There is a somewhat troubling article in MacLean’s about another “foreign policy folly” involving our immature prime minister and his hyper-partisan campaign team which now masquerades as his PMO. The story one again involves South Asia, but troubled Sri Lanka this time, and Daniel Jean, although this time he was, as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, acting entirely properly, no matter what some equally partisan commentators might say. (The image, on the right, is from January 2018 when Prime Minister Trudeau, dressed in what we must hope is Sri Lankan fashion, attends a rice ceremony, marking the start of the Tamil festival, Thai Pongal, in Toronto.)
The issue is fairly simple: Sri Lanka was torn by a brutal and bloody civil war between the majority Sinhalese (Buddhist) and minority Tamil communities. During the 19th century the Tamils spread throughout the Asia part of the British Empire, some as poor, illiterate forces labourers but others as businessmen … the latter provided leadership which allowed the Tamils to become, today, a large and valued diaspora. In the 1980s and 1990s the Sri Lankan Tamils began to migrate to Canada, eventually becoming (with a population in Toronto, alone, of over 150,000) the largest Tamil community outside Asia. The Tamils who came to Canada were educated and sophisticated and became, quickly, politically active. In fact one of the reasons that many people in the federal bureaucracy detested Prime Minister Harper was that he was perceived to be “pandering” to the Tamils and actually tailoring Canadian foreign policy to meet the demands of one, local ethnic group … of course similar complaints were made against Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, too. The Tamils were perceived to be able to “deliver” a handful of Toronto seats and their voice was loud, well organized and effective. But some elements in the Tamil-Canadian community were supporters of the Tamil Tigers who were, according to our security services, a real terrorist group and politicians of all parties did have trouble separating one from the other.
The foreign policy fumble which then Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Daniel Jean raised with Team Trudeau involved something as minor as a holiday greeting. “In May 2016,” Ethan Lou writes in the MacLean’s article (linked above), “Jean, then-deputy foreign affairs minister, wrote at least two separate internal briefing notes about the damage to Canada-Sri Lanka relations that could result from the lack of inclusiveness in Trudeau’s greetings for the Tamil New Year, Puthandu, which happens usually on April 14 … [but] … Trudeau’s statement — “clearly out of step with the messaging of like-minded countries” [in Jean’s words] — did not mention the Sinhalese Buddhist event Aluth Avurudda, which happens on the same day, according to the briefing notes, obtained under access-to-information laws.“
What’s the big deal? It was early in 2016, Justin Trudeau was still feeling his way, why the fuss? Well, in official Ottawa, in Brian Mulroney’s, Jean Chrétien’s, Paul Martin’s and Stephen Harper’s official Ottawa, anyway, it was normal practice for Foreign Affairs bureaucrats to draft all congratulatory messages like the one that the PM would issue on Sri Lanka’s New Year, or, at least, vet them. The practice was because the “desk officers” in the Pearson Building knew the customs and culture and ongoing, day by day, issues with each country and would ensure that every message was proper, inclusive and non-offensive. But in Justin Trudeau’s official Ottawa the PMO ~ Gerald Butts and Katie Telford et al ~ have usurped any function that looks even remotely connected to electoral success and the put partisan (Liberal) political calculations far, far ahead of Canadian foreign policy. Thus, the article explains “It is unclear if the notes’ contents ever made it to Trudeau, who, despite his progressive image of valuing cultural diversity, did not appear to have heeded Sri Lanka’s concerns or listened to Jean’s advice … [because] … Trudeau issued statements for the Tamil New Year in 2017 and this month again without mentioning the Sinhalese event … [and] … A spokesperson for the South Asian country, Mahishini Colonne, says it would have been more appropriate if Trudeau’s greetings had also mentioned the Sinhalese Buddhist event, as the United Kingdom has done, or if he had addressed all Sri Lankans without mentioning specific holidays, as the United States has done. Sri Lanka’s concerns “still remain valid and relevant,” she says.“
This is another example of the permanent campaign that threatens Canadian policy interests. It is not new to Justin Trudeau, it was imported from the US back, circa, 1990, by the Chrétien Liberals, but it has reached a peak or, maybe more properly, nadir, under Team Trudeau.