Outrage over a sympathizer of Syria’s President Bashar Assad’s having been approved as that country’s honorary consul in Montreal emerged on the federal campaign trail Tuesday as the government scrambled for answers about how it happened.
Since Canada severed diplomatic ties with Damascus in 2012, the Syrian government has maintained honorary consulates in Montreal and Vancouver ostensibly to assist Syrians with passports and other administrative issues.
Yet concerns are being raised about Waseem Ramli, who is poised to become the latest person to hold that title in Montreal after his nomination by the Syrian government was quietly approved by Global Affairs Canada over the summer.
That is despite Ramli’s having repeatedly defended the Assad government on social media and railed against Western sanctions first imposed on Damascus after Assad began a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy activists in 2011.
That crackdown eventually erupted into a civil war that, over the past eight years, has left hundreds of thousands dead and forced millions more to flee, including tens of thousands to Canada.
Ramli has also described members of the White Helmets humanitarian organization as terrorists, according to Maclean’s magazine, which first reported on the new consul’s appointment.
Speaking at a campaign event in Burnaby, B.C., on Tuesday, where he was unveiling part of the Liberal party’s climate-change plan, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government was “quite seized” with the issue.
“I have personally spoken with (Foreign Affairs) Minister (Chrystia) Freeland this morning, who has assured me that she is looking very carefully into how this has happened and (will) ensure that we have next steps to share with you soon,” he said.
During a separate campaign event south of Montreal, Freeland described Ramli’s comments as “shocking” and repeated that neither she nor her political staff knew his nomination by Damascus had been approved by Global Affairs Canada.
“Let me be very clear that in my view, the current situation is unacceptable and we intend to respond very quickly,” she said, though she added: “I think it’s important to act with speed, but not with haste. And it’s important to hear out the public service.”
At his own campaign event in Thorold, Ont., Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said it was “outrageous” that Ottawa had approved Ramli’s appointment and demanded Freeland “do more than just a review.”
“This individual should never have been appointed in the first place,” Scheer said. “Again we see people who hold extreme views who have made anti-Semitic comments and who sympathize with terrorists seem to feel welcome in the Liberal party of Canada.”
Ramli has insisted in several media interviews that even though he supports Assad, his comments on social media are within his rights as a Canadian citizen and his political beliefs won’t interfere with his role delivering services to Syrians.
Honorary consulates serve many of the same roles as other diplomatic missions, including processing visas and promoting trade and cultural relations, but are generally smaller than full embassies or consulates and are not headed by a career diplomat.
In some cases, an honorary consul is actually a citizen of the country in which the diplomatic mission is located and does the work part-time. Foreign countries have dozens of them in Canada.
While such nominees are usually approved with minimal concern or political attention, former Canadian ambassador Ferry de Kerckhove said the appointment of a new Syrian honorary consul should have been flagged given the country involved.
“I’m baffled that it wouldn’t have gone up,” said Kerckhove, who has been Canada’s top diplomat in Pakistan, Indonesia and Egypt.
“I would have assumed somebody in the chain of command would have said: ‘Hey guys, bugger off, we’re not going to do that.’ Or: ‘Let’s wait until we bring it to the minister.’ … I’m somewhat surprised nobody at the political level seems to have known.”
This isn’t the first time the Syrian consulate in Montreal has caused headaches for the government.
Then-foreign affairs minister John Baird found himself under fire in 2014 when he met Syria’s then-honorary consul in Montreal Nelly Kanou, a meeting Baird’s office later alleged was set up under false pretenses.
A pharmacist and owner of several Jean Coutu stores, Kanou was also an outspoken supporter of Assad.
According to Montreal’s La Presse newspaper, she pleaded guilty to Quebec’s college of pharmacists in 2015 to exporting $1.5-million worth of medication without the necessary permits between 2008 and 2011.
Some Syrian-Canadians have previously said they were torn over the fact the two honorary consulates have been allowed to continue quietly providing passport and other services in Canada even as the death toll in Syria mounted.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press