Canada’s new foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion has a mixed record on the Arab-Israeli conflict over his long political career.
Dion, a former Université de Montréal (UdeM) political science professor originally from Quebec City, has since 1996 represented the Montreal riding of St. Laurent, home to a significant Jewish community and increasingly large Arab and Muslim population.
Both communities have traditionally voted Liberal, and Dion has endeavoured to walk a fine line on the Middle East.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s tapping Dion for this key post comes as something of a surprise, because fellow veteran Montreal MP Marc Garneau of Westmount-Notre Dame de Grâce, a vocal supporter of Israel, had been foreign affairs critic. Dion, who led the party from 2006 to 2008, handled the intergovernmental affairs and heritage portfolios.
It was in the city (now borough) of St. Laurent in 2004 where a Jewish elementary school, United Talmud Torahs (UTT), was firebombed by a Lebanese-born Muslim teenager in retaliation, he said, for Israel’s killing of a Hamas leader.
Dion, then a cabinet minister, came to the school that morning to denounce the hate crime, which was later judged to be an act of terrorism. However, he had to backpedal on a comment to the effect that it was regrettable that this happened when not all Jews support the policies of then-Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.
He clarified that, “No matter what one’s opinion of the Sharon government’s actions, violence is never an acceptable response. When I said, ‘Why link all Canadian Jews with the policy of a government?’ it was in the context of expressing my admiration for the pluralism of opinions among the Jews of Canada and elsewhere.”
At the 2006 party convention where he was selected leader, Dion in his speech ridiculed the new “very right-wing” Conservative government for modelling Canadian foreign policy on that of the United States.
“Today we have… a prime minister who is mirroring the style of his hero to the point that [then-] president [George W.] Bush should be getting royalties from Mr. Harper’s speeches.”
He had been critical of former prime minister Stephen Harper’s support of Israel during its conflict with Hezbollah that summer, calling for a more even-handed approach and an immediate ceasefire.
During that war, Dion wrote in a Globe and Mail article: “When one believes a friend to be mistaken, one should say so,” and he suggested that the Lebanese civilian casualties and “breadth of destruction” may increase support for Hezbollah and weaken the Lebanese state without strengthening Israel’s security.
Dion stood by those opinions in a conference call with the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee. He also said Canada should send humanitarian aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA), then ruled by Hamas, through “third parties.”
Dion had two prominent Jewish community backers in his leadership bid – businessman Stephen Bronfman and former MP and ambassador to Israel David Berger, but few grassroots Jewish delegates supported him.
Jews have appreciated Dion, father of the Clarity Act, for his strong defence of national unity over the years.
However, less than a year into his leadership, Dion was in hot water with the Jewish community for handpicking Jocelyn Coulon, an academic and commentator critical of Israel and the United States, as the Liberal candidate in the Outremont byelection.
Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) and B’nai Brith Canada were dismayed by Coulon’s view that the international community should talk to Hamas. He retracted that position after a meeting with community leaders.
Dion had personally chosen Coulon, a UdeM professor, to play a role in moving Canada’s foreign policy away from “the current Conservative government’s Republican-style approach.”
In the end it did not help: Coulon lost the Liberal stronghold to Thomas Mulcair, only the second New Democrat MP ever elected in Quebec.
As Liberal leader, Dion reiterated his belief that Canada should restore aid and normal relations with the PA after the dissolution of its Hamas-led government and ascendancy of President Mahmoud Abbas. He was also opposed to extending the Canadian combat mission in Afghanistan beyond what was then a February 2009 limit.
He continued to contend that the Harper government’s foreign policy was in step with the Bush administration, which had hurt Canada’s reputation on the international stage.
“Canada, despite its long legacy of mediation and expertise in the Middle East, has not even been invited to the table [of a new round of peace talks]… Because what can Canada bring to the table if at present our foreign policy is a carbon copy-in-the-making of American foreign policy?” he said at fundraising dinner for the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations.
Reiterating his party’s support for a two-state solution, he said the Liberals “urge all parties in the region to respect international humanitarian law and avoid at all costs the targeting of innocent civilians and civilian infrastructure.”
On the other hand, in 2005, Dion, as minister responsible for Parks Canada, oversaw the recognition of the 1919 founding of CJC as an event of national historic significance.
And although it was implemented by the Harper government, Dion is credited with proposing increased subsidies to enhance the security of religious and other community institutions at risk, which was motivated by the UTT attack.
As party leader, he attended the big Israeli independence day rallies in downtown Montreal.
In 2007, Dion accused then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of “inciting another Holocaust” and said the defence of Israel should be the concern of all democracies. “Any threat to Israel’s right to exist is an attack on the values of every democracy. Israel’s struggle for peace and security is our struggle.”
Likewise, combating anti-Semitism should be the concern of all people, he said.
Under Dion, the Liberals voted against the Conservative government’s beefing up provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Act, introduced after 9/11. The party’s human rights critic, Mount Royal MP Irwin Cotler, however, abstained from the House of Commons vote, saying he favoured the motion, but did not think it provided adequate safeguards against abuse of power.
Despite this break with party ranks, Cotler insisted he and Dion, as former fellow academics, remained good friends.
It was Dion who created the new position of human rights for Cotler within his shadow cabinet. The two collaborated on such issues as combatting the slaughter of innocents in the Darfur region of Sudan.
In more recent years, Cotler and Dion found themselves allies in fending off Conservative accusations made in flyers distributed in areas with significant Jewish residents in 2009 and later during the 2011 federal election.
The Conservatives insinuated that the Liberals were ready to deal with Hamas and were complicit in such anti-Semitic forums as the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.
The flyer charged that Dion “personally demanded that Canada increase funding to the Hamas-led [Palestinian Authority.]”
Dion rose in the House of Commons to defend his leadership, stating, “The Liberal Party never supported that funds would be sent to the Hamas-led [Palestinian] government. What we were asking was whether the funds would reach the people of Palestine. This point of view was the point of view of the government of Israel at the time.”
Cotler, who castigated the flyer as false and malicious, said it libelled Dion and he demanded an apology – which the Tories never made.