Did Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed jump the queue with her speedy resettlement to Canada?


Did Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun jump the queue over other refugees when Canada quickly opened its doors to the Saudi teen who was fleeing an allegedly abusive family?

Not according to Canadian immigration officials and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

While Rahaf’s plea for help on social media got her international headlines and drew the attention of the UNHCR to her plight, the emergency rescue effort was by no means unique — though the warm embrace by a foreign minister at the airport may be.

According to immigration officials, some 200 people are processed under Canada’s Urgent Protection Program each year, with about 50 resettled within the rapid timelines seen in Rahaf’s case. The 18-year-old arrived in Toronto Saturday — accompanied by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland — after a tumultuous week that began with Rahaf escaping from her family during a trip to Kuwait. Rahaf then flew to Bangkok, where she was detained by Thai authorities who prepared to deport her to Saudi Arabia, where she feared for her life.

“Canada has the flexibility to respond quickly to individual emergency situations for a small number of refugees,” said immigration department spokesperson Beatrice Fenelon. “These individuals are resettled on an expedited basis due to their particular circumstances.”

“I know that there are unlucky women who disappeared after trying to escape or who could not do anything to change their reality,” she told reporters.

People in need of protection cannot apply directly to the special Canadian program and requests must be made by referral organizations, such as the UNHCR.

Since Rahaf’s speedy resettlement to Canada — less than a week after she started a Twitter campaign while barricaded inside her hotel room — she has faced backlash not only from internet trolls criticizing her as a disgrace to her family and Islam but also from refugee supporters accusing her of being a queue jumper.

“A Syrian refugee from a war zone who lost everything is not welcome in the west. But a person from a golden palace in Saudi-Arabia who says ‘I am not a Muslim anymore’ is a hero and very welcome. Can someone explain this to me?” Arnoud van Doorn, a member of The Hague City Council in the Netherlands, asked on Twitter.

In Rahaf’s case, the UNHCR dispatched a team to her hotel room in Bangkok for an emergency resettlement assessment after learning from media reports that the teenager was going to be handed over to her family, who were en route to Thailand and planned to take her back to Saudi Arabia.

Among the 25.4 million refugees worldwide, less than 1 per cent end up being resettled, many of them after years in limbo.

“Emergency resettlement is extremely rare,” noted Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the UNHCR representative to Canada. “Based on agreed-upon criteria, we refer these cases to the 30 countries that offer resettlement programs. There are many situations. It could be for the lack of medical care or the fear of torture if someone is returned to the country of origin.”

At her hotel in Bangkok, Rahaf was given a formal interview where she was asked to provide the details and evidence to substantiate her claims of mental and physical abuse by her family. After she got her UNHCR refugee designation, she underwent a thorough security and criminal check, as well as a medical exam, before being admitted to Canada.

“Rahaf met those criteria and we referred her case to several countries. Canada was the fastest to respond. Rahaf can’t choose her destination. She didn’t jump any queue. It’s a different process with different criteria,” said Beuze. “It’s not a unique case, but it’s only unique because of all the media and social media attention.”

While some critics fear Rahaf’s case may set a precedent and open the floodgates for other Middle Eastern women to claim gender oppression, experts say resettlement is only available to those who make it outside their country of origin.

“The assumption is your country can protect you. You become a refugee because you don’t get the protection and other countries need to step in,” said Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees. “Due to the notion of sovereignty, you can’t be a refugee in your own country.”

While praising Canada’s quick response to Rahaf’s situation, Dench said government officials must not politicize the refugee resettlement process by only prioritizing cases of those “who have the ears of the Prime Minister or Immigration Minister and are the favourite of the month of the media.”

According to the UNHCR, 1.4 million refugees have been identified for resettlement in 2019, but only 80,000 spots are available, including 11,000 in Canada.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung


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Saudi teen who fled her family and risked her life says she had nothing to lose


A Saudi teen who arrived in Canada Saturday after fleeing her family says she needed to risk her life in order to live freely and be independent, and is very happy to be in Canada.

« I felt that I was reborn, especially when I felt the love and the welcome. »

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, told the CBC’s Susan Ormiston in an interview on Monday that she never thought there was even a one per cent chance that she would be able to come to Canada, or that people would be talking about her story around the world.

Mohammed — she has dropped « al-Qunun » from her name because her family has disowned her — claims she was physically and mentally abused by her family since she was 16 years old, and that she thought about escaping for years.

« I was exposed to physical violence, persecution, oppression, threats to be killed. I was locked in for six months, » she said, in Arabic, describing what happened after she cut her hair.

« I felt that I could not achieve my dreams that I wanted as long as I was still living in Saudi Arabia. »

Mohammed told the CBC’s Susan Ormiston she had since been disowned by her family. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

When she turned 18 she felt able to try to escape, she said, because she would be treated as an adult around the world, and that she would be able to make her own decisions.                           

She knew a family vacation to Kuwait in early January was her chance. « From a while ago I was trying to convince my parents to go to Kuwait because as long as I’m in Saudi Arabia, I cannot leave. But once I’m in another country I can travel and it’s allowed, » she said. 

My greatest fear was if they [my family] find me, I would disappear.– Rahaf Mohammed

Mohammed said she waited until her family went to sleep early one night, the very last day of their trip, and then bought her ticket to Thailand and left the hotel room at 7 a.m.

But she was stopped at the airport in Bangkok. Mohammed was denied entry and had her passport seized. With the threat of being sent back to her family, she barricaded herself in a hotel room and used Twitter to plea for help.

Mohammed used Twitter to get her message out from her hotel room in Bangkok, Thailand, on Jan. 6, 2019. (@rahaf84427714/Reuters)

« My greatest fear, » she said, « was if they [my family] find me, I would disappear and I wouldn’t know what would happen to me after that. » She even wrote a letter to her friends, because she says she was prepared to end her life in the hotel room before she would let herself be taken. 

« I wrote it and I sent it to my female friends, should I disappear they would publish it to the whole world. »

Her tweets and her case drew international attention, and Thai officials eventually agreed to let her stay in Bangkok under the protection of United Nations officials.

Mohammed said when the UN officials showed up at her hotel, she didn’t believe at first that it was true, that her pleas had been heard. She feared the Thai and Kuwaiti authorities « would lie and pose as the UN, so I wanted some sort of proof that they are actually the UN.

« So they showed me the proof. After that, I opened the door and I welcomed them, » she said, smiling at the memory. 

Mohammed speaks with Thai Immigration Police Chief Surachet Hakparn, right, and an unidentified UN official at a hotel inside the Suvarnabhumi international airport on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand, on Jan. 7. (Thai Immigration Bureau/EFE/EPA)

Still, as happy as she is to be free, to be in Canada (despite the cold, she said), Mohammed is clearly upset that it has meant losing her family. She said she received a message from them, telling her she was disobedient and now disowned. She started to cry during the interview, saying she didn’t expect that. She said she is very sad, so sad that she can’t even talk about it. 

Saudi Arabia ranks among the worst countries for women’s rights and equality. The World Economic Forum ranked it 141 out of 149 in its 2018 report on gender equality. Mohammed said she endured daily oppression and violence from her mother and brother. Her father, she said, did not live with the family, but still exerted control over her in terms of what she could study and where she could work. 

She has been accused of not telling the truth — that things aren’t as bad in Saudi Arabia as she says. She rejects that. 

« These people, maybe their families are more understanding and they don’t know the real life. But there are a lot of women imprisoned and there are a lot of stories that they can read to know the situation of women. » She calls herself an example of how bad it can be.

« Why would I escape from this life if the conditions were good? »

In this photo released by Thai officals, Mohammed is seen before leaving the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok on Monday. (The Associated Press)

Now that she is in Canada, Mohammed feels safer. Not 100 per cent, she said, because everyone knows her now and knows where she is. Still, she is looking forward to continuing her education, exploring, learning English and living a normal life.

Watch Rahaf Mohammed tell Susan Ormiston about her plans now that she’s in Canada. 

Rahaf Mohammed, the Saudi teen who fled her allegedly abusive family, talks to CBC’s Susan Ormiston about what’s next for her life in Canada 0:32

She also wants to continue to be a voice for the women still in Saudi Arabia, but she also hopes that they will fight for changes themselves. She said she knows many women who have fled Saudi Arabia, but added she wouldn’t encourage women to do it, as they would be putting their lives at risk. She wants them to fight. 

But if nothing changes, she added, « escape. »

Watch Susan Ormiston’s interview with Rahaf Mohammed from The National: 

A Saudi teen who arrived in Canada after fleeing her family says she needed to risk her life in order to live freely and be independent, and is very happy to be here. Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, says she never thought there was even a one per cent chance that she would be able to come to Canada, or that people would be talking about her story around the world. 4:35


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Canada shouldn’t use teenage Saudi refugee as a ‘political football’: ex-ambassador – National


Canada did the right thing by granting asylum to Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun but should take steps to ensure that the case doesn’t cause irreversible damage to relations with Saudi Arabia, says Canada’s former ambassador to Riyadh.

Dennis Horak has first-hand knowledge of the two countries’ testy relationship, having been expelled from Saudi Arabia in August in the wake of Canada’s criticism of the kingdom’s detention of women’s rights activists.

That relationship faces renewed challenges following Canada’s decision to grant asylum to Al-Qunun, the daughter of a Saudi governor, who fled Saudi Arabia and accused her father and other male relatives of abuse.

The 18-year-old arrived in Toronto on Saturday after resisting her family’s attempts to have her returned to Saudi Arabia from Bangkok, where she barricaded herself in an airport hotel room and launched a Twitter campaign to plead for asylum.

READ MORE: ‘A very brave new Canadian’  Saudi woman who fled family arrives in Toronto

“I think [granting her asylum] was the right thing to do but it’s going to have an impact in Saudi Arabia in terms of their views towards Canada. They’ll see this as yet another example of our ‘interference’ in their internal affairs,” Horak told Global News.

“If we make her a political football to use this case to bash the Saudis to make our point on Saudi human rights, I think that would exacerbate the situation even further. And it wouldn’t do her any good either.”

Horak said that while it’s inevitable that the Al-Qunun case will worsen tensions in the short term, Canada could mitigate the damage by maintaining an open line of communication with Saudi Arabia.

“I think at this point, it’s time to let her settle in and then work and talk with the Saudis and explain to them why we did what we did, and perhaps that can mitigate some of the damage that may occur,” said Horak.

WATCH: Saudi teen fleeing family granted asylum in Canada

The case has also sparked concerns about possible Saudi retaliation against the 20,000 Canadians who live in the Arab world’s richest country.

Last month, two Canadian men were arrested in China amid tensions between Ottawa and Beijing over the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor remain in Chinese custody after being arrested on suspicion of spying and endangering national security.

READ MORE: Chinese ambassador pens op-ed on Canadian detainees, slams ‘Western egotism and white supremacy’

Horak said it’s unlikely that Saudi Arabia would resort to similar tactics, although he stated that Canadian expats in the kingdom might encounter other difficulties.

“In my view, a lot of the Canadians that are there are doing valuable work, so I don’t think I would see them being arrested for example as we’ve seen in China,” he said.

“They may encounter — and I think some have already since the summertime — difficulty with things like visa renewals or contract renewals… or if they’re looking for new jobs with other companies, Canadians may not be the preferred citizenship for prospective employers.

“But I wouldn’t be overly concerned about arrests and things.”

WATCH: Ottawa delegation in China as two Canadians remain detained

Horak said it’s vital that diplomatic relations don’t become strained to the point that Canada and Saudi Arabia shutter their embassies in each other’s territories.

“That would certainly not be in Canada’s interests and I don’t think that’ll happen,” he said, although he cautioned that “overreaction cannot be ruled out” on the part of the Saudis.

“It’s important that Canada be there, it’s important that Canada have an embassy there to offer protections, normal consular services and consular protections that are best delivered when there’s an embassy on the ground,” he said.

A man stands outside the Canadian embassy in the Saudi capital Riyadh, Aug. 7, 2018.

Nasser Al-Harbi/AFP/Getty Images

Concerns of diplomatic tensions aside, Horak credited Al-Qunun’s case for shining a spotlight on Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws which curtail women’s freedom.

“When I was there, Saudi women talked to me a lot about the guardianship laws. The West was talking all about driving and they said, ‘no that’s fine, I’m driving, that’s fine’ but the real issue for them is the guardianship laws,” he said.

It’s possible that Al-Qunun’s case will spur a renewed examination of guardianship laws, Horak said, although he warned it could also spark a conservative backlash, with families further tightening restrictions on daughters.

As far as Al-Qunun’s future goes, Horak said it’s important to let her take her time to settle into Canadian life rather than force her to become a mouthpiece against Saudi human rights abuses.

“I think she needs to have time to settle in and if she decides down the road that she wants to be an activist and be very vocal on this, that’s great,” he said.

“But that should be up to her and not something that we push her into.”

— With files from Grant MacDonald

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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Canada played ‘critical’ role in urging Thailand to protect Saudi woman: Human Rights Watch – National


Canada helped persuade the Thai government to let a young Saudi woman seek asylum rather than deport her to Saudi Arabia, according to Human Rights Watch.

Rahaf Al-Qunun, 18, was granted temporary access to Thailand on Monday under the protection of the UN refugee agency, which will evaluate her asylum claims.

While the Canadian government has publicly commented on Al-Qunun’s case, Human Rights Watch said Canada “should be proud” of its role in protecting her rights, telling Global News that  faced serious abuses to the point of murder if forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia.

READ MORE: Saudi woman seeking asylum leaves airport, granted temporary admission in Thailand

On Sunday, Al-Qunun told Global News that she was being detained in a hotel room at Bangkok’s international airport as she tried to travel to Australia, where she hoped to seek asylum.

She said she was fleeing her family, who abused her physically and psychologically, at one point locking her in her room for six months after she cut her hair and rebelled against wearing the hijab.

Saudi embassy officials seized her passport and told her she would be put on a plane to Kuwait, where her family members were, on Monday morning, Al-Qunun said.

She said she feared being killed by her family for publicizing her abuse and renouncing Islam.

READ MORE: Saudi woman, 18, detained at Thai airport, fears she will be killed if deported home

However, her pleas for help on social media captured international attention, and Thai officials eventually allowed her to enter Thailand under UN protection.

‘Canada should be proud’

Canada’s stance against human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia sparked a diplomatic spat between the two countries last year, but that didn’t stop the Canadian government from engaging with Thai officials in support of Al-Qunun, according to Human Rights Watch.

Phil Robertson, the NGO’s deputy director for the Asia region, said on Twitter that the Canadian embassy in Thailand was “steadfast and superb at every step of the way.”

Robertson told Global News that Canada played a “critical” role in helping secure Al-Qunun access to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“Ambassador Donica Pottie and her team worked long and hard on both Sunday and Monday to raise their concerns with the Thai government and UN agencies that Rahaf should not be sent back to Saudi Arabia where she would likely face serious abuses and persecution,” he said.

“The advocacy they did, working with other like-minded embassies in Bangkok, was critical in making the case that UNHCR had to be brought in to provide Rahaf with protection. It was a team effort between embassies, human rights and refugee support NGOs, media, and online activists, and Canada should be proud of the central role they played in this victory.”

WATCH: Thailand, UNHCR confer on Saudi teen barricaded in Thai hotel

Global Affairs Canada didn’t disclose any details on the the country’s role in helping Al-Qunun, but said it was following the case closely.

“Canada is very concerned by and watching closely the situation of Ms. Rahaf al-Qunun,” a spokesperson for Global Affairs said in an emailed statement. “We are in close contact with partners about her situation. Canada will always stand up for human rights, very much including women’s rights.”

WATCH: The first 24 hours of the Saudi-Canada tweet feud left Canadians reeling

Al-Qunun’s frantic pleas for help on social media drew sympathy from activists and lawmakers around the world.

In Canada, the Raif Badawi Foundation, run by the wife of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, said it was urging Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland to take up Al-Qunun’s case.

An Australian senator called on her government to issue Al-Qunun an emergency travel document so she could fly to Australia.

In the U.K., an online petition calling on Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to grant Al-Qunun asylum secured over 72,000 signatures in less than a day.

Al-Qunun’s asylum claim is currently being investigated by the UNCHR, with the agency’s Thailand representative saying it would take several days to process the case and determine next steps.

READ MORE: Saudis helped man escape U.S. justice in hit-and-run killing of Oregon teen, feds believe

Her case has drawn renewed attention to Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women, who cannot travel without the permission of a male “guardian.” It’s a rule that rights groups say prevents women from escaping the clutches of abusive families.

The Saudi government has denied Al-Qunun’s claims.

Abdul-Ilah al-Shuaibi, the Saudi ambassador to Thailand, told Saudi state-aligned news outlet Sabq that Al-Qunun has five or six sisters, and that it was difficult to believe that only one of them was abused to the point of fleeing.

He said Saudi officials never confiscated her passport, and denied that Riyadh requested her extradition.

READ MORE: The hurdles Saudi women runaways face when fleeing danger

Al-Qunun’s father is a senior government official in Saudi Arabia, a position that Robertson said would have allowed him near-impunity to treat his family as he pleased.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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First Saudi Arabia, now China — Canada has a new foe, and its southern ally isn’t helping – National


First U.S. President Donald Trump attacked Canada on trade. Then Saudi Arabia punished it for speaking up for human rights. Now China has the country in its cross-hairs, detaining two Canadians in apparent retaliation for the arrest of a top Chinese tech executive on behalf of the United States.

Canada is caught between two super powers and taking the punishment — and its ally to the south has been conspicuously absent in coming to its aid.

WATCH: Tim Kaine: Trump has alienated Canada on USMCA, Huawei arrest

“We’ve never been this alone,” historian Robert Bothwell said. “We don’t have any serious allies. And I think that’s another factor in what the Chinese are doing. … Our means of retaliation are very few. China is a hostile power.”

The two Canadians, Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat in China, and Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur who lived in northeastern China near the North Korean border, were taken into custody Monday on suspicion of “engaging in activities that endanger the national security” of China, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said. Canadian consular officials have had no access to them.

WATCH: Morneau calls detained Canadians in China a “challenge,” but sticks to trade relations rhetoric

Their detentions ratchet up pressure on Canada, which arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of telecommunications giant Huawei, on Dec. 1 at the request of the United States. The U.S. wants her extradited to face charges that she and her company misled banks about the company’s business dealings in Iran. A Canadian judge released Meng on bail Tuesday.

The case has set off a diplomatic furor among the three nations in which Canada has been stuck in the middle.

Until now, Canada had a largely good relationship with China, forged by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father, late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who helped establish the one-China formula that enabled many other countries to recognize China in the 1970s. Canada acknowledged there is one government of China and does not officially recognize Taiwan.

Why China is trying to bully Canada (and not the U.S.) into releasing Huawei CFO

China has since become Canada’s second-largest trading partner, after the United States. Chinese investment has powered real estate booms in Vancouver and Toronto. And one-third of foreign students in Canada are Chinese. Justin Trudeau has even talked about a possible free-trade agreement with China in a bid to diversify Canada’s trade, which relies on the U.S. for 75 percent of its exports.

But the Canadian prime minister has said little since news of this week’s arrests became public. Opposition Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said Trudeau isn’t being forceful enough with the Chinese.

“This situation demonstrates that Justin Trudeau’s naive approach to relations with China isn’t working,” Scheer said.

It’s Canada’s second dispute with a major power this year. In June, Trump vowed to make Canada pay after Trudeau said he wouldn’t be pushed around in talks to hammer out a new North American trade agreement, an unprecedented attack on America’s closest ally. Trump called Trudeau weak and dishonest, words that shocked Canadians.

‘China will take revenge’ if Canada doesn’t free Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou: Global Times editor

Then Trump said this week that he might intervene in the Huawei case if it would help clinch a trade agreement with China, upending U.S. efforts to separate the court proceeding from U.S.-China trade talks and contradicting Canadian officials who said the arrest was not political.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland took a swipe at Trump, saying it was “quite obvious” any foreign country requesting extradition should ensure “the process is not politicized.”

“Normally, Canada can count on the United States to back them up on such an issue,” said Laura Dawson, a former economic adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa and director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington. Dawson said it’s unusual for Washington to “leave Canada hanging high and dry.”

“President Trump has made it clear that old alliances don’t matter so much anymore,” she said. “He has made no secret of his preference for a go-it-alone approach and his lack of regard for traditional alliances.”

WATCH: Trade minister continues to endorse commerce with China in wake of Huawei, diplomat arrest

In years past the U.S. might have defended Canada when came it under attack and other countries would know the U.S. had Canada’s back. Not now. In August, the Saudi government expelled Canada’s ambassador to the kingdom and withdrew its own ambassador after Canada’s foreign ministry tweeted support for an arrested Saudi activist. The Saudis also sold Canadian investments and ordered their citizens studying in Canada to leave. No country, including the U.S., spoke out publicly in support of Canada.

And now the stakes are much higher. Canada is one of the few countries in the world unabashedly speaking out in defense of human rights and the international rule of law. And Chinese trade with Canada is increasingly key as Canada looks to boost its exports in Asia as its trade with the U.S. is threatened by Trump’s tariffs on Canadian goods.

WATCH: Amid Huawei CFO arrest, B.C. trade mission to end trip early, foregoing China visit

“At the beginning of Trump there was this idea that maybe the Chinese would replace the Americans” as Canada’s pre-eminent trade partner “but that’s just nuts,” said historian Bothwell, a University of Toronto professor. “Relations for any smaller country with China are really grave.”

Derek Scissors, a China specialist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, called China’s actions toward Canada “thuggish.”

“You detain a Canadian because the Canadians can’t do anything. It’s bullying behavior,” he said.

WATCH: Huawei CFO’s arrest triggers questions about Canadians in China

Noting Canada was just following a routine extradition process with the United States, Scissors said America should be saying:  ‴Why are you picking up Canadians? You have a problem with us.’”

David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said not only the U.S. but other Western nations should be standing up for Canada.

“It would be nice if publicly and also behind the scenes if countries like the United States, the U.K., Australia and France would put in a word on our behalf and let the Chinese know how damaging this is to their reputation and to the notion that China is a safe place to work and pursue a career,” Mulroney said.

“I think a lot of foreigners in China are looking over their shoulder right now,” he added.

Christopher Sands of the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington said the world took note of how Trump treated Canada during trade negotiations and how the U.S. stayed silent when Saudi Arabia overreacted to Canada’s expression of human rights concerns over treatment of the Saudi dissident.

“In normal times, the U.S. sends a signal, usually discreetly, to allies to cut it out and play nice,” Sands said.

“What makes this worse is that China is lashing out at Canada not for Canada’s initiative, but for Canada’s honoring of a U.S. warrant. The damage done by our silence in terms of alliance relations is truly awful,” he said.


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Deficits, Saudi Arabia, Trump and oil: 4 key takeaways from CBC’s interview with Justin Trudeau


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his Liberal government is doubling down on deficit spending, a move contrary to his campaign promise of balanced budgets, because he believes it has proven to work.

Trudeau sat down for wide-ranging interview with The National‘s Rosemary Barton to discuss topics from U.S. President Donald Trump and tariffs, to Alberta oil and employment insurance.

Parts of the interview air Sunday, while the entire transcript of their conversation can be read here. Here are some highlights from their sit-down:

Deficit spending promises 

During the 2015 election campaign, Trudeau promised to balance the federal budget by the last year of the government’s mandate. That has not happened. 

« I think people understand that circumstances change, » Trudeau said, when pressed on whether he had broken a promise to Canadians on the deficit.  

He then accused the previous Conservative government of creating a « phony balance » that was ultimately unsustainable.

« Over the 10 years of the previous government, we faced stubbornly low growth and low employment numbers, » said Trudeau. 

« All the cuts that the Conservatives made in that last year of their government — cuts to veteran services, cuts to border security, cuts to a significant range of programs — that weakened Canadians. »

Trudeau said his government made a « very deliberate decision in 2015 » to try and grow the economy by investing more in programs like the Canada Child Benefit and the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

« Every year, our debt as a proportion of our GDP continues to decline. We’re the lowest ratio in the G7.  We’re doing very well, » he said. 

Critics have accused Trudeau’s government is digging the country into a deep fiscal hole.

Watch: Rosemary Barton’s full interview with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

« The Trudeau government has run deficits nearly double the promised amount, and despite a growing economy, has no plan to balance the budget, » two analysts from the conservative Fraser Institute think tank wrote in the Globe and Mail in February. « In fact, according to projections by the Department of Finance, federal deficits could continue for the next 27 years. »

Saudi human rights

Trudeau also discussed his recent meeting at the G20 summit with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. 

Trudeau said he raised concerns to Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) about the Kingdom’s involvement in the war in Yemen, the imprisonment of Saudi activists — which caused a diplomatic Twitter spat when Canada called for their release — and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

« The killing of a journalist is something that is extremely serious to Canadians, to me, » Trudeau said of  Khashoggi’s death.

Watch: Trudeau on his talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discusses how Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responded when he raised the issue of the war in Yemen and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 3:30

Trudeau said he pushed MbS « to provide better answers, » over the killing. He said he’s heard the tapes of Khashoggi’s killing but refused to characterize what was in them. 

When asked whether he would cancel an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, Trudeau said his government was « engaged very much with the issue behind the scenes » but would not firmly commit either way.

« The contract has particular provisions, both for confidentiality and around significant penalties. It was a contract that was signed by the previous government and we are looking at it obviously. »

Critics say Trudeau’s government, despite its lofty rhetoric, has prioritized arms sales to the Kingdom over human rights.

Trump and tariffs

After months of fruitless efforts with the U.S. President Donald Trump’s White House, Trudeau appears ready to make Canada’s case for the lifting of steel and aluminum tariffs directly to allies in Congress and to U.S. workers and businesses. 

« I mean we, obviously, want to get rid of those steel and aluminum tariffs, » he said.

« But we also see the path toward ratification as a place where there are continued conversations from members of Congress, from business or associations in the U.S., from governors who also want to see these tariffs gone, and we’re going to keep working on that. »

Struggling energy sector

Trudeau said he is willing to consider helping Alberta Premier Rachel Notley fund the purchase of rail cars to increase the volume of oil her province can ship to international markets.

« That’s something we’re happy to look at, » Trudeau said when asked if the federal government would support the purchase of rail cars. « If that’s a proposal that [Notley] thinks is going to make a significant difference, then we’re happy to look at how it works. I mean, we’re there to be a partner, to help. »

Protesters have taken to the streets of Calgary and other cities in Alberta in recent weeks, criticizing Trudeau for his handling of the oil industry and other issues. 

Watch: Trudeau ‘happy to look at’ funding rail car purchase

In an exclusive interview with The National co-host Rosemary Barton, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he is willing to consider funding rail cars and expanding employment insurance for hard hit workers in the oil patch. 0:58

Trudeau also suggested the federal government could ease the pain for the energy sector by temporarily extending Employment Insurance benefits for affected workers.

« We’re absolutely looking at the tools we have around EI, » Trudeau said. « We are looking at tools we have around income support.

« We’ve done a number of things around that … and we’re going to continue to do that. And I’m also willing, of course, to sit down with Premier Notley and hear about how the federal government can be a partner in solving this solution in real ways. »


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‘No one is going to stick their neck out:’ Memos suggest Saudi threats chilled support for Canadian tweets – National


Divide and conquer.

That seems to have been the strategy Saudi Arabia used to muzzle allies from speaking out in support of Canada in a diplomatic crisis that broke out in August over a tweet calling for the release of detained civil and women’s rights activists.

READ MORE: The exclusive report on how Canada spent months on Saudi diplomacy before embassy suggested tweet behind firestorm

As Global News was the first to report on Friday, the unprecedented backlash to the tweet posted in Arabic by the Canadian Embassy in Riyadh caught officials in both Ottawa and the embassy unprepared and left them reeling as they tried to figure out what was happening.

Further evaluation of the hundreds of pages of emails, briefing notes and memos released to Global News under access to information laws shows that Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland began reaching out to “like-minded” countries as the crisis unfolded.

WATCH BELOW: The first 24 hours of the Saudi-Canada tweet feud left Canadians reeling

Emails and documents prepared for the minister show meetings arranged in Ottawa with officials from the British High Commission on Aug. 7 as well as phone calls with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, foreign minister for the United Arab Emirates.

“We would indeed welcome public support from friends,” read emails from officials.

But that was not to be.

READ MORE: ‘I’m in shock:’ The first 24 hours of the Saudi-Canada tweet feud left Canadians reeling

On Aug. 7,  notes sent from the embassy in Riyadh show officials beginning to grapple with the need for “contingency plans.”

That came after Saudi Arabia’s Cultural Bureau issued a tweet recalling its thousands of students and doctors studying in Canada, which Canadian officials described in emails as “the hardest line envisaged.”

At the same time, Saudi officials were at work gathering support.

WATCH BELOW: Canada calls for German backing amid Saudi human rights spat

“Saudi MOFA [Minister of Foreign Affairs] is in the process of holding briefings all day today for all HOMs [heads of mission], except EU and Canada, but separated by each geographic region,” the notes state.

A later email describes the meetings organized by the Saudis as “calling in regional groupings to make a pitch for support.”

Further documents state that in those meetings, Saudi Arabia Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir “warned representatives that taking a negative position on KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) would force ‘a response.’”

It goes on to note that the meetings, and the exclusion of the EU in addition to Canada, suggest the “Saudis were well aware that there was a movement led by a Dutch MEP, Marietje Schaake — which at the time had 44 signatures — for Mogherini to issue a public statement in support of Canada.”

Federica Mogherini is the EU’s High Representative for Security Affairs and Policy.

A response sent from a Global Affairs official minutes later says “needs to be corroborated but another level up.”

WATCH BELOW: Spat? Dispute? What’s going on between Saudi Arabia and Canada?

That same day, Canadian officials from the embassy in Riyadh said they had plans to meet with representatives from General Dynamics Land Systems about the matter. That’s the company contracted to provide $15-billion worth of armoured vehicles to the Saudis under a controversial, secret deal inked by the former Conservative government but protected by the Liberals since 2015.

“GDLS guys based in Riyadh already planning to meet me either today or tomorrow – will report on it, in case any significant/new points raised by them,” the official reports back to Ottawa.

READ MORE: As Saudi-Canada feud escalates, here’s how axing armoured vehicle deal could hurt Trudeau in 2019

Representatives for Governor General Julie Payette had also requested a briefing on the crisis on Aug. 7.

Global Affairs officials had also quietly begun drafting a statement that might walk back the language of the tweets that prompted the crisis.

“Canada remains concerned about the fate of civil society activists in Saudi Arabia,” one excerpt of the proposed statement reads. “However, it was never Canada’s intention to interfere in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or challenge its sovereign rights as has been suggested.”

The next day, on Aug. 8, officials were looking for ways to reframe the conversation and potentially repair ties.

Proposals put forward included casting the crisis as a “personal dispute” between Saudi Arabia and Dennis Horak, the exiled Canadian ambassador.

“Is there a possibility of looking at this for our current situation? This would allow us to move forward and open a new chapter with a new HOM,” one note reads.

WATCH BELOW: Diplomatic dispute forces Saudi students out of Canada

Another warns that the situation at the embassy was becoming a challenge.

“Morale at the mission is declining as more measures are put in place and rumours are circulating,” another email reads and adds that many staff were asking “if the mission is closing or if they will lose their jobs.”

But by 5:33 PM on Aug. 9, it was clear: no one was going to come to Canada’s aid.

“Minister has been calling around to review with friends,” one email reads. “No one is going to stick their neck out.”

In the days that followed, Canada refused to back down.

READ MORE: Is Canada a ‘whipping boy’ for Saudi Arabia? Why the kingdom picked a fight over a tweet

A readout from a phone call between Freeland and Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, describes a discussion on Aug. 13, in which she said exactly that to her counterpart.

“MINA said we cannot back down on the tweets as this would suggest an element of self-censorship and backing down which would not be well received by the Cdn public,” the readout states. “Past is past and we need to move forward.

“MINA said that we can make a clear affirmation on the importance of the relationship and our belief in the importance of Vision 2030 and Canada’s desire to support these reform efforts.”

MINA is the shorthand way government departments refer to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, based from when the position was originally known as the Minister of International Affairs.

Documents obtained by Global News in November showed there has been little resolution to the tension between Canada and Saudi Arabia.

Federal officials deem the relationship “fractured.”

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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


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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Justin Trudeau set for awkward dynamic with Saudi crown prince at G20 – National


OTTAWA – Canada will face a central question in Buenos Aires this week as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with G20 leaders – how will it handle the tense dynamic with Saudi Arabia and the presence of its crown prince Mohammed bin Salman?

The trip, which marks a high-profile overseas journey for the crown prince following the October murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is expected to open an opportunity for international pushback following the killing.

Canada, for its part, expects the issue to be raised during talks among leaders of the world’s top economies gathered in Argentina for the G20.

READ MORE: Canada was courting Saudi Arabia for billions in new business before ill-fated tweet

The group meets annually to discuss how to enhance global economic stability. International trade will figure prominently, especially because of concerns about U.S. tariffs, as well as tensions between the United States and China. And Canada, the U.S. and Mexico are expected to sign a revamped version of NAFTA after many months of intense negotiations.

But the mere presence of the crown prince guarantees human rights will grab some of the leaders’ focus.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is attending the summit, reiterated late Tuesday that Canada “very much” does not consider the Khashoggi case closed, despite suggestions to the contrary by U.S. President Donald Trump.

WATCH: Freeland says Khashoggi affair is not ‘closed’ despite U.S. response

The Canadian government has called for full accountability for those responsible for the killing and a transparent and credible investigation, she added.

“We do not believe that either of those things has yet happened,” Freeland said, but she did not indicate whether Canada would have any direct meetings with Saudi Arabia at the G20.

Khashoggi’s death last month placed new strains on the relationship of the two countries amid public outcry in Canada over a $15-billion arms deal with the regime.

READ MORE: Saudi crown prince in Argentina for G20 summit, faces protests over Khashoggi killing

It will be vital, said Alex Neve, the secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, to seek alliances with other countries gathered in Buenos Aires and form a united front to make it more difficult for the crown prince to ignore or dismiss concerns.

“Clearly we would not want this to be a time when, in any way, Canada starts to back away,” he said.

Canada only has so much influence with Saudi Arabia, he added, pointing out that the kingdom officials demonstrated this summer they are willing to bat the Trudeau government’s concerns aside when they don’t like the message conveyed.

WATCH: U.S. Senate votes to consider ending military support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen

In August, Saudi Arabia lashed out at Canada after Freeland took to Twitter to call on the regime to immediately release detained human-rights activists.

Saudi Arabia froze new trade, expelled Canada’s ambassador, recalled its envoy from Ottawa, pulled medical students out of Canadian universities and cancelled flights to Toronto.

Neve said he is particularly interested in the content of any exchanges that play out between Canada and Saudi Arabia at the G20.

READ MORE: Canada and the West caving to Saudi ‘blackmail’ with refusal to act in Khashoggi murder, says journalist

Human rights organizations have been pushing for an international investigation to seek justice in the Khashoggi murder, and also want to see greater action to address grave treatment of women’s rights activists and human rights activists in Saudi prisons as well as war crimes in Yemen.

Canada has also faced calls to sanction those connected to Khashoggi’s death.

It is important for Canada to send a message and sideline the crown prince at the summit, said Bessma Momani, a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation and a professor at the University of Waterloo specializing in Middle Eastern foreign policy.

WATCH: Mattis says no link between Khashoggi killing, Saudi crown prince

Bin Salman will be on a quest to show off that he is in charge, she said, adding he will likely want to be seen with every leader willing to give him time.

“I am looking for the Kodak moment,” she said. “I think the big thing to watch for us will be how should Trudeau handle this?”

READ MORE: Saudi non-profit deletes Twitter image depicting Air Canada plane flying towards CN Tower

It is unlikely Trump will have trouble shaking his hand, Momani added.

“He’s done everything to defend him,” she said. “We’ve seen the Saudis lower oil prices recently. That has made Trump giddy, quite literally, on Twitter.”

Trump has also defended his country’s ties to the kingdom following Khashoggi’s murder.

WATCH: Trump ‘hates’ Khashoggi killing, but calls Saudi Arabia ‘important ally’

The president has been accused of ignoring U.S. intelligence that concluded, according to a U.S. official, that it was likely the crown prince ordered the killing.

Several lawmakers have asked the CIA and other top intelligence agencies to publicly share what they told the president about Khashoggi’s death at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.

-with files from Mike Blanchfield and Associated Press


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Cirque du Soleil employees uncomfortable with upcoming Saudi Arabia performance


Cirque du Soleil’s decision to go ahead with more performances in Saudi Arabia next month despite international outrage over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is creating a malaise within circus ranks, The Canadian Press has learned.

Following stops in Italy, Germany and Croatia, the Quebec-based troupe will pitch its tent in Riyadh from Dec. 17-29 in a visit that has been in the works for about a year.

Daniel Lamarre, the Cirque’s president and CEO, is scheduled to be in the Saudi capital for the show “Toruk,” inspired by the James Cameron film Avatar.

READ MORE: Cirque du Soleil’s Saudi Arabia show ‘difficult’ for founder Guy Laliberté

But in light of recent events that have sparked an international political crisis, some artists are asking why the Cirque is sticking to its schedule.

“The approach is dogmatic, and the message sent by the company is, ‘We are a business, we want to make money and we are an apolitical company,” one Toruk employee, who asked not to be identified because she fears losing her contract with the Cirque, told The Canadian Press.

She and another employee decided to share their displeasure after Cirque founder Guy Laliberté last month expressed his own discomfort with the decision to perform in Saudi Arabia last September.

READ MORE: It would cost Canada $1B to cancel Saudi arms deal in wake of Khashoggi case, Trudeau says

The Cirque put on a show in Saudi Arabia on Sept. 23 to mark the country’s national holiday, which was before Khashoggi was killed but during a diplomatic quarrel between Ottawa and Riyadh.

The Cirque artists said they tried many times to approach the managers of the tour with their concerns, but they got nowhere.

WATCH: Trudeau says Canadian intelligence has heard audio recordings of Khashoggi murder

In recent weeks, the kingdom has faced intense criticism over the death of Khashoggi, who disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul Oct. 2. Saudi Arabia first insisted he’d left the consulate, then said he’d been killed in a fist fight inside the consulate before finally admitting his murder had been premeditated.

Turkish officials say a 15-man Saudi hit squad — including at least one member of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s entourage — tortured, murdered and dismembered Khashoggi.

One of the Cirque’s four pillars, according to its web site, is to “act as a responsible agent of change in the community.” But the second employee who spoke to The Canadian Press said the operation can no longer boast of being a change agent.

“We no longer think that Saudi Arabia has taken steps to modernize,” he said.

“This is a business decision. The Cirque is from now on just a business.”

The employee said the decision to perform in Saudi Arabia contrasts with the 2016 cancellation of Cirque performances in North Carolina to protest a law limiting protections offered to the LGBTQ community.

READ MORE: Jamal Khashoggi murder recording doesn’t implicate Saudi prince: U.S. official

Marie-Helene Lagace, the Cirque’s senior director public relations, acknowledged that senior management considered cancelling the Saudi shows despite being bound by a contract.

“It would be a lie to say this has not created a malaise,” she said. “We have also had discussions with our employees about it.

“Reactions surrounding these events are very emotional.”

She said the decision to maintain the Saudi dates was “very difficult” but fit with a desire to be consistent across the more than 60 countries where it has shows.

If the Cirque pulled out of Saudi Arabia, “we are going to have to do it elsewhere if we want to be consistent,” she said.

READ MORE: Timeline of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance

“How do we justify that we are not going to this country, but we are going to other markets where, potentially, there are other issues that are just as serious?”

The employees who contacted The Canadian Press said they will accompany the troupe to Riyadh because they do not want to have their contracts cancelled for the rest of the tour, which concludes in London next June.

“For artists who live on contracts, it is hard to know what will be our next job,” one of them said. “And for those who hope to work long-term with the Cirque, this situation could have repercussions on their relationship.”


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