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Letter writers blast Tories on Palestine

OTTAWA - The Harper government was flooded with angry letters from Canadians after it opposed the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations, newly disclosed documents show.

More than 1,000 letters arrived over several weeks in late 2012 and early 2013 at the offices of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and several other Conservative MPs, the vast majority of them complaining that the government was not representing the balanced and fair-minded views of Canadian citizens on the divisive Middle East issue.

More than 80 per cent of the correspondence expressed clear opposition to the Conservative government's own vocal attempts to block the Palestinian bid for greater recognition at the UN.

The letters, released recently under the Access to Information Act, emerge just as Harper and a large delegation of Conservative MPs, cabinet ministers and Canadian business, religious and cultural leaders prepare to wrap up a week-long visit to Israel and Jordan.

Some of the writers — their identities were excised before the documents were released — expressed shame and anger, while others described themselves as Tory voters who would be voting differently in 2015 because of their stand.

Many expressed embarrassment for their country on the world stage because of the Conservatives' stance — notably Baird's November 2012 speech to the UN General Assembly that passionately opposed the Palestinian bid.

In one January 2013 letter, a writer expressed dismay at "the unconditional support given to Israel by the prime minister and his party. I believe this stance contradicts the opinions of the vast majority of Canadians."

Another noted, "I know that courting the Jewish vote is important to you. But the Palestinians have had a tough time in the last half-century. Couldn't you be a little nicer to them?"

Many criticized the Harper government for refusing to publicly denounce Israel for building illegal settlements on Palestinian territory — something the prime minister pointedly told reporters travelling to Israel with him this week that he had no intention of doing.

Indeed, the settlement issue was mentioned repeatedly in the more than 1,360 pages of correspondence that was reviewed by The Canadian Press.

In all, the pages contained more than 1,030 letters, with more than 830 expressing condemnation of the government's Middle East policy. More than 180 wrote in support of the government.

This flurry of letter writing mainly took place in the days leading up to and the weeks following the UN General Assembly vote on Nov. 29, 2012, in which the Palestinian Authority overwhelmingly won greater recognition.

Only a handful of countries — Canada, the United States, Israel, and six smaller nations — voted against the Palestinians. Baird's speech to the General Assembly that day was a lightning rod for letter writers.

Baird was flooded with letters in the days leading up to his speech — his opposition to the Palestinian bid was publicly known — urging him to change his position, or deriding him for a stance and rhetoric that many realized could not be swayed.

Some letters writers hurled angry, personal insults. Others wrote to Harper; one demanded to know whether the prime minister knew what his foreign minister was up to and whether he had "spoken up against John Baird's dreadful stance."

All of the letters eventually passed through Baird's office; the PMO appeared to copy him on everything sent to Harper.

"Shameful — shameful — shameful. What a disgusting Canadian you are, making us all ashamed of your biased and hypocritical position," one writer told Baird the day before his UN speech.

Another urged him to "stop spitting your venom at the United Nations."

One writer, having voted for Baird in the past, pledged never to do so again. "The current Conservative view will be on the wrong side of history and does not reflect the views of the majority of Canadians," the letter read.

Another added: "Canada is becoming a joke to the rest of the world."

Several Conservative MPs who received critical letters forwarded them to Baird, asking for an answer they could provide their angry constituents.

On the day of Baird's speech, then-Alberta Conservative MP Ted Menzies, who retired late last year, forwarded a series of letters from an angry constituent that he had been corresponding with.

"I no longer consider myself a PC voter at the federal level," the writer told Menzies. "I will not be voting PC next election!!!"

At various times, the writers said they were "mortified" or "ashamed" or "disappointed" at a government that was "out of touch" on the issue.

Baird was called a "spoiled child" by one, while another called the government a "Zionist lapdog."

"Your government sickens me," said another.

Despite a preponderance of negative sentiment, there is nonetheless a trickle of support for the Conservatives.

"It is to Canada's credit, yourself, and your government that you took a moral position at the United Nations, a body that sadly lacks any integrity when it comes to dealing with Israel, and is challenged in many other areas too," one writer told Harper and Baird four days after the UN vote.

Another supportive constituent of Baird's fondly recalled him knocking on their door nine years earlier, when he was a member of the Ontario legislature.

"At the door, you asked for my vote, I remember asking you what your opinion was on the subject of Israel. You wowed me with your historical knowledge of the Middle East conflict, and your appreciation of Israel," the letter said.

"You told me you believed in the Jewish state."

Several others, some of whom described themselves as Jewish, offered sincere thanks to the prime minister for siding with Israel.

"God bless Canada and Israel forever!!" said one.

Some correspondents offered thoughtful anecdotes, and a small number of others offered no position, but asked Harper or Baird for more information on theirs.

In a handwritten note, Harper was asked if he had ever travelled without a delegation "to the Palestine occupied area of Israel?" The woman, who said she travelled there with husband in 2010, found "deplorable" living conditions. She Canada should be standing up for the "underprivileged."

"Our Parliament and you, Mr. prime minister, have shirked your humanitarian duty by voting with the United States. I am ashamed of this action."

Harper departed Israel on Wednesday after becoming the first Canadian prime minister to speak to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. He returns home Saturday after visiting neighbouring Jordan, capping his first trip to the Middle East.

Harper was feted by the Israelis during his visit with an honorary university degree, as well as a tour of a bird sanctuary that will bear his name.

He also visited the West Bank, pledging $66 million in new aid to help the Palestinians build their battered economy.

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