Skip to main content

With Prime Minister Stephen Harper looking on, Jean-Pierre Blackburn is sworn in as Revenue minister at Rideau Hall on Oct 30, 2008.Fred Chartrand

The poor soul who serves as Canada's permanent delegate to UNESCO has to live in Paris with ambassadorial rank, so Stephen Harper's government has turned again to a defeated Conservative candidate.

This time it's Jean-Pierre Blackburn, the former Veterans Affairs and Revenue minister who lost his Jonquière–Alma seat in May 2 election to the NDP wave in Quebec. The impending appointment, still not official, was first revealed by La Presse on Thursday.

Mr. Blackburn will replace André Bachand, the one-time Progressive Conservative MP from Richmond–Arthabaska, who ran for the Tories in nearby Sherbrooke in 2008, and lost. Mr. Bachand has returned from the city of lights and is heading to the Prime Minister's Office to serve as Mr. Harper's Quebec adviser.

The Prime Minister has already appointed three other defeated candidates to the Senate – and NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice was quick to compare Mr. Blackburn's appointment to Jean Chrétien's decision to shuffle off an embattled minister to serve as ambassador to Denmark. "Why is this government using the Alfonso Gagliano approach to rewarding failed cabinet ministers?" he asked in Question Period Thursday.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization promotes global literacy and education and is probably best known for listing world heritage sites.

Mr. Blackburn, when in Mr. Harper's cabinet, was known for fighting for benefits for his Saguenay region, but he also worked as a teacher in the past so he has some background in education.

Despite the Paris address, Mr. Blackburn is likely to find hard times in the halls of UNESCO as Canada has been frowning on some of its recent decisions.

The UN agency is dealing with the loss of U.S. funding, which makes up 22 per cent of its budget. The money was cut off under American law when UNESCO voted to admit Palestine as a member state. Canada, which also opposed that move, said it would not cut off UNESCO – but won't pony up more cash to make up the shortfall.

And Mr. Harper's government is again wagging a finger at UNESCO, because Syria was recently placed on the organization's conventions and recommendations committee. Among other things, the committee is supposed to examine complaints of human-rights abuses in the areas of education, science, and culture that fall within the UNESCO mandate.

It's not seen as a particularly important committee or one that has major human-rights responsibilities, and more than half of UNESCO members sit on it. But the fact that other Arab nations nominated Syria to serve on the committee just as the Arab League expelled the country for brutal crackdowns on protestors has annoyed Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

"While Canada was not involved in this decision, we find it deeply disturbing that Syria was designated by the Arab regional group at UNESCO as a member of the Committee on Conventions and Recommendations, given the Assad regime's continual and repeated violation of human rights," Mr. Baird's spokesman, Joseph Lavoie, said in an e-mail.