflict.
“We support the efforts that will lead to a peaceful and comprehensive resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, including the creation of a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel.”
A senior government official said Bernier has worked hard behind the scenes at a series of international meetings to engage both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, since taking over the Foreign Affairs portfolio late last summer.
The Conservative government has since restored some of the spending it had previously cut to the Palestinian Authority, $8 million in all, shortly before MacKay was shuffled out of the portfolio, while Bernier committed Canada to $300 million over five years to the Palestinians at last month’s international donors’ conference in Paris, the official said.
“He announced $300 million. I think that’s more than words, that’s deeds, that’s money. It positively reinforces the momentum,” said the senior official.
But Elmasry dismissed Canada’s latest round of spending towards Palestinians.
“It’s a photo-op and basically trying to be nice to American colleagues.”