When genocide became a political prop in Ottawa

  • Written by:

By Martin Patriquin.
There are about 400,000 Yazidis living in the Sinjar region of northern Iraq. Their religion — a conflation of Christianity and Islam — deifies Melek Taus (also known as the ‘Peacock Angel’). This fact puts them at odds with the roughly eight million mostly Sunni Muslims in northern Iraq, and the 220 million or so living in the Middle East.

Sectarian violence and intensifying religious extremism in the region have led to a campaign of genocide against the Yazidi people. Since 2014, ISIL has killed over 10,000 Yazidis (and likely many more), brutalizing the remaining population through “sexual slavery, enslavement, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment and forcible transfer causing serious bodily and mental harm,” according to a 2016 United Nations report.

It is a clear and unambiguous tragedy. It’s also still happening; upwards of 4,000 women and girls are in ISIL’s grasp, used and sold for sexual slavery. Last fall, the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion put forth by Conservative MP Michelle Rempel to call this campaign of murder and slavery what it is — a campaign of genocide — and to expedite the processing of Yazidi refugees coming to these shores. About 1,200 Yazidis will resettle here by the end of the year, according to Immigration and Citizenship Canada.

Why has this taken so long? Because over the three years when the Yazidis were being slaughtered, their rescue was being stymied in part by sectarian politicking by Canadian politicians — who either championed the Yazidi cause or dragged their feet on the issue for purely partisan reasons.

First, credit where it’s due. In introducing the Yazidi motion, then corralling her own party and the governing Liberals into a unanimous vote, Rempel showed her genuine devotion to the Yazidi people. She should be commended for sticking with the issue even as the news cycle lost interest in a tragedy taking place some 10,000 kilometres from her riding. Her work has saved lives, and improved the lives of many others.
open quote 761b1bHarper, venturing into his fourth federal campaign on a tough-on-terrorism platform, didn’t much like the idea of importing several thousand Sunni Muslim refugees just before an election.

That it took until now for her efforts to bear fruit testifies to the brutally divisive, zero-sum nature of Rempel’s place of work.

Stephen Harper, our 22nd prime minister and Rempel’s former boss, set the tone early. In 2015, in reaction to the ongoing Syrian crisis, Harper said Canada would give priority to Christian refugees from that country.

His stated reason was to recognize the plight of persecuted religious minorities — as though Syria’s bombs and ISIL’s savagery were killing only Christians, not members of the Muslim majority.

The unspoken reason was pretty obvious. Harper, venturing into his fourth federal campaign on a tough-on-terrorism platform, didn’t much like the idea of importing several thousand Sunni Muslim refugees just before an election. In fact, his ‘barbaric cultural practices’ hotline proposal alone implied a good many Conservative supporters believed these Muslims were going to circumcise their wives en masse immediately upon arrival here, if they hadn’t done so already.

Like Syrian Christians, Iraqi Yazidis were an attractive prospect for Harper — if not specifically for the Conservative government, then certainly for its proxies in the more pungent recesses of the internet. The Yazidis became a cause célèbre for The Rebel — then the party’s de facto media mouthpiece — which reported extensively on their plight. Which would have been fine, had their reporters not spent nearly the same amount of time demonizing Muslims facing the very same mortal threats in Syria.

On the other side of the ideological aisle, the Liberals were running a equally cynical shell game with potential refugees. The party promised to bring in 25,000 refugees by the end of 2015. This commendable initiative undoubtedly saved lives; it also served as a very effective wedge issue in the 2015 campaign, casting Liberal righteousness against Conservative knuckle-dragging nativism.

The party of Justin Trudeau didn’t quite relinquish its cheery cynicism once it won the election. In the summer of 2016, the Liberals voted against a similar Conservative motion condemning the Yazidi genocide campaign. You’d think a party so quick to tout its humanitarian bona fides would back a motion condemning systematic rape, murder, torture and enslavement without a second thought.

The official reason the Trudeau government gave for voting against the motion was that it wanted to wait to determine if labelling the systematic murder of 10,000 people from an identifiable group as genocide would be “appropriate” — even though the deaths were well documented at that point and the United Nations itself called it a genocide the day after the vote.

There was an unofficial reason, of course (there always is). The Liberals couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a motion decrying genocide … because it came from the Conservative party.

It took four months — and Rempel’s gumption — to get the Liberals to vote in favour of what was essentially the same motion.

One wonders if they did it out of shame.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.

When genocide became a political prop in Ottawa