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How events unfolded after foreign affairs minister sent tweet rebuking Saudi Arabia

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Months before a firestorm erupted over a federal government tweet criticizing a Saudi civil rights crackdown, Canadian diplomats had been trying to delicately address the issue behind closed doors.

Those efforts came crashing down after Global Affairs Canada publicly called out Saudi Arabia on Twitter for arresting activists and demanded their release.

A trove of over a thousand pages of emails and memos from officials in Ottawa and the Canadian Embassy in Riyadh, obtained by CBC News through an Access to Information request, tells the story of how events unfolded.

Earlier tweets elicited no reaction

While it was the tweets in early August that triggered an international diplomatic crisis, tweets posted May 23 similar in tone and message seemingly went unnoticed. That same day, Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland made a statement during question period condemning the arrests of activists.

Redacted emails from an unknown sender had two days earlier recommended against issuing any public statements or tweets and instead proposed alternative approaches. The concern was that a show of support for the civil rights activists would feed rumours that they were working on behalf of foreign embassies.

During the summer, the Canadian Embassy requested meetings with Saudi officials to follow up on « the arrest and detention of several civil society activists. » Invited to the meeting were diplomats from Australia, Switzerland and Norway, embassy documents show.

New round of arrests prompted new tweets

On June 27, a confidential summary of new Saudi crackdowns was circulated among Canadian officials. The memo stated that, just days after the Saudi government lifted its long-standing prohibition on female drivers, « this latest move suggests that the government’s campaign to crack down on civil society and make clear its intolerance for political activism is far from over. »

On July 31, news came that two more civil rights activists had been arrested — one of which was Samar Badawi, the sister of jailed activist Raif Badawi, whose wife fled to Canada. The next day, bureaucrats began planning out the wording for tweets.

« I spoke to my management and we agree that a tweet is warranted, » wrote an employee whose name was redacted. After after a series of discussions over which hashtag would yield the most reach on social media, an email was forwarded to the minister’s office recommending the tweets be approved in order to « express concern regarding these arrests. »

Calm before the storm

On August 2, a first tweet from the minister’s account went live, and reaction was being closely monitored. Early on, emails suggest staff were disappointed with how little traction the message received online.

The next day, two more tweets were sent out: one from the departmental account, and a version translated into Arabic from the embassy’s account. Staff pointed out that the minister’s earlier tweet included explicit mention of Samar Badawi and proposed that the new ones do so, as well.

The reaction from Saudi Arabia was swift. Just hours after the second round of tweets was published, the Saudi government retaliated, announcing it was expelling Canada’s ambassador, and it would sell off Canadian assets, cease flights to Canada, stop buying Canadian wheat and barley and suspend student exchange programs.

Damage control, media frenzy

On Aug. 5, staff became aware of reports indicating that the Saudi government intended to expel Canadian diplomats from their country. The documents show that staff were learning many of the developments from media reports and from inquiries being made by reporters to their department. By now, the Privy Council Office and the Prime Minister’s Office were fully engaged in the discussions over how to manage the situation.

Emails from staff were circulating expressing shock and sadness for embassy and consular staff. Someone working within the overseas team sent a long email thanking their colleagues.

« I couldn’t have asked for a better team to close out my career with. Despite the way it ended, I think we were able to do a lot of good things together, » read the message.

« The saddest part in all of this is that [redacted] will not have the chance to say a proper goodbye. »

As officials were trying to come up with a communication strategy to put out fires, they were getting swamped by questions from national and international media. The foreign affairs department carefully monitored media publications and online reaction.

In one email from the minister’s office, a request was made to try and find any evidence of support from « like-minded » groups or countries.

Ninety minutes later, a staffer responded that that there was « very little » to be found in terms of online backing from other countries.

At the same time, the department was receiving emails from Muslim community leaders inquiring about travel advice for Canadians intending to travel to Saudi Arabia for Hajj, an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.

Then came calls from industry players like Bombardier. The company’s government affairs contact was trying to set up a meeting to discuss the impact of the situation. Another email discussed the future of the billion-dollar light-armoured vehicle contract Canada held with the Saudi government.

Even a representative for the government of Prince Edward Island reached out to Global Affairs for assurances the issue would be dealt with, as a local company had just struck a deal to provide lobster to a Saudi restaurant group and shipments were to begin two weeks later.

Staff were also preparing lists of stakeholders and attempting to quantify the impact the rift would have on Canadian post-secondary institutions and medical schools, which host about 10,000 students a year. 

« The point is, these are not starving students … they are generally from more affluent families — and come with families who spend money. Something to bear in mind, if the threat to withdraw KSA students is real — and materializes, » a departmental employee wrote.

As the spat began to draw international attention, there was an online backlash from Saudi social media accounts telling Canada to mind its own business. In one notable incident, a Saudi youth group tweeted an image appearing to show an Air Canada plane heading toward the CN Tower in a way that is reminiscent of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S.

Staffers were tasked with keeping tabs on these types of hostile reactions, as well.

Once the dust had begun to settle, records show Freeland held talks with politicians from other countries, including the U.K., Germany and Sweden. On August 7, her office made a formal request to set up a call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but it is not clear based on the records if this meeting occurred.

In late September, Freeland expressed a desire to mend fences with Saudi officials by discussing their differences on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

However, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said at the council meeting that if Canada wishes to move on, it must first apologize for demanding the release of Saudi women’s rights activists and stop treating the kingdom as « a banana republic. »

Weeks later, the controversy surrounding the murder of Saudi dissident and writer Jamal Khashoggi captured the international community’s attention, leaving the situation over the initial Twitter rift in limbo.



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Anglais

A stunning Water Lantern Festival is coming to Montreal

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What might just be the most magical night ever is coming up for Montreal this year.

The Water Lantern Festival has announced that it will be gracing Mississauga with thousands of floating lanterns later this year, as part of a celebration that spans the entire world.

According to the festival’s official website, the event is a celebration of life with proceeds going towards charities and non-profit organizations within the area.

“Water Lantern Festival brings together individuals from all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life to join in one emotional and memorable night. At the Water Lantern Festival, we cherish these moments and will do our best to help you have a memorable experience that you’ll never forget as you witness the beauty of thousands of lanterns reflecting upon the water,” the website states.

The festival takes place throughout multiple cities around the world, with the Canadian cities of Quebec, Regina, Vancouver, Hamilton, Calgary, Ottawa, Mississauga, and, of course, Montreal taking part.

For the Calgary event, a date has been confirmed and tickets are already rolling out. Montreal shan’t be far behind, and you can click the Notify Me tab on the event’s site to be kept in the loop.

Expect an evening filled with food trucks, music, lantern designing and finally, a magical launch of the lanterns into the water as the sun goes down.

For our pals over in Calgary, their event includes a floating lantern, a commemorative drawstring bag, a marker, and a wristband. Expect something similar, if not the same, when more details float through about Montreal’s event.

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Euthanasia order on hold for Montreal dog that attacked children

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A pit bull dog that attacked four children and two adults in August 2018 in Montreal North will not be euthanized in the immediate future.

The euthanasia order has been temporarily suspended pending the appeal of a Quebec Superior Court decision.

On Tuesday, Judge Lukasz Granosik rejected a request to halt the euthanasia order issued by the Montreal North borough, which declared the animal a “dangerous dog.”

The City of Montreal has not changed its mind. This is only a delay before it proceeds with euthanizing the dog, a source told the Canadian Press.

Shotta, the one-year-old dog, was in the care of its owner’s acquaintance in August 2018. The dog attacked four children and two adults, causing serious injuries in separate incidents on the same day.

After the attacks, the dog was taken from the home and entrusted to the SPCA.

WATCH: Dog found dead in Angrignon Park

The Road to Home Rescue Support, an American shelter, asked the court if it could take in the dog. Christa Frineau, the dog’s owner, had also asked that Shotta not be euthanized.

Granosik refused to grant the request.

—With files from Global’s Kalina Laframboise

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Anglais

9 Things To Do In Montreal This Friday, Saturday & Sunday

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Today’s sunny skies have me itching to make weekend plans. I absolutely cannot wait to make the most of this warmer weather. This might be the time to inflate my bike tires and dust off my running shoes…

Whether you want to brush up on your cooking skills, let loose, or fill your stomach with amazing food, there’s an event out there for you. Read on for 9 fun things you can do with friends or a fling this weekend.

TL;DR Read on for 9 fun things you can do in Montreal this weekend.

Let Yourself Go At Dress Up

Where: 185 Avenue Van Horne, Montréal.

When: Friday, March 29, 9:00 p.m.

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