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Canada’s re-engagement with Iran blocked by act that allows its assets to be seized, says retired envoy

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The real reason the Liberal government hasn’t been able to re-establish relations with Iran is due to its adherence to a « stupid » Canadian law allowing the seizure of Iranian assets, says Canada’s recently expelled ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Dennis Horak, who was expelled from Saudi Arabia in August after its rulers were incensed by a tweet from Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, offered that blunt assessment as he shed new light on another controversial moment in Canada’s Middle East relations.

Six years ago, the previous Conservative government abruptly severed its diplomatic relations with Iran, shut its embassy in Tehran and expelled Iranian diplomats from Canada.

The current Liberal government campaigned in 2015 on re-establishing diplomatic relations with Iran but it has been unable to deliver on that foreign policy promise because Iran appears unwilling to re-engage.

Horak, who retired recently, said one obstacle is standing in the way — the passage in 2012 of Canada’s Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which allows victims of terrorism to sue countries that are listed as supporters of terrorism.

Among other things, the law paved the way for last year’s Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that upheld the seizure of $1.7 billion US in private Iranian assets by a group of American plaintiffs whose loved ones were killed in terrorist attacks allegedly sponsored by the Iranian regime.

« It was a stupid law. And it’s still a stupid law, » Horak told a meeting of the Canadian International Council in Ottawa this week.

« But we’re stuck with it. »

‘Embassy closed day after legislation’

Horak, who was the Canadian foreign ministry’s director of Middle East relations in 2012, said the three major federal parties supported the law.

Then foreign affairs minister John Baird abruptly announced the Tehran embassy closure in September 2012, accusing Iran of being a state sponsor of terrorism and saying it was for the safety of Canadian diplomats.

Though he cited the attack on the British embassy in Tehran 10 months earlier that saw an angry mob storm the diplomatic compound, Baird and the Conservative government declined to say whether Canadian diplomats faced any imminent threat.

Former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dennis Horak, was the Canadian foreign ministry’s director of Middle East relations in 2012. (CBC)

« Lost in all of the information about the reasons why, was the real reason … It was the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, frankly. That’s the reason; that still exists, » Horak said.

« It’s no coincidence that we closed the embassy basically the day after the legislation became effective. »

After the attack on the British embassy, the Canadian government realized it had « very poor security » around its own compound, Horak said, suggesting that would leave it vulnerable to an Iranian mob.

« The British weren’t even seizing Iranian government property. This law called for the seizure of Iranian government properties, » said Horak, adding the Iranians « have a very flexible view on diplomatic immunity. »

« How could we possibly stay open under those conditions? » he asked. « How can we reopen under those conditions? »

Freeland’s office did not respond to questions about the status of diplomatic talks with Iran.

Saudi spat continues

Horak has already criticized Freeland for her August tweet calling for the release of imprisoned activists in Saudi Arabia, which led the Saudi regime to declare Horak persona non grata, recall Saudi university students from Canada, and cancel flights between the countries. Horak said the tweet was « ill advised, » but Saudi Arabia overreacted in response.

Michael Grant, who recently returned to Ottawa after a posting as one of Canada’s ambassadors to the United Nations in New York, said Horak was one of Canada’s top analysts of Middle East affairs. He said Horak’s diplomatic dispatches will add greatly to the country’s understanding of the region when they are declassified in the coming decades.

In his speech to the council, Horak cited the conflict between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran as the core conflict shaping the geopolitics of the Middle East.

His presentation underscored the fact that Canada is now diplomatically hamstrung in both countries — it has no ambassador to lead its embassy in Riyadh, while its mission in Tehran remains closed. 

« How can you have a dialogue when you don’t have ambassadors? » asked retired diplomat John Noble, who was part of the sold-out crowd that turned out for Horak.

Still, Noble said Canada has not traditionally played a major role in the Middle East even though Lester Pearson won a Nobel Peace Prize in the 1950s for helping defuse the Suez Crisis.

« He was trying to prevent a break-up of the Commonwealth and of NATO, » said Noble, who held ambassadorships in Greece and Switzerland.

« The idea that we had a big role in the Middle East has always been over-inflated. »

Watch Dennis Horak discuss Canada’s relations with Saudi Arabia on Power and Politics

Canada’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia Dennis Horak joined Power & Politics Monday to discuss the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the current state of Canada-Saudi relations. 9:32

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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