Harper remains silent on rights agency fiasco
Only a handful of non-Canadians, such as Nelson Mandela, have been bestowed the Order of Canada. Last year, Dr. Sima Samar of Afghanistan was so honoured, for defending human rights, especially women’s rights – the same values that are at the core of Canada’s Afghan mission.
So it’s highly embarrassing that she has resigned in protest from the board of Canada’s leading human rights agency, Rights and Democracy. She quit over what she felt were the autocratic and ideological ways of its Stephen Harper appointees, especially the chair, Aurel Braun, professor of political science at the U of T.
She walked out at a board meeting in Toronto Jan. 7, when Braun and cohorts (enjoying a majority for the first time) pushed through several items on which they had been battling Remy Beauregard, the president of the Montreal-based agency.
They “repudiated” his granting of about $10,000 each to Israel’s human rights group, B’Tselem, and two Palestinian groups after the Israeli war on Gaza last year.
They tossed out a Beauregard ally, Riveros Franck, a Bolivian pro-democracy activist, though he had agreed to serve a second term.
Braun and allies had earlier authored a negative evaluation of Beauregard, overturning a previous positive one. I am told they spent $17,000 waging a legal battle to keep their deliberations secret.
Samar said over the phone from Kabul that she found it incongruous that a centre dedicated to human rights had violated the rights of its top employee; that rather than being transparent, it was secretive; and instead of standing up for the victims of human rights violations, it was siding with the violators.
Four of Beauregard’s predecessors – including Ed Broadbent and Warren Allmand – called on Harper to hold an inquiry. And 45 of 47 staff at the agency demanded the resignation of Braun, as well as vice-chair Jacques Gauthier and director Elliot Tepper.
Braun has since said it is ridiculous to blame him and others for Beauregard’s sudden death. They were only doing their job as they saw fit, while they felt he wasn’t.
But Broadbent feels differently. He told me: “I do not recall, in my long public life, such an unwarranted assault on a senior public servant, none, and I don’t recall a sequence of events where you had such a total undermining of a PMO appointee being treated so shabbily and dying in the middle of it.
“Without drawing a direct parallel, I can think of only one incident, Herbert Norman, our envoy to Egypt, a friend of Lester B. Pearson, committing suicide” – in 1957, after having been accused of being a Communist sympathizer.
“That was the McCarthy era.”
Samar was quoted by the National Post Saturday as saying: “Honestly, I thought that maybe we speeded up his passing away with the stress we put on him.”
Harper has yet to comment on the controversy. That’s in keeping with his silence last year on two letters to the government from dissident directors complaining about Braun’s actions.
In November, the cabinet named two new board members. They ended up siding with Braun, thus completing the hostile takeover.
While lacking that majority, Braun cancelled a meeting in October, at a cost of $15,000 in non-refundable air tickets and translation contract, says one source.
Since Beauregard’s death, Braun has issued a blizzard of denials and explanations. He called a board meeting for last Friday. The staff in Montreal said the office was to be closed that day, in memory of Beauregard whose funeral was Saturday.
Braun went ahead with the meeting, anyway, in Toronto. The board appointed an interim president – none other than Gauthier, the vice-chair whose resignation the staff had demanded.
The standoff continues.
There remains the larger issue of Harper emasculating institutions that used to operate at arm’s-length, independent of the partisan needs and ideology of the ruling party.
“This is another example of another independent agency having their independence either totally ignored or squashed or interfered with,” Broadbent said.
“This is extraordinarily serious in terms of Canadian democracy.”
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