OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau showed no signs of ceding to Saudi Arabia Wednesday, saying the federal government has, and will continue to "speak strongly and clearly in private and in public on questions of human rights."
His comments come amid an ongoing diplomatic and economic dispute with the Middle Eastern nation, including the Saudi foreign minister saying earlier Wednesday that Canada needs to take back its critique of the country’s arrest of human rights activists.
"We have always had a positive and constructive relationship with countries around the world while at the same time always making sure we’re bringing up human rights concerns, because Canadians expect that, and indeed people around the world expect that leadership from Canada," Trudeau said.
"We will continue, we will do so in a constructive and polite way but we will also remain firm on standing up for human rights everywhere around the world," he said.
His comments come amid an ongoing diplomatic and economic dispute with the Middle Eastern nation.
Over the last few days Saudi Arabia has expelled Canada's ambassador and recalled its own; suspended trade and planned to sell off Canadian assets; ordered thousands of students and medical trainees to leave Canada; and is suspending Saudi state airline flights to Toronto.
All of this, according to the country’s foreign ministry, is because of what it considers "overt and blatant interference" in the country’s internal affairs.
Specifically at issue: a tweet from Global Affairs Canada stating it was "gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women's rights activists," that also called on the Saudi government "to immediately release them and all other peaceful human rights activists."
This tweet was referring to women’s rights activists detained in the country, including Samar Badawi, the sister of blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison in Saudi Arabia for critical comments. His wife and children became Canadian citizens at a Canada Day ceremony in Quebec, where they had been living.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted a similar comment from her personal account a day prior.
Earlier Wednesday, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister shifted responsibility for resolving the dispute back to Canada, telling a news conference in Riyadh that "Canada knows what it needs to do," according to multiple reports.
Adel al-Jubeir said there's nothing to mediate in the spat, and said Saudi Arabia is considering additional measures against Canada.
Speaking in Montreal, where he announced funding for jobs in Canada’s healthcare and aerospace sectors, Trudeau said Freeland had a “long conversation” with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister on Tuesday, and that diplomatic talks continue.
On CTV News Channel Wednesday, Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O'Toole said he’s glad that Trudeau and Freeland are speaking directly with Saudi officials, and said he doesn’t think an apology is needed, but perhaps a face-to-face meeting is required to smooth things out.
"You have to engage pragmatically," said O'Toole, citing the value mismatch between the two countries. "We're here to work with them if we can repair this relationship without sacrificing our values, I think we can do that."
Without commenting directly on the economic impact of the dispute and whether the federal government is planning to assist anyone impacted by Saudi Arabia’s measures, Trudeau said "obviously Canada will always stand up for our workers and our companies, we need to make sure that we’re protecting Canadian interests in any situation."
One company that is watching the developments closely is the London, Ont. plant that has been supplying light armoured vehicles to the Saudi security forces through the controversial $15-billion federal arms deal that employs about 2,000 people.
One Saudi student who spoke with CTV News outside the Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau in Ottawa on Wednesday said he didn't understand why Canada weighed in on the jailing of human rights activists.
“Canada was out of line,” said Omar Alabdulhai, who has one semester left in his computer science program at Carleton University.
He said students in Canada are hoping for the situation to be cooled down and the relationship repaired before they have to leave.
"I am 100 per cent sure that Justin Trudeau will apologize soon," the 29-year-old said.