A hostage's death in the Philippines tests a new government

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion probably didn’t get much sleep Sunday night, knowing a deadline was looming many time zones away.

Canada holds firm to a principle, but with a painful outcome

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, centre, arrives with Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan, left, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion, for meetings at a Liberal Party cabinet retreat in Kananaskis, Alta., Monday, the same day news broke of Canadian John Ridsdel's death. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion probably didn't get much sleep Sunday night, knowing a deadline was looming many time zones away.

Canadians John Ridsdel and Robert Hall were among four people kidnapped from a tourist resort by Abu Sayyaf militants in September. 

The file would have been on the previous government's desk and was undoubtedly one of the first things the foreign affairs minister and prime minister would have been briefed on.​

They would have been told the militants wanted some $8 million for the four hostages held captive.

They would have been told that Abu Sayyaf is a small but radical group of Islamist separatists, and that the group resorts to brutal violence with little hesitation.

So when the perpetrators warned that if no ransom was given for Ridsdel by April 25, the government would have seen that threat as real and potentially devastating.

Canadian John Ridsdel was killed by the Abu Sayyaf gunmen in the Philippines Monday. (@JBR10000/Twitter)

A special group of public servants was designated to track the fate of Ridsdel and Hall, similar to what was done during the kidnapping of Robert Fowler and Louis Guay in December 2008 by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. 

The group would regularly provide briefings to the prime minister and the relevant ministers, with the understanding that the government policy of not paying ransom to kidnappers was long-held and not about to be changed by this new government.

And so, the government was faced with an unenviable and terrible decision: hold true to the policy of not paying out ransoms; or fold on the principle and potentially, but not necessarily, save this Canadian, knowing it might endanger others.

The government held firm.

Sending a message

It held firm, because as Trudeau said on Tuesday, paying a ransom would send the wrong message to the thousands of Canadians who travel daily around the world. It would send the wrong message to terrorists around the world who see kidnapping as an easy revenue source. 

It's why the prime minister was strong and insistent in his statement: "Canada does not and will not pay ransom to terrorists, directly or indirectly." 

'Canada will not pay ransoms,' Trudeau says

7 years ago
Duration 1:00
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said paying ransoms would endanger Canadians traveling, living around the world.

Canada shares the position with allies such as the United Kingdom and the United States.

"We need to make sure," said Trudeau, "that terrorists understand that they cannot continue to fund their crimes and violence from taking innocent hostages."

The problem, of course, is that other allies may not be so easily convinced.

A New York Times story in 2014 reported that France had paid $58.1 million US in ransom money to kidnappers since 2008. Perhaps not surprising, 17 out of 43 Westerners kidnapped by al-Qaeda during that period were French, the Times reported.

It is a brutal dilemma of nations: by paying the money to save a citizen, it may encourage more kidnappings.

But the issue is far beyond the nation and the government. Ultimately it lies with families of those captured.

A still image taken from an older video released by Abu Sayyaf militant kidnappers shows Canadians Robert Hall (left) and John Ridsdel (centre). The third male hostage is Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad. (Reuters/YouTube )

"Families are of course at liberty to make those decisions," says Christian Leuprecht, a professor of political science at Queen's University and a security expert. "At times the families will act against the best advice of the government in some of those cases." 

Although the United States has had the same policy as Canada, it was not until last year that the Obama administration officially declared families of American hostages would not be prosecuted for negotiating with hostage takers.

The Canadian government has not been strict. Families can decide whether they want to comply with kidnappers' demands, and the government will not normally stop them from going forward.

It means that even when a new government is so ruthlessly tested in its commitment to a policy position that has been held by various other governments, it can be upended.

Philippines officials said the hostages were taken at gunpoint during a late night raid in September 2015 on the Oceanview resort on Samal island, near Davao City, the largest city on Mindanao island in the southern Philippines. The hostages were believed to have been taken to Jolo Island in Sulu. (Mapbox/Canadian Press)

Not only by the families of those concerned, but by the brutality of those who have no principles.

It is an uncomfortable test for a relatively new government that has previously been criticized for a muted response to terror and threats.

There is no way to know now if the government will succeed in its stand.

All one can say at this point is that the principles have held firm.


  • A previous version of this story misidentified the second Canadian still held hostage. His name is Robert Hall.
    Apr 27, 2016 7:47 AM ET


Rosemary Barton is CBC's Chief Political Correspondent, based in Ottawa.