The Canadian government blocked a visit by Carles Puigdemont days before the former Catalan president was to travel to the country at the invitation of a group advocating Quebec independence, his lawyer said on Monday.
Puigdemont had been scheduled to speak in Quebec earlier this month on his experiences as a leader of the Catalonian independence movement – including his spearheading of the region’s 2017 unilateral referendum on separation from Spain. His schedule was to include a visit to the province’s national assembly.
But days before he was due to land in Montreal on 2 April, the Canadian government revoked Puigdemont’s electronic travel authorization (ETA), a document issued to those traveling from countries from which Canada does not have visa requirements. Enacted in 2016, the ETA program was designed in part to weed out potential security threats.
Puigdemont is wanted by the Spanish authorities over the role his government played in trying to break away from the rest of the country in 2017.
“This guy is not a criminal or a member of a terrorist group. He was the democratically elected president of Catalonia, who happened to have organized a referendum like we’ve had here in Quebec,” said Stéphane Handfield, Puigdemont’s lawyer. On Monday, Handfield filed a motion in federal court contesting the cancellation of Puigdemont’s ETA.
A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said the ministry would not comment on individual cases. “Applicants are asked a series of question on issues including health and criminal history. On occasion if the department becomes aware of information that is inconsistent with that provided by the applicant, it will cancel the ETA,” the spokesperson said. “It is not a political process.”
Nevertheless, Quebec sovereignty is a touchy issue for the Canadian government. The province has often elected the separatist Parti Québécois party, which held referenda on sovereignty in 1980 and 1995. Though the PQ lost both, separatism remains a going concern; nearly a quarter of Quebecers still consider themselves “sovereignists”, according to a recent poll.
Many among them still despise former prime minister Pierre Trudeau for his staunch anti-separatist stance, and have about as much regard for his son, current the prime minister, Justin Trudeau.
“By blocking the democratically elected president of Catalonia, Canada is showing how it is hostile to Quebec’s right of auto-determination,” said Maxime Laporte, president of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, the pro-sovereignty group that invited Puigdemont to speak. “In Quebec’s name, the Canadian government is telling us who is welcome and who isn’t.”
In recent years, Quebec’s independence movement has suffered the ravages of old age and apathy, but the travel ban prompted some to ask if the Canadian government had unwittingly helped the cause. “If they had just let him in, there would have been far less reaction,” Handfield says. “I think the government is now wishing it hadn’t done this.”
Puigdemont was president of Catalonia from January 2016 to October 2017, but fled to Belgium after the Madrid government responded to his administration’s declaration of independence by sacking him and taking control of the region.
Other members of his government – including his vice-president, Oriol Junqueras – stayed behind and are now on trial at the supreme court in Madrid.
In July last year, a Spanish judge dropped the international arrest warrants for Puigdemont and other fugitive members of his government.
The dropping of the international warrant means Puigdemont and five former colleagues – currently in Belgium, Scotland and Switzerland – no longer face extradition proceedings. But domestic warrants remain in force, meaning the six will be arrested should they return to Spain.
It emerged on Monday that Puigdemont and two of his former ministers are to be excluded from standing in next month’s European elections after Spain’s central electoral board upheld an appeal from two rightwing parties.