Trudeau government missed opportunity to demand better from Qatar

OPINION: Given the discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and issues at the FIFA World Cup, more was expected from Canada 

The federal Liberal government has a track record of saying the right things when it comes to showing that they care about queer and trans issues in Canada and abroad, but when it comes down to brass tacks, can they actually follow through, or do they blink? Judging from their actions around the FIFA World Cup currently taking place in Qatar, it looks an awful lot like the latter.

Given the human rights record of the Gulf country, not only with the LGBTQ+ community, but also with the deaths of hundreds of migrant workers who were employed to build the facilities those games are being held in, there was an opportunity for the government to make a stand and not send a diplomatic presence as a sign that they did not want to condone that country’s actions, while at the same time not punishing the athletes who were heading to the games for the first time in decades. They did not do this.

Instead of sending that message, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) sent a diplomatic representative, the minister of International Development, Harjit Sajjan. This was after sports minister Pascale St-Onge, Canada’s first out lesbian Cabinet minister, outright refused for obvious reasons, but also given her background as a union leader, she was equally concerned about the rights of the affected migrant workers. In the leadup to the decision, St-Onge had been vocal about some of the messaging being put out from around the World Cup, such as clapping back at the then-U.K. foreign minister, James Cleverly, who suggested that queer and trans soccer fans heading to the World Cup show some “compromise” and “be respectful of the host nation.”

“Being gay is not something you leave at the door when you enter a foreign country,” St-Onge tweeted in response. “Sport should be open to all, and fans should be able to cheer for their team as their authentic self. The safety & security of all Canadians who attend the FIFA World Cup must be ensured.”

When FIFA started sanctioning players who wore “One Love” rainbow armbands, St-Onge spoke out in a press scrum in the foyer of the House of Commons.

“Sports organizations are trying to separate politics and sport, but these types of decisions are also a political decision to restrain the freedom of expression of athletes that want to share their solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community,” St-Onge told reporters. “So, I feel like it’s unfortunate. Athletes should have the right to express their opinion and at the same time protect the sport environment and make sure that all athletes can compete fairly.”

 

As for why the PMO chose Sajjan, according to the Senior Liberal Sources™ quoted by the Hill Times, he had connections to Qatar as a former defence minister, particularly because that government helped get a number of Canadians out of Afghanistan during the Taliban takeover in 2021. They also felt that in his current role as international development minister, he could raise those issues around human rights, both for LGBTQ+ communities and migrant workers.

But did he really? After a Canadian Press story pointed out criticism that Sajjan was relatively quiet on those issues during his trip, Sajjan tweeted that he had a “constructive dialogue” with the Qatari government on “on supporting LGBTQ2I & human rights.” 

“I raised the need to continue the ILO’s work improving migrant workers’ conditions after the World Cup,” he posted, and thanked them for supporting girls’ education in Afghanistan, but there was no condemnation of the treatment of Qatar for their treatment of queer and trans people (homosexuality is criminalized in the country and is punishable by up to three years in prison), or for the deaths of migrant workers in what has been described as a “modern-day slave state.” There was also no condemnation of the corruption that won Qatar the World Cup bid in the first place, or the fact that they have used their wealth to silence their critics at every available juncture.

Meetings behind closed doors and reported by a trite and sanitized tweet don’t exactly demonstrate that Canada is trying to walk the walk, particularly when it’s a stage like the World Cup and you can see the oppression happening right in front of you, whether it’s the rules about respecting the host country’s ultra-conservative values that border on absurdity, or FIFA handing out yellow cards to players who wear the armbands as a means of silencing that protest, while any fan spotted with a rainbow is hassled by officials at the games and often turned away from the events. If anything, it should obligate Sajjan to say something where he has the platform to do so, and the clout with the government because of these vaunted connections that made him the PMO’s choice in the first place.

If anything, the fact that the PMO sent a diplomatic representative when there were numerous calls for them not to, when one of their own ministers refused, and the fact that they sent a minister who already had a damaged reputation and a demonstrated unwillingness to stand up to the toxic culture of the military during his time as defence minister, seems to indicate that they weren’t willing to have Canada stand up to what is happening at the World Cup. Even more to the point, it looks suspiciously like Canada is willing to go along with the sportswashing of Qatar’s human rights abuses, whether it’s their queer and trans communities who are oppressed, or the deaths of those migrant workers who were trying to work off impossible debts, and that Qatar can continue to act with impunity because they are a rich, oil-producing state.

While it’s great that we have a minister like St-Onge who can call out Qatar and FIFA from afar, the fact that the prime minister sent a minister to the games at all, and one who wasn’t willing to condemn his hosts for their actions, is not exactly a way for this government to show that they’re walking the walk.

Dale Smith is a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and author of The Unbroken Machine: Canada's Democracy in Action.

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