Diefenbaker award missing in action after Liberals take over

A Harper-era award, named after Conservative icon John Diefenbaker, has gone AWOL under the new Liberal government.

The 'John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights and Freedom Award' remains in limbo, last handed out in late 2014 by then-foreign affairs minister John Baird, a keen admirer of the late prime minister.

The annual honour was inaugurated in early 2011, and given out for four years running before disappearing in 2015 and 2016.

Liberal insiders declined to comment on its status, other than to say that it could be "reoriented" and that nothing is imminent.

The missing award may be the latest twist in the symbolic game of erase-the-legacy, which every political party plays to some extent when a government of another stripe takes over.

Justin Trudeau's government removed a portrait of the Queen from the lobby of the Global Affairs building on Sussex Drive in Ottawa, for example, just five days after being sworn in.

Two paintings by modern Quebec artist Alfred Pellan were then restored to the space, exactly reversing a move that Baird, an outspoken monarchist, had ordered in 2011.

Awards killed, resurrected

Stephen Harper's government, for its part, quietly killed the Thérèse Casgrain Volunteer Award in 2010, which had been established by Pierre Trudeau's Liberal government back in 1982.

The Justin Trudeau Liberals resurrected the Casgrain award last April, and killed the Prime Minister's Volunteer Awards, which had been created by Harper in 2011.

A memo to then-foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion last year pressed for a decision on the future of the Diefenbaker award.

The heavily censored May 2016 document, obtained by CBC News through the Access to Information Act, appears to argue that the award should continue in some form.

Improve chances at UN?

"In the last few months, the government of Canada has taken a number of steps to highlight the importance it places on the respect of human rights both at home and abroad," says the so-called 'memorandum for action' from deputy minister Ian Shugart.

"You have outlined that harassment of human rights defenders is one of the key emerging human rights challengers of concern."

The document appears to suggest that maintaining the award in some form might improve Canada's chances for a two-year term at the UN Security Council, beginning in 2021.

The memo suggested Dec. 10, 2016 — the UN's annual human-rights day — as an appropriate award date. But no decision was taken, and Dion was subsequently shuffled out of the portfolio, in favour of Chrystia Freeland.

"No decision has been made at this time," said Alex Lawrence, Freeland's spokesman, declining to provide details.

The memo explains that the 2015 version of the award was not handed out "due to the Canadian election cycle and government transition period."

Multiple winners

The Diefenbaker award requires Canada's diplomatic missions to produce an annual shortlist of candidates for presentation to the minister, who was also free to ignore the recommendations in favour of her or his own choices.

Diplomats and others were asked to seek out individuals or groups "who have shown exceptional courage and leadership in defending human rights and freedom internationally, especially in the face of repression."

Honorees to date have all been foreign nationals. And in three out of four years, there were multiple winners.

Baird travelled to London, England, in late 2014 to give a speech honouring winner William Hague, the U.K.'s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict.

Hague, a prominent British Conservative, shared the honour with Carl Bildt, former conservative prime minister of Sweden, and with two girls'-rights activists from Nigeria and India.

Stephen Harper's Conservatives were particularly keen to recognize John Diefenbaker, 13th prime minister of Canada from 1957 to 1963, whose government passed the Bill of Rights and who rebuked South Africa's apartheid regime in the early 1960s.

An Arctic icebreaker, still not launched, and an Ottawa federal building were named for Diefenbaker in 2008 and 2011, for example.

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