Harper erred on Olympics: Chretien
Stephen Harper made a political blunder by failing to attend the Olympic opening ceremonies in China, Jean Chretien charged Monday as he denounced the sitting prime minister for burning bridges and undoing decades of goodwill between the two countries with his swipes at the emerging superpower.
The Chinese will not likely forgive the Canadian government’s slights because they have a “collective memory there that is very important and plays a big role,” the former Liberal prime minister told a meeting of the Canadian Bar Association.
“I would have been at the Olympics myself,” said Chretien, who also lambasted the Harper government for alienating the Chinese by bestowing honourary Canadian citizenship on the Dalai Lama of Tibet.
“We’re blackballed,” Chretien said later to Canwest News Service. “We’re at the bottom of the ladder with China. We’ve lost a lot of ground.”
Harper, citing a scheduling conflict, was one of a handful of world leaders who skipped the lavish Olympics opening ceremony on Aug. 8, widely described as China’s coming-out party. The prime minister’s failure to attend has been viewed by critics as snubbing a country he has repeatedly criticized for its human-rights record.
Harper has had a tense relationship with Chinese President Hu Jintao amid the prime minister’s assertions that he would not sacrifice human rights to reach business deals with China.
Dimitris Soudas, a spokesman for Harper, shot back at Chretien, saying that he only attended one of six Olympic opening ceremonies during his 13 years as prime minister, when he went to Atlanta in 1996.
“For Mr. Chretien to sit there and say our relations with China are damaged because the prime minister did not attend is hypocritical,” said Soudas, adding the government sent a delegation led by Foreign Affairs Minister David Emerson.
Chretien said relations between the two countries have steadily deteriorated under the Harper government, reversing decades of hard-earned goodwill that began with Conservative government of John Diefenbaker, which sold wheat to China in the 1950s.
“Starting with Diefenbaker, and then with Trudeau, and all of us, we established very good relations with China,” Chretien told reporters. “And suddenly, you break a bridge. It would have been easy just to be there (at the Olympics).”