From Left to Right: Joël Godin (Cons.), Sharren Haskel, Ralph Jansen, Dr. Anat Berko, Yoel Hasson, Paul Lefebvre (Lib.), Alain Rayes (Cons.), Jean Rioux (Lib.) and Stephen Blaney (Cons.) in Israel. Every year dozens of Canadian Members of Parliament line up to take free trips to Israel, care of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) , a Canadian pro-Israel lobby group. Read more…
There is nothing wrong, in principle, with MP’s accepting invitations to visit other countries to gain insight into complex political issues which affect Canadians. Parliament has even established a conflict of interest code which allows MPs to accept “sponsored trips”, on the condition they report them to the ethics commissioner within 60 days. That report asks them to say what the objective of the trip was, who paid for it, and what it cost. Many MPs justify their sponsored trips by insisting they’re educational and offer them the experience and knowledge they need to debate international issues more confidently.
However, when the trip is paid for by one “side” in a difficult conflict, alarm bells should ring. “Federal ethics rules say it is illegal for lobbyists to do anything that puts an MP or government official in even an appearance of a conflict of interest, and paying for an MP’s trip that costs thousands of dollars definitely crosses that line,” said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch. When MP’s wives (or even children) are also invited to join the trip, the appearance of conflict of interest is even stronger as the line between business and pleasure is smudged.
According to The 2016 sponsored travel list, released last March by then federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson, twelve Liberals, nine Conservatives and three NDP members were recipients of $220,000 of largesse in 2016 from CIJA a registered lobby group.
These CIJA sponsored trips to Israel were usually labelled as “parliamentary missions” or ” opportunities to meet with stakeholders and government officials”, or trips “to increase personal awareness of the situation in the Middle East”. But according to i-Politics, CIJA also used its influence to lobby most of the MP’s at other times during the same year — in some cases, frequently.
Here is the list of MP’s who benefited in 2016 from CIJA or other pro-Israel lobby groups, according to Dawson’s report:
- Di Iorio, Nicola
- Fillmore, Andy
- Fuhr, Stephen
- Grewal, Raj
- Lefebvre, Paul
- Levitt, Michael
- Longfield, Lloyd
- Mendicino, Marco
- O’Regan, Seamus
- Rioux, Jean
- Ruimy, Dan
- Sorbara, Francesco
- Albas, Dan
- Bergen, Candice
- Blaney, Steven
- Gladu, Marilyn
- Godin, Joël
- Raitt, Lisa
- Rayes, Alain
- Rempel, Michelle
- Richards, Blake
- Dubé, Matthew
- Garrison, Randall
- Rankin, Murray
Where do the MP’s go on CIJA trips? What do they learn?
CIJA does not make public the itinerary for the travelling MP’s.
However, in a report to his constituents after a trip in August 2017, Edmonton MP Kelly McCaulay gave a detailed day by day description of the 5 days of meetings organized by CIJA for him and several other parliamentarians.
- a tour of the Knesset and meetings with Israeli Members of Knesset
- a tour of Yad Vashem, Israel’s National Holocaust Museum
- a demonstration of Israeli security concerns and actions
- a visit to Ramallah and Jerusalem’s security barrier
- a dinner with Dr. Yuval Steinitz, Israeli Minister of Intelligence
- a visit to the (occupied) Syrian Golan Heights, with a strategic briefing
- a visit to Masada, one of Israel’s most popular tourist destinations, where legend has it that Jews fought to their death against the Romans in 60 a.d.
- another strategic briefing in Northern Israel at the Misgav Am lookout overlooking Lebanon.
- a Shabbat Dinner with Ralph Jansen, the Canadian Deputy Head of Mission at the Canadian Embassy.
Noticeably absent from this list is any reference to any visit or meeting related to any of the Palestinian concerns. No visit to a refugee camp. No meetings with Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset. No mention of discussions with the Palestinian Authority. No mention of human rights concerns, or to visit Palestinians (including children) in Israeli jails. The group apparently made no attempt to visit Gaza.
Its hard to see how this visit would help MP’s to understand and learn more about the situation in the Middle East in any kind of balanced way.
So, should MP’s accept free trips from CIJA?
MPs should explore the world and know it better so that they are well informed when it comes to discussing and debating international issues relevant to Canada. That includes travel to the middle east.
MP’s have limited time and limited budgets, so it seems reasonable to take advantage of “sponsored” opportunities when they arise.
However, in travelling to countries where there are conflictual situations, it would seem important to see various sides of the issues at play. The higher the level of conflict, the more important this is.
Who would think it “ethical” for an MP to take a trip to Myanmar, for example, funded and organized by “friends of the Myanmar government”?
Who would think it “ethical” for an MP to take a trip to Myanmar today, funded and organized by friends of the Myanmar government? Especially if the agenda didn’t include visits to areas where the Rohingya are located or discussions with NGO’s about the Rohingya situation?
CTIP does not oppose sponsored trips to Israel in principle, if they are in fact aimed at understanding issues, and not just a free family vacation. Political parties should have guidelines for MPs travelling to areas of conflict like Israel/Palestine to ensure a balanced agenda which incorporates different perspectives.
In addition to travelling inside Israel and meeting Israeli officials, MP’s on a CIJA sponsored trip, for example, should ensure that they get to visit and meet with Palestinians inside Israel, in the West Bank and Gaza, to visit refugee camps and to meet with a range of international, Israeli and Palestinian NGO’s. Conversely, any MP on a trip funded by a Palestinian Canadian lobby group, should be willing to explore the Israeli perspective.
If the sponsoring organization is unwilling to accommodate a request for “balance”, individual MP’s should draw their own conclusions about whether the trip is really aimed at increasing “awareness” or whether it is aimed at winning friends and influencing people.
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