Harper says 'due diligence' done on charity for Syrian aid

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says officials have done their research and due diligence in picking a newly formed group called Canadian Relief for Syria to deliver $2 million in medical aid in Syria.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird greets a Syrian refugee boy at Zaatari refugee camp, in Mafraq, Jordan, Aug. 11. (Mohammad Hannon/Associated Press)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said a group getting $2 million from the federal government for humanitarian aid in Syria has the "appropriate connections" to deliver help on the ground.

The aid money for a newly formed group called Canadian Relief for Syria was announced by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird over the weekend while he visited a refugee camp on the Jordan-Syria border. A news release from Baird's department said the money will help provide "better and more timely medical care for Syrian civilians who need it."

He also announced $6.5 million to help Jordan absorb refugees who are fleeing the violence. The new pledge of money is in addition to $8.5 million already committed to the international relief effort for Syria.

Harper was asked Monday why the government would pick a new group with limited experience, that doesn't have charitable status, to receive funds rather than more experienced, registered charities such as the Red Cross.

"I'm told that our officials have done due diligence on all the organizations to which we've given money. They have, I'm told, the appropriate connections by which to deliver aid on the ground," Harper said. "It is our officials who carefully research these groups and make sure they fit the needs of the Government of Canada."

A source told CBC News that this money is meant to provide medical aid to opposition groups battling Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Canadian Relief for Syria, however, says on its website that it is non-political and helps Syrians in need regardless of their political affiliation.

Momtaz Almoussly, a board member of the group, said in an interview with Evan Solomon, host of CBC News Network's Power & Politics, that he can't speak for the government on why his group was chosen to receive funds, but that his group specializes in medical and humanitarian relief.

He also said that his group provides medical assistance to anyone who is injured, regardless of political or ethnic background.

"We believe in universality, we believe in impartiality and these are the principles governing our work," he said.

Almoussly said his charity was founded near the end of 2011 by engineers, doctors and people with management backgrounds and that it is affiliated with a Paris-based charity that delivers medical aid. 

Deepak Obhrai, parliamentary secretary to Baird, said on Power & Politics that the French government recommended the Paris-based charity, and it recommended the affiliate in Canada.

He said no money has been given to the group yet and that the government is waiting for specific proposals about how the money will be used.

Baird noted on the weekend that Canada has provided non-lethal support to the opposition, mainly by aiding the Syrian National Council opposition group. Baird has met with representatives of the group in Ottawa.

Baird has expressed frustration with Russia recently for blocking the UN Security Council's attempts to take stronger action against Syria, and has said "Canada can and wants to do more," particularly in areas of medical support.

Canadian Relief for Syria is in the process of applying for charitable status with the Canada Revenue Agency. In the meantime, if someone clicks on "donate" on its website, they are redirected to the website of another charity, Human Concern International.

HCI has faced controversy in the past over its links to the father of Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr, Ahmed Said Khadr, who helped finance al-Qaeda when he was HCI's representative in Pakistan and was later killed in a gun battle. HCI has never been charged with any terrorist activities, and the organization says it now has better checks on its operations.

Almoussly said his group has a co-operative relationship with the charity, limited to the Syrian situation.

"We are co-operating with each other to provide efficient and urgent medical care," he said.

Almoussly said his group uses HCI's website infrastructure to collect donations because it is too expensive to set up its own. He added that his group is not a registered charity and can't issue tax receipts, so HCI is helping them in that regard.

A Foreign Affairs spokesman said Baird was aware of Canadian Relief for Syria's connection to HCI and that Canadian officials have been assured that no taxpayer funds will be provided to HCI.