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Key Liberal MP rips his government’s policy on Gaza war in private call with constituent

A leaked recording of a phone call between a Liberal MP and a constituent reveals how deep the divisions run in the government caucus over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's handling of the war in Gaza, the genocide case against Israel and the decision to defund a UN relief agency in the middle of a famine.

Rob Oliphant, parliamentary secretary to the foreign affairs minister, said he's considered quitting

A man in a blue suit reads from a sheet of paper.

A leaked recording of a phone call between a Liberal MP and a constituent suggests the depth of the divisions in the government caucus over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's handling of the war in Gaza, the genocide case against Israel and the decision to defund a UN relief agency in the middle of a famine.

As parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, Rob Oliphant has the job of explaining and defending Canada's foreign policy in Parliament.

But in his conversation with the constituent, recorded on Feb. 1 without the MP's knowledge, Oliphant was clearly less than keen to defend the government.

Instead, he opened up about his reaction to the genocide allegation brought against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague and Canada's decision to defund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), the main UN agency providing aid to Palestinian refugees.

"My heart falls down in my body. My heart hurts, because the only way to get that aid there is UNRWA.

– Liberal MP Rob Oliphant

He also revealed that he's considered quitting his job as Joly's parliamentary secretary.

"I've come many times thinking, 'Do I quit that job? Do I just go back to being an MP?'" Oliphant said on the call.

CBC News is not identifying the constituent — who has been calling for a ceasefire in the conflict — because she fears publicity would lead to professional reprisals.

When contacted by CBC News, Oliphant said the conversation was with a constituent who was in pain over the crisis in Gaza and he'd hoped it would remain private.

He also said he made no statements in that exchange that he would not be willing to defend in public.

Defunding UNRWA the 'wrong decision,' MP says

"When I read that we were pausing money to UNRWA — I'm going to be very clear — it was political. And I don't just mean domestic politics. It has to do with our allies," Oliphant told his constituent. "I thought it was the wrong decision."

Canada was the second country in the world to suspend its funding for UNRWA, following the United States. It did so in response to an Israeli claim that 12 or 13 UNRWA staff had participated in various capacities in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Israel accused 10 of the men of being Hamas members and one of belonging to Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The war in Gaza began after the Oct. 7, 2023 attack in Israel by Hamas-led militants in which 1,200 people were killed, including several Canadian citizens, according to Israeli accounts. Israel has responded with a military assault on the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians, according to Palestinian officials.

The Trudeau government cut off UNRWA on January 26 — the same day the ICJ found there were grounds to proceed with a genocide trial against Israel.

In response to South Africa's allegation that Israel was using starvation as a weapon against Gaza's civilian population, the court ordered that "the State of Israel shall take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip."

That ruling is binding on all countries that signed the Genocide Convention, including Canada.

Israel said it would provide intelligence to back up its allegation against UNRWA but has yet to do so. The funding suspension has continued and hundreds of Gazans have fallen into severe hunger.

Oliphant said on the call that, even if the Israeli allegation is true, he doesn't agree with the Trudeau government's response.

"You don't stop aid to Gaza because of 12 or 13 employees out of 13,000. It drives me crazy," he said. "It is opportunistic, it is unfair, and it is maligning the operation of a UN organization that is doing, not perfect work — there's no organization that's made of human beings that's perfect, UNRWA has its faults. But it is the best we have for education, for medical care, for food, all of those things."

Oliphant, who is both a member of Parliament and a minister of the United Church, added that if the government was determined to cut UNRWA off, it should have found ways to redirect the aid flow immediately.

LISTEN: Government dropped the ball on UNRWA funding, MP says

Government 'bungled' UNRWA funding issue, Oliphant says

2 hours ago

Duration 1:26

Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, the parliamentary secretary to Canada's foreign affairs minister, said he believes Canada should not have halted aid to UNRWA in response to allegations that 12 of its employees were involved in the Oct. 7 attacks. Oliphant made the comments in a call with a constituent who is advocating for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war.

"I would have done it completely differently. I would have immediately said exactly the same money will flow to humanitarian assistance, we'll just find other ways to do it temporarily," he said.

"Our government bungled that and we should have announced it the same day. All that money and more needs to go to Gaza for instantaneous humanitarian aid.

"We have half a million people at starvation levels. We're going to have cholera. We're going to have all kinds of things in Gaza. We need an immediate ceasefire."

Oliphant has a long history of involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In his exchange with the constituent, he discussed his many visits to the region and to UNRWA camps, and his close personal friendship with a former Gaza director of UNRWA, Matthias Schmale, who was effectively expelled from the territory in 2021 after giving an interview to Israeli television that angered Hamas.

"I will defend UNRWA forever. Their work in Lebanon, their work in Jordan, I've been there, I've been to the refugee camps," he said. "I've examined the curriculum that people have gone crazy about, saying it's antisemitic. I don't believe it is. I think UNRWA is maligned every day."

Oliphant also spoke on the call of the need to be sensitive to the feelings of Canada's Jewish population and the "intergenerational trauma" caused by the Holocaust.

Ninety to 95 per cent of Canada's Jews are behind Israel right now, Oliphant said, adding, "I understand it."

"But I also understand that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is hurting Israel. Not only killing Gazans, but hurting Israel. So for the love of Israel, tell him to stop."

LISTEN: Liberal MP says he predicted position on Gaza would be 'misunderstood'

Liberal MP says he knew Canada's ICJ message would be misunderstood

2 hours ago

Duration 0:35

Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, parliamentary secretary to Canada's foreign affairs minister, said he advised the government not to say it doesn't 'accept the premise' of South Africa's genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice. The government was accused of spreading confusion about its position following its statements on the case last month. Oliphant made the comments in a call with a constituent who is advocating for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war.

On the same call, Oliphant also criticized the government's response to the ICJ case, which caused widespread confusion about where Canada stands.

Statements by Trudeau and Joly were widely misreported in mainstream media and on social media as dismissing the South African case and taking the side of Israel. In fact, their statements carefully avoided either rejecting or endorsing South Africa's case against Israel.

"I would not have done what the government did and I advised them not to do that, because I knew it would be misunderstood, and I think it was misunderstood as not agreeing with South Africa's case, and that could be perceived as not believing they should bring the case," Oliphant said on the call.

"And I'm simply saying no one will understand the nuance of 'it doesn't necessarily mean we agree or disagree' with the case … So I think that was a communications disaster. We should simply say, 'We're following the case.'"

"Now we should engage in every single piece of work to ensure that we, as signatories to the conventions, are abiding with [them]," Oliphant added, saying there should be "no weaseling."

MP says Israel 'probably' engaged in 'genocidal activity'

He also offered his own viewpoint on the merits of the case against Israel.

"Do I believe there's genocidal activity on the part of Israel?" he said on the call. "Probably yes, from what I have seen."

Oliphant stressed that he's not a legal expert and he was giving his own view, rather than that of the government.

On February 8, Oliphant was challenged in the House of Commons on his government's UNRWA suspension by NDP foreign affairs critic Heather MacPherson.

"Liberals made the decision to suspend life-saving funding to UNRWA without having seen any evidence of allegations or having waited for the results of the independent investigation," she said in question period. "UNRWA is the only organization that can reach Palestinians in Gaza who are starving and who are being killed in the tens of thousands, and the government cut life-saving support.

"The decision needs to be reversed, and somebody needs to be held accountable. Was it the minister or was it the PMO that decided Canada should turn its back on starving Palestinians?"

With the foreign affairs minister in Eastern Europe, it fell to Oliphant to respond:

"Mr. Speaker, let me be very clear. The funding that Canada is giving to civilians in Gaza has increased — just last week, $40 million more on top of the $60 million that was already there," he said. "This makes Canada a top donor for aid, helping with the crisis in Gaza. We are proud, and Canadians want us to help. Every time there is a time of emergency, we stand up and we are clear. We will always be there."

But the pride Oliphant expressed in that answer was not evident in his conversation with the constituent. This is how he described his reaction to the UNRWA decision in that call:

"My heart falls down in my body," he said. "My heart hurts, because the only way to get that aid there is UNRWA.

"We can't have 200 trucks a day. We need 800 trucks a day. We need more entry points. We need water access from the Mediterranean. And we need to push on those points. But we also need UNRWA, which is the only body that has the infrastructure to deliver the aid."

Oliphant said that any decision to divert UNRWA aid to other channels likely would be symbolic, because "the reality is that UNICEF or World Food Program or other agencies are going to have to use the same people that work for UNRWA. It's political and it's driving me crazy."

The Liberal MP said on the call that his role as parliamentary secretary means he is "not able to be as public as some of my colleagues are.

"I've come many times thinking, 'Do I quit that job? Do I just go back to being an MP?'"

He said a staffer persuaded him to stay on "because there needs to be a voice on the inside, not just on the outside."

But Oliphant also warned on the call that the government's approach to the conflict, and that of its western allies, will have dangerous consequences.

"My fear is that the Global South will absolutely rebel and raise arms, maybe literally, because we have not listened," he said.

He added that Israel — not other countries — should be made to pay the cost of the war.

"Israel needs to pay for rebuilding the country it destroyed. I don't want to pay for that," he said, before acknowledging that Canada likely will be called on to contribute something, along with Gulf Arab nations.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.

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