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Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives in Geneva, Switzerland, on Oct. 21, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives in Geneva, Switzerland, on Oct. 21, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Licking his wounds from UN vote, Harper looks to rebuild image abroad Add to ...

Stephen Harper will spend the weekend smiling, greeting and shaking hands with heads of government and state who let him down.

The Prime Minister is in Switzerland to attend the biannual summit of La Francophonie, the consortium of 70 nations with links to the French language and culture - though for some members, such as Albania and Greece, the French connection is tenuous at best.

Canada's close involvement in La Francophonie - the 2008 summit was held in Quebec City - was supposed to help its bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Instead, despite scores of written and oral assurances, most states supported Portugal, leaving the Conservative government to explain away its failed campaign. Now Mr. Harper must make nice with some of the very leaders who did him in.

Among multilateral gatherings, La Francophonie is particularly noted for a thin agenda. The assembled leaders will, as always, extol the virtue and importance of the global French community. Canada will urge redoubled efforts to aid stricken Haiti. There will be a group photo. Six hundred journalists are here for this.

But this trip is hardly without purpose. Prior to the summit, Mr. Harper will meet with Doris Leuthard, President of the Swiss Confederation, to talk about those infamous Swiss bank accounts. The Canadian government is concerned about 1,500 citizens who may be hiding income in Switzerland to avoid Canadian taxation. The Swiss and Canadian governments are expected to announce redoubled efforts to track down, tax and punish those who hold those accounts.

"If Canadians are using Swiss bank accounts to avoid paying taxes in Canada, these citizens will face the full force of the law," Mr. Harper warned in the Commons earlier this month.

After the summit, Mr. Harper will travel to Ukraine, the real meat of the trip. Despite the failure of the Orange Revolution and the election earlier this year of Viktor Yanukovych, a Russian Ukrainian whose commitment to the West, and fidelity to democracy, is suspect, Ukraine is of considerable importance to Canada. The two countries have begun free-trade negotiations, and the 1.2 million Canadians of Ukrainian ancestry are an important constituency for the Conservatives.

Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj, anticipating the trip, asked the government in the House of Commons Wednesday why the Conservatives were consorting with a leader "under whom democratic and human rights transgressions are regularly occurring."

"We do have concerns about the encroachment of fundamental democratic freedoms in Ukraine and yes the Prime Minister will raise those concerns during the visit," Minister of State Peter Kent replied.

The Prime Minister will visit the Holodomor and Babi Yar memorials, the first in memory of the millions of Ukrainians who perished under Stalin in 1932-33 during the Great Famine - Canada became the first nation, in 2008, to declare it an act of genocide - the latter to commemorate the millions more who perished under the Nazi occupation.

The trip concludes with a visit to Lviv, in western Ukraine, the region from which many of Canada's Ukrainian community emigrated.

The most important goal of this European tour might be to rebuild Mr. Harper's image as a global statesman. After the success of the G8, where Canada convinced the major developed nations to sign on to the Prime Minister's Third World maternal-health initiative, and the G20, where developed and developing nations endorsed Canada's proposal for a co-ordinated effort to reduce government deficits, the Conservative Leader seemed to be increasingly prominent on the world stage.

But Mr. Harper's staunch support for Israel, which alienated Muslim states, his refocusing of countries receiving development aid, which angered African nations who were left out, and his Johnny-come-late approach to courting China and India doomed the campaign to get on the Security Council, a defeat that the government cannot easily slough off.

In Switzerland and Ukraine, Mr. Harper will try to restore some of his lost lustre as a global statesman.

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