The second in command of the largest labour organization in Canada attended a trade union conference in Syria last week and called for the end of sanctions against the country, which is run by an internationally condemned authoritarian regime.
In an interview with the Venezuelan network Telesur, Donald Lafleur, the executive vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), said sanctions on Syria are “completely unacceptable and the Canadian labour movement does support the people in Syria and we are here to put pressure to take the sanctions away.”
Syria has been slapped with a long list of sanctions by Canada and other international bodies such as the UN since 2011.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been repeatedly accused by the international community and human rights groups of war crimes and crimes against humanity. But the Syrian leader, backed by Russia and Iran, has clung to power despite the fact his country has been ravaged by conflict for the last eight years.
CBC News has tried repeatedly to contact Lafleur for comment.
‘No mandate’ from CLC
CLC’s acting communications director Joel Duff told CBC News the group was unaware that Lafleur was attending the conference, which was organized by the Assad regime, and is now looking into the matter.
“We were as surprised as anyone to be getting these questions because in fact we did not send a delegation,” Duff said.
“To be clear, we weren’t being officially represented there. He had no mandate from the CLC to speak on our behalf or to represent the Congress and it ought not have been represented that way.”
Asked whether it was appropriate for a Canadian labour leader to make such comments, Duff said Lafleur was entitled to his personal opinion.
“We need to get to the bottom of how and why those comments appeared in the manner that they did,” Duff said.
Duff confirmed Lafleur did not attend the event using any CLC funds but was unable to say who did pay for the trip. Duff said Lafleur’s comments do not reflect the views of the CLC.
In 2016, the CLC spearheaded fundraising to support the 27,000 Syrian refugees who resettled in Canada. It involved community and faith groups and their efforts were endorsed by dozens of prominent Canadians who added their names to a statement of support for the refugees.
For the labour-connected NDP, Lafleur’s statement on sanctions was jarring.
In a statement to CBC News, Quebec NDP candidate Guy Caron said: “We are shocked by comments made by Mr. Lafleur, especially considering the treatment of workers in Syria. We do not endorse them. The NDP has often spoken strongly against slaughter perpetrated by the Syrian government and its allies. We need to bring peace to the Syrian people and ensure those responsible for atrocities are brought to justice.”
Sam Ali is a Syrian refugee, CBC News has changed his name because he still has family living in Damascus and he fears for their safety.
He believes that having a Canadian labour leader even attend the event legitimizes the Assad regime.
“Currently we are under the Russian intelligence controls so if someone sends a team … to Damascus that means they are supporting the regime directly and supporting the Russians indirectly as well,” Ali said.
He balked at the idea of lifting sanctions against the country.
“No. Under the current situation no. Unless real action is taken from his side.”
Ghuna Bdiwi fled Syria in 2012 — she is a human rights lawyer and is currently working on her PhD in Toronto. She says the fact that Lafleur attended the Syrian regime’s conference is shameful and goes “against Canadian values.”
“Him being there is shame, normalizing the situation with the Syrian regime,” she said.
Sanctions, Bdiwi said, should remain in place.
“Canada took some measures to prevent and to protect, to protect, you know, the Syrian civilians and human rights,” she said.
The International Trade Union Forum was held in Damascus from Sept. 7-9. Though it’s been held in Syria before, it’s an odd setting for a union summit given people in Syria are not allowed to strike.
The two-day forum was attended by international invitees notably from North Korea, France, Sudan, China, Turkey, The United States, Egypt, Cuba, India, Russia, Holland and Czech Republic.