It’s a country that regularly ranks among the best places to live, and is often lauded for its tolerance and quality of life. But this week, a very different view of Canada has been peddled online amid an escalating diplomatic row between the two countries.
Soon after Saudi Arabia announced that Canada’s ambassador to the kingdom was now persona non grata, a surge of Saudi Twitter accounts began expressing concerns about Canada’s treatment of indigenous peoples.
Others – using strikingly similar language – threw their support behind Quebec sovereignty, backing a sentiment that has faded in recent years.
As Saudi officials criticised Canada for interference in its internal affairs, some lauded the kingdom’s restraint when it comes to Canadian issues.
“Saudi Arabia could have easily supported the 1995 Quebec independence referendum through the funding of media campaigns and attacks against the Canadian government to secure a Quebecan (sic) victory,” noted one tweet. It added: “But we do not meddle in other nations’ domestic affairs, clearly, unlike Canada.”
The nationalistic fervour playing out online was laid bare after a Saudi organisation apologised for a tweet showing a plane flying towards Toronto’s CN tower, in what appeared to be a reference to a 9/11 style attack.
The mixture of outlandish claims and genuine criticism continued on Saudi-owned media outlet Al Arabiya, where guests were trotted out to make wild claims that ranged from accusing Canada of supporting terrorism to having the world’s highest rates of female persecution.
Another segment listed off supposed prisoners of conscience in Canada, including Ernst Zündel – a German holocaust denier who was detained for two years in Canada before he was deported to Germany were he died last year – and controversial academic Jordan Peterson.
Peterson responded to the report on Thursday, tweeting “Help! I’m being held prisoner in Canada,” before touting an upcoming visit to Saskatchewan to promote his book.
The outlet also offered a detailed look at Canadian prisons, mixing in legitimate issues such as the excessive use of solitary confinement with the claim that, between 2015 and 2017, some 75% of prisoners in Canada died before their case.
Meanwhile state-run media in Saudi Arabia said on Wednesday that the country had executed and “crucified” a man convicted of killing a woman and carrying out other crimes.
In recent days Saudi officials have continued to escalate the row; making plans to move thousands of Saudi students and medical patients out of Canada, suspending flights to and from Canada on the state airline and halting purchases of grains originating from Canada by the country’s main state wheat buying agency.
The spat appeared to have been sparked last week when Canada’s foreign ministry expressed its concern over the arrest of Saudi civil society and women’s rights activists.
On Wednesday Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, said his government was engaging with Saudi Arabia to resolve the spat but stood firm on Canada’s stance. “We will, at the same time, continue to speak clearly and firmly on issues of human rights at home and abroad wherever we see the need.”