The past few days have been painful to watch as Canadian politicians grapple with the aftermath of recognizing and applauding a Nazi in the House of Commons. The episode and its response brings back memories from last year’s discouraging response to revelations that Canadian Heritage’s anti-hate program had provided funding to Laith Marouf, a known anti-semite. While there are obvious differences, the commonality lies in the pain to the Jewish community and the reticence for full-throated apologies and public engagement, misplaced hope that the issue will just recede from public attention, slow commitments to ensure it does not happen again, and reluctance to accept accountability for the inexcusable error.
In the case of Marouf, it took weeks for the government to take action and so many MPs remained silent that Liberal MP Anthony Housefather felt obligated to issue a public call for his fellow parliamentarians to speak out. Months later, the Canadian Heritage committee conducted woefully incomplete hearings on the matter and never issued a report. Indeed, then Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez tried to avoid discussing the matter altogether, arguing that responsibility for the program lay with his colleague Ahmed Hussen. Yet when he appeared on Bill C-11 in October 2022, opposition committee members made a point of asking him the questions he had previously avoided. In particular, NDP MP Peter Julian asked him when he was informed about the situation:
Mr. Peter Julian: So at no point were you informed between July 19 and August 22, even though Minister Hussen was consulting with the department, looking at procedural next steps and confirming the organization’s project funding details. Is that correct?
Hon. Pablo Rodriguez: That’s correct.
As I blogged soon after, that claim seemed completely implausible given that the issue had been percolating for weeks. Now new documents obtained under the Access to Information Act indicate that it was more than just implausible. It was almost surely false with the only possible excuse being the old stand-by for shirking responsibility, namely that his own people – including his chief of staff and deputy minister who were aware and had raised the issue – failed to inform him of the situation.
The first notable email came from then Chief of Staff John Matheson to Heritage Deputy Minister Isabelle Mondou on August 16, 2022, nearly a week before Rodriguez says he learned about the situation. Matheson sends a link to a tweet from CIJA about the situation. One minute later, Mondou forwarded it to the responsible Director-General within the department, who quickly responded that she was aware of it and taking action. For Rodriguez’s claim to be truthful, his chief of staff and deputy minister would have had to have kept the issue from him for nearly a week even as the issue attracted growing attention.
The second email links Rodriguez even more directly. About an hour before the Matheson email to the deputy minister, Rodriguez’s Grants and Contributions Coordinator sent an email to the Heritage department stating that the Minister’s office was seeking information about the same allegations found in the tweet. Their concern was particularly acute since they were holding an antisemitism roundtable that same day and were concerned the issue might be raised. In fact, Rodriguez tweeted about the roundtable later that day and his tweet shows that CIJA’s Richard Marceau was in attendance along with MPs Housefather, Taleeb Noormohamed (the new Heritage Parliamentary Secretary and one of the first MPs to speak out on Marouf) and Ya’ara Saks, who chaired the event. The issue was clearly known to many, if not all, in attendance.
Of course, it is possible that Rodriguez’s staff, fellow MPs, and deputy minister shielded him from the news as others ran interference for him in other ways. But as with this week’s events, I’d like to think that Canadian leaders would not want to be kept in the dark about these events but rather want to engage, take responsibility, and address them. The wake-up call that arises from both the Marouf affair and a Nazi in the House of Commons is that when the issue involves antisemitism there are still too many willing to remain silent in the hope that the issue blows over.