Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland promised to correct course quickly after revelations the federal government accepted the nomination of a Canadian with allegiances to the Assad regime to be Syria’s honorary consul in Montreal.
Ms. Freeland said Tuesday she was shocked to learn from Maclean’s magazine that her officials last month signed off on Syria’s appointment of Waseem Ramli, a Montreal businessman who openly endorses Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a dictator Ms. Freeland and the international community condemn as a war criminal.
Ms. Freeland said she has demanded an explanation and advice on what to do next from department officials.
“The current situation is unacceptable and we intend to respond very quickly,” Ms. Freeland said during a campaign event in a Montreal suburb. “This was done without me being informed, or anyone on my political staff,” she added. “There is absolutely a question of vetting here.”
Ms. Freeland would not be more specific about how she might act. Canada could terminate Mr. Ramli from his post, as it did his predecessor. The federal government dismissed pharmacist Nelly Kanou, another pro-Assad Canadian, in 2016 after revelations she made unauthorized sales of $1.5-million in pharmaceuticals to Syria.
Canada could also shut down the offices of the two honorary consuls in Canada, which the previous Conservative government allowed to remain open after it cut off diplomatic relations with Syria in 2012, shortly after the civil war began.
A Vancouver honorary-consul post is currently held by lawyer Sawsan A. Habbal. Neither she nor Mr. Ramli responded to interview requests Tuesday.
Mr. Ramli told CBC Radio Tuesday morning that he would set aside political allegiances to fairly serve all Syrians living in Canada.
Adnan Al Mhamied, a Syrian refugee who came to Canada in 2014 after Assad agents detained and tortured him, says he hopes Ms. Freeland simply shuts down the missions. “The first thing you see when you walk into those offices are photos of the dictator and his father,” Mr. Al Mhamied said. “Some others might say we need the consular services, but I will never set foot in those buildings.”
Mr. Ramli, who owns a Montreal bar called Cocktail Hawaii and has helped fundraising efforts for Syrian refugees at several Montreal churches, hasn’t hidden his fealty to the regime. His red Humvee features an image of Mr. al-Assad in one of the windows and carries emblems of the regime and military. Those include the insignia of the Shabiha militia that has carried out numerous atrocities.
“I don’t think this person can serve people honestly and equally,” said Mr. Al Mhamied, who is a doctoral student in social work at McGill University.
Mr. Ramli described Syria’s White Helmet civil-security organization as “terrorists” in his interview with Maclean’s this week. Ms. Freeland often speaks proudly of the 2018 Canada-backed rescue mission of many of the White Helmet rescue workers, whom she described again Tuesday as brave first responders who “protected their people from the war crimes of Assad and bear witness to the war crimes.”
In recent years, Mr. Ramli made occasional appearances at Liberal Party of Canada fundraising events in Montreal, as well as making donations to the election campaign of his Liberal MP, Marc Miller. Mr. Ramli posted a photograph on social media with Justin Trudeau after a fundraiser last June – just before Mr. Ramli went to Syria and got the honorary-consul appointment. His Facebook profile features a photo of him posing with Mr. al-Assad posted in 2016.
Mr. Miller and Mr. Ramli also appeared at some of the same fundraisers for Syrian refugees in recent years.
“He’s always been very mild-mannered with me; his political views were largely unknown to me,” Mr. Miller said Tuesday. “I never saw the red Humvee. I’m just as shocked as anyone else by those comments.”
Mr. Miller said he wasn’t consulted about Canada’s acceptance of the nomination. The MP said Mr. Ramli told him after the June fundraiser that he was going to Syria and that he was in the process of getting the consul job.
“I told him I couldn’t do anything about it. He didn’t ask me to intervene,” Mr. Miller said. “I had zero input and I don’t even know how I would provide any.”
With a report from Michelle Zilio in Ottawa