No love lost

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

The embassy of Canada in Manila announced last week the release of some P1.1 billion in official development assistance for the Philippines. This is equivalent to $28.15 million in development programming for the Philippines in support of our country’s climate change adaptation, resilience against natural disasters and improved health care services, according to Canadian Ambassador to the Philippines David Hartman.

The latest Canadian aid came as it observes its 75th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral ties with the Philippines that culminates in December this year. Ambassador Hartman has been on top of preparations to mark this milestone event here with our government officials led by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

As part of these preparations, Ambassador Hartman invited selected editors of the Philippine media, including yours truly, to a sit-down dinner last Jan.31. Collin Townson, the head of the political section of the embassy of Canada, joined us in our conversations over dinner at the Ambassador’s official residence in Dasmariñas, Makati. Sensitive matters, however, were off-the-record.

On the record, however, the Ambassador told us he is looking forward to a number of activities here and in Canada being lined up to celebrate the upcoming 75th anniversary of bilateral relations. The most important of which, he cited, is the official invitation to President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. to make a state visit to Ottawa within this year’s anniversary period.

The invitation to PBBM was officially relayed in May last year when Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly visited Manila and paid a courtesy call on him at Malacañang Palace. PBBM has had several eyeball-to-eyeball meetings already with his Canadian counterpart, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in the past international gatherings they both attended.

The most recent one was the sit-down meeting of the two heads of state during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-Canada Summit held last Sept. 6 in Jakarta, Indonesia. According to Malacañang, PBBM mentioned the earlier visit to him of the Canadian foreign minister, who sought Philippine support for the ASEAN-Canada Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations and in elevating Canada’s dialogue relations with the ASEAN to a strategic-level partnership.

During his latest talks with Trudeau, Malacañang narrated that PBBM welcomed Canada’s renewed interest in its strong bilateral links to the Philippines despite the geographical distance between the two countries. “Your shift towards the Asia Pacific, Indo-Pacific now, is significant and shows really where the economies, how the economies are evolving… I cannot see any obstacles to our continually deepening relations,” PBBM was quoted as telling the Canadian PM in the post-meeting statement.

Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro Jr. earlier confirmed that a memorandum of agreement or understanding with Canada on enhanced defense cooperation is in the works and may be signed soon. Last month, Canada also indicated its interest to have a Visiting Forces Agreement-type deal with the Philippines.

Malacañang further disclosed the two leaders also discussed “the thriving Philippine-Canadian diaspora.” PBBM thanked the Prime Minister for his commitment to remain very hospitable to overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and Filipino immigrants in Canada. Over dinner with Ambassador Hartman, we were told there are close to a million Filipinos living in Canada, making them the third largest immigrant group next to India and China, in that order.

Technology aid is also facilitated by the embassy of Canada. This includes the use of Canadian satellites “free of charge” for the next ten years for civilian and military/security agencies of the Philippine government. Last month, the embassy of Canada co-hosted a two-day conference on “Fortifying Cyber Cooperation Towards Digital Security” where Department of Budget and Management (DBM) Secretary Amenah Pangandaman spoke in behalf of the Philippine government.

“The success of this event is proof that the ever-increasing people-to-people ties between Canada and the Philippines have been strengthened throughout our 75 years of diplomatic relationship. And we hope to further strengthen this long-standing friendship, especially in the areas of digitalization and economic development,” the DBM secretary cited.

Like in any “friendship,” however, sometimes, somehow it encounters some bumps.

National Security Adviser (NSA) Eduardo Año issued a strongly worded press statement last Feb. 4 reacting to erroneous online news it monitored. The NSA chief called out Canada for its  “travel advisory issued on Jan.10 that cautioned its nationals against trips to Mindanao.” But as it turned out, the Canadian “travel advisory” in its website even lowered the security advice for Siargao and Davao.

The Canadian embassy in Manila has been demonstrating its being most prudent in its public statements even in the past controversy it got entangled, not of its own making but due again to Philippine media reports. In Sept. 26 last year, Canada was dragged in the middle of squabbling “mistahs” (classmates) from the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class of 1989.

It broke out in the open after local media picked up a leaked information about the purported “deportation” of retired Philippine National Police (PNP) director general Rodolfo Azurin Jr. As reported in local news, Azurin was held by Canadian immigration upon arrival at the Langley Airport over the drug war of former president Rodrigo Duterte. Subsequently, Azurin appeared at a press conference and tagged his estranged “mistah,” PNP deputy chief for administration Lt. Gen. Rhodel Sermonia, as being behind the leaked false information.

DFA officials confirmed there was indeed an incident in Canada involving the former PNP chief. The DFA clarified though Azurin was not deported but underwent questioning by Canadian immigration authorities upon arrival at the airport.

Keeping to its diplomatic prudence, the Canadian embassy in Manila did not make any comment on case-specific inquiries, citing such immigration issues fall under the purview of its obligations under Canada’s Privacy Act.

So despite the NSA faux pas for its knee-jerk reaction to a media report, it got the same well deserved “no comment” from the embassy of Canada.

Incidentally, Sermonia officially retired from the police service just last month. Actually, he and Azurin are brothers-in-law because their wives are siblings. But the Azurin couple snubbed the traditional retirement party for Sermonia hosted by their PMA Class 1989 “mistahs” at Camp Crame. Obviously, there is no love lost between Azurin and Sermonia.

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