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editorial

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a press conference at the Paris Agreement on climate change held at the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan last week.Brendan McDermid/Reuters

"I want to make one thing perfectly crystal clear," a defiant Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Tuesday. "Canada does not and will not pay ransom to terrorists, directly or indirectly."

A day earlier, the body of John Ridsdel, a Canadian held hostage by an Islamic terrorist group in the Philippines, was discovered in a remote part of the country. Mr. Ridsdel was murdered by his captors because a ransom payment offered by his family and friends wasn't deemed sufficient, according to multiple sources.

So does Canada pay ransom, or facilitate its payment, or not? The evidence is solidly on the side of yes, in fact, we do.

On Wednesday, Gar Pardy, a former director general of Canada's consular affairs bureau, wrote in the Ottawa Citizen that "before I retired from the Foreign Service, I managed the release of more than 100 kidnapped Canadians in all parts of the world.

"I cannot provide details but it can be said with certainty: If a kidnapped person has been released, then a ransom of some sort has been paid."

When Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, two Canadian diplomats, were kidnapped in Niger in December 2008 and released 130 days later, the prime minister of the day, Stephen Harper, insisted that no ransom was paid. Two years later, a leaked U.S. State Department cable suggested the pair were freed thanks to a ransom that is now thought to have been about $1-million.

Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other hideous groups make millions by kidnapping Westerners and demanding ransoms. The governments of the kidnap victims always make it perfectly crystal clear that they do not negotiate with terrorist groups. And then they work behind the scenes to secure their citizens' release, or offer support to families trying to negotiate for their loved one's life. Very quietly, ransoms are delivered.

Mr. Trudeau must take a firm and unequivocal stance – in public. But a blanket refusal to negotiate is not always the right response. The evidence suggests that our government has actively worked in the past to free Canadian hostages, and was willing to let ransoms be paid.

Which raises a troubling question: Why did the efforts to free Mr. Ridsdel fail? Could the Trudeau government have done more to save him, the way previous governments apparently saved others? Or did a new intransigence on this government's part doom him?