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Press releases issued by federal government departments are shown in Ottawa on March 3, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Press releases issued by federal government departments are shown in Ottawa on March 3, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Harper accused of shaping language for political ends Add to ...

They are just words. But they mean a lot in the sensitive world of international diplomacy.

The Foreign Affairs department is engaged in a debate over changes to the language used in official documents that appear to have been mandated by the Conservative government.

Opposition MPs say the government is rejecting phrases that have become part of the lexicon of feminists and other activist organizations - to which the government responds that it has given no specific directive to dictate the language of diplomats.

Jamieson Weetman, a deputy director within Foreign Affairs, who inadvertently brought the matter to light - and who was summoned to testify before a Commons committee on Thursday - said it is not a big deal.

But an e-mail written nearly two years ago by Mr. Weetman to high-level colleagues within the department suggests he felt otherwise at that time.

The words "gender equality" have been substituted in letters, speeches and multilateral interventions with the words "equality of men and women," he said in the missive, which was later obtained and made public by an Ottawa-based diplomatic magazine.

The term "child soldiers" has been replaced by "children in armed conflict," he wrote. The word "humanitarian" has been excised from references to "international humanitarian law." And the term "impunity" has been removed in every instance.

For example, rather than telling the government of the Congo that it must do what is necessary to end "impunity" for sexual violence, wrote Mr. Weetman, the government now urges the Congo to take concerted measures or prevent sexual violence.

"Some of the changes suggested by the [minister's office]are more than simple stylistic changes," Mr. Weetman wrote. Abandoning the term "gender equality" takes something away from the internationally used terminology, and the replacement is more cumbersome and awkward, he said in the e-mail.

"It is not clear," wrote Mr. Weetman, "why the [minister's]advisers are making such changes and whether they have a full grasp of the potential impact on Canadian policy..." He asked whether it was necessary to hold a meeting with ministerial staff to discuss the changes - a meeting that subsequently took place.

But Mr. Weetman told the Commons status of women committee on Thursday that the e-mail was merely "the start of a conversation ... to decide what was the most appropriate language to use to accurately and efficiently express Canadian policy."

The Liberals and the New Democrats don't buy it. They demanded to know who in the government had coached Mr. Weetman and two of his Foreign Affairs colleagues before their testimony. The diplomats had ignored requests to appear before the committee until they were presented with subpoenas.

Melissa Lantsman, a spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, said on Thursday that no directive around language has been issued by her office.

"That said, it's a case by case issue in terms of language that we do use," Ms. Lantsman said. "In some cases, it's moving towards more international language. In some cases, it's a communications issue."

But, at the end of the day, there is no policy change here, she said.

David Angell, a director general within the Foreign Affairs department who was subpoenaed to appear before the committee along with Mr. Weetman, agreed. "Regarding the use of words, there is no policy that was imposed, no change in our practices within the department," he said.

But Anita Neville, a Liberal MP who sits on the committee, said it is clear that the Conservative government wants to do away with wording like "gender equality," which has been used by "equality-seeking governments, equality-seeking bodies, and it has very much been part of the feminist or activist language."

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