VATICAN CITY — As Prime Minister Stephen Harper was being shepherded around the Vatican’s inner corridors for his meeting with Pope Francis on Thursday, a mild kerfuffle broke out over the giving of gifts.
A Vatican reporter noted that Harper did not come bearing one. His staff went to pains to email journalists travelling with him — repeatedly — that Canadian protocol officials had in fact given their Vatican counterparts a rare hand-carved Maple Leaf sculpture.
Then there was the matter of the unusually short audience that Harper received — just 10 minutes, including translation, compared to the 50 minutes Russian President Vladimir Putin received the previous day.
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But Harper will wake up in Ottawa this morning, after completing his latest international trip after nine years as prime minister, having largely satisfied a clear domestic political purpose: shoring up support among some large Canadian diaspora voting blocs.
The prime minister’s every move was recorded by his 24/7 camera crew collecting images that will no doubt be used on the coming election campaign.
The footage was mainly of Harper, but also included a coterie of caucus members who were in tow over the course of his week-long travels to Ukraine, Poland, the G7 in Germany, and — albeit briefly — his truncated audience with Pope Francis.
The travelling media, which paid thousands of dollars per person to accompany Harper, was able to ask him six questions over the six days.
There are 1.2 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent and the one million of Polish descent still remain a key domestic political consideration.
Harper’s entourage also included representatives from Ukrainian community youth, the president of the League of Ukrainian Canadian Women, the president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, the president of the Ukraine Canadian Chamber of Commerce and a representative of the Bloor West Village Toronto Ukrainian festival.
On Harper’s plane, they joined three MPs and one senator with strong east European linkages with potential electoral consequences in urban ridings this coming October — Ted Opitz, James Bezan, and Wladyslaw Lizon, and Sen. Raynell Andreychuk.
New Democrat foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said the stops Harper made in Europe this past week are important for Canada’s international relations, but he questioned whether it was all with an eye toward domestic politics.
“The prime minister is visiting countries with strong ties to Canada and large diaspora communities here,” Dewar said.
“Canadians are left wondering what exactly he is hoping to achieve. It’s all fine and well for the prime minister to stop by, but does he have an actual agenda beyond just visiting?”
Harper’s spokesman Stephen Lecce flatly refuted that view, saying the MPs all bolstered Harper’s international agenda.
“These members have strong connections in foreign governments, helping to connect and grow Canadian business abroad,” Lecce said.
“They also played an active role in promoting our economic and security interests, including Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and the advancement of CETA,” the free trade agreement between Canada and the European Union.
The MPs also have family histories that connect them to more oppressive times under the old Soviet Union.
Harper offered a rare glimpse of the roots of his disdain of all things communist, when he participated in a moving wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw on Tuesday. Harper evoked his father, Joseph, as he milled about with Polish military personnel and some of the members of his entourage.
Defence Minister Jason Kenney pointed to the spot where Pope John Paul II gave his famous human rights homily in June 1979 when Poland was under communist rule — a historic moment that inspired Poland’s Solidarity movement, and which led to the fall of the Soviet Union.
“I remember it very well,” Harper said. “There’s very interesting history. My father was born and raised in Moncton, Canada, where much of the Polish air force trained during the war.”
Biographer William Johnson, author of the leading biography of Harper before he became prime minister in 2006, wrote that as a young man, Harper was drawn to a book by a Manchester Guardian reporter that documented the famine in Ukraine under Soviet strongman Josef Stalin, among other things.
Two days later, Harper was in Italy to meet the Pope. Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino, the Italian-Canadian who holds the suburban Toronto riding of Vaughan, turned up for that meeting and the subsequent one with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
A senior said Fantino is well-liked by the Italians and was an asset to Harper during his discussions.
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press