Events have a way of derailing things

Events like the crash of Flight PS752 can change the trajectory of an administration and inform the pressures and questions this government will face.

Canada once again caught between the U.S. and one of its adversaries

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"Events, dear boy, events."

So said our very smart power panellist, and senior writer for Maclean's, Paul Wells early last week when he quoted British prime minister Harold Macmillan — the man credited with making that line famous.

The quote is said to be the answer to a question put to Macmillan on what has the power to derail a government's agenda. 

Boy, is it proving to be true. 

This week has been awful. Can I just say that? I know there's political implications and complications, but at the end of the day, 138 people who were coming to Canada because they were either citizens of this country, or were connected to someone here, died. Their stories are crushing. The pictures they sent their loved ones before take off are honestly hard to look at because they're so sad. When I stop to put myself in their shoes, my heart feels broken. 

I'm sure the human tragedy here is weighing on politicians of all stripes as they figure out — or try to figure out might be a better way to put it — how to deal with the ramifications of the events of the last 10 days. 

After the Americans killed Iran's top military general, Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike on Jan. 2, Iran vowed to get revenge. Canada's military operations in Iraq were suspended and some personnel were moved out of the country as a precaution for the retaliation that would eventually follow. 

This was just the beginning of a crisis that consumed the government for over a week and could very well occupy its time for much longer. Time that's very important in a minority government. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to reporters with, left to right, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance and Deputy Minister of National Defence Jody Thomas at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

January is typically a quiet month in Ottawa. With MPs still on a break for the winter, governments often use the first few weeks of the year to map out their agenda for the months ahead and gear up for the return of Parliament. But this week, the prime minister and his team have been almost solely focused on the events in Iraq and Iran. 

Since last Friday, Trudeau has spoken with more than 10 world leaders to discuss the developments in the Middle East, including the Iranian president himself, Hassan Rouhani, as well as U.S. President Donald Trump, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and King Abdullah II of Jordan.

After Iran launched missiles at military bases in Iraq, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was holed up for hours with Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance and top national security advisers to determine whether Canadian troops in Erbil, Iraq were affected. Thankfully there were no casualties. 

That same night, Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 was shot out of the sky just three minutes after taking off from Tehran. On Saturday, Trudeau described his reaction to that event as "furious." Iran has now admitted to shooting down the airliner, insisting it was "unintentional."

Since the crash, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne has spoken with his counterparts around the world trying to pressure Iran to allow Canada access to the crash site. He's also established an international working group to press the Iranian regime for a full and thorough investigation into the disaster. 

When he first ran for prime minister, Trudeau pledged to re-establish diplomatic ties with Iran. That didn't happen in his first mandate and after the events of the last 10 days there will be new pressure on this government to more clearly define its position and policy towards Iran. Conservatives were already critical of the government for not taking a harder line on the country, even before this latest crisis.

Several hundred people gather around the Centennial flame for a candle light vigil to remember those killed on Ukraine International Airlines Flight on Thursday January 9, 2020 in Ottawa. Among the many painful details that have emerged about the downed airliner in Iran is the preponderance of young victims, and their deaths have sent waves of grief through schools and university campuses across the country. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

This week and the coming ones were supposed to be about planning for the return of Parliament. Instead, they've been anything but. 

As that demonstrates, events can change the trajectory of an administration and inform the pressures and questions a government will face, but they can also have an enormous personal toll. 

I'll be thinking of all of those affected by the downing of flight 752, the victims and their families, and the enormous loss they've suffered, as the aftermath of this event continues to unfold.

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This is just one part of the Minority Report newsletter. In this week's issue, Éric Grenier looks at the Conservative leadership race, as the first sitting MP joins the contest. Plus, the Power Panel gives their take on what the parties will be doing in the week ahead. To read all of that and more sign up for the newsletter here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox every Sunday.

About the Author

Vassy Kapelos is the host of Power & Politics. Prior to working in Ottawa, she covered provincial politics in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

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