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Canadian officials have met with Taliban more than a dozen times since Kabul fell: documents

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Canadian government officials have met with representatives of the Taliban on at least 13 occasions in Qatar since it swept to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, documents obtained by CBC News reveal.

The documents, obtained through access to information law, show David Sproule, Canada’s senior official for Afghanistan, has been — along with various Global Affairs Canada (GAC) officials and representatives of allied countries — pressing the Taliban for commitments on extending the right to an education to women, fighting terrorism and granting safe passage to Afghans who want to leave the country.

Unlike foreign affairs departments in the U.S. and Pakistan, Canada does not provide regular updates on its talks with the government in Afghanistan.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly declined an interview request for this story, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told journalists Wednesday morning that Canada has no intention of recognizing the Taliban as Afghanistan’s government.

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“The reality is, along with international partners, we have to continue to press on them to respect womens’ rights, to make sure the girls can go to school, to help the safe passage of people who want to leave Afghanistan. There is a need to engage even though we will not be recognizing them,” he said.

In a statement, GAC spokesperson Charlotte MacLeod emphasized how Sproule has been engaging the Taliban informally, with allied countries, and all would continue to press them on human-rights related issues, fighting terror and other “key priorities.”

(From left) Brig.-Gen. David Fraser, U.S. Maj.-Gen. Benjamin Freakley and David Sproule, the Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan, speak with reporters after the change of command ceremony that put Fraser in charge of coalition troops on the ground in southern Afghanistan on Feb. 28, 2006. (The Canadian Press)

The documents obtained by CBC News are mostly emails Sproule sent to his GAC colleagues. They show the Taliban has made its own requests of Canada and other countries — and has issued denials regarding the dangers faced by Afghans trying to leave, despite multiple reports by CBC News and other media outlets about those dangers.

In a meeting on Oct. 12, 2021 — not long after it took over — the Taliban asked representatives of foreign governments to reopen their embassies in Kabul.

According to a note Sproule wrote to his colleagues, Afghanistan’s acting foreign minister at the time, Amir Khan Muttaqi, also asked those governments to lift their sanctions and claimed his government was inclusive because it included ethnic minority representation and “women in government have not been fired.”

The Canadian embassy’s entrance gate after the evacuation in Kabul on August 15, 2021. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

During that same meeting, Sproule reported, the Taliban claimed that “people are using security as an excuse to leave the country, but are really leaving to seek economic opportunities.” Sproule said the Taliban also claimed that while it did not want anyone to leave, it would “not create hurdles if they wanted to go.”

Sproule said that the Taliban suggested that foreign governments “interested in helping women … should start by paying the salaries of 200,000 female teachers, including 28,000 in Kabul.”

Sproule reported that during his next meeting with Afghan government representatives, also in October, the Taliban acknowledged “a minor problem in cabinet” — a lack of women.

Taliban representatives also claimed, he said, that “women judges, prosecutors and others” taking part in demonstrations against the regime “are deliberately provoking security personnel to retaliate against them so they can produce video of the retaliation to back up their claims for asylum abroad.”

Women demonstrate ahead of the first anniversary of the Taliban's return to power in Kabul on Saturday.
Taliban fighters fired into the air to disperse a rally by women in front of the education ministry building in Kabul days before the first anniversary of the hardline Islamists’ return to power on August 13, 2022. (Nava Jamshidi/Getty Images)

Sproule reported the Taliban accused “the international community” of a double standard because it “recognized many other governments that came to power by force but had the support of the people.”

He said that on Nov. 23, he asked another Taliban official (whose name and title were redacted in the documents) why they would not consider a power-sharing agreement “with respected figures outside the movement to give it added legitimacy.”

The Taliban representative agreed there would be an “advantage in doing so,” Sproule said, since the last four decades in Afghanistan showed that one political group could not fully control the country by force — but the regime was maintaining “100 per cent monopoly over power.”

Embassy intrusion

The correspondence also showed Sproule was troubled by Taliban members entering Canadian diplomatic property on Sept. 10, 2021, a little less than a month after the regime seized power and after Canada announced it was temporarily shutting its embassy and vacating staff.

A report by the British news organization Sky News from that day shows journalists entering the British and Canadian embassies accompanied by Taliban security guards. Footage from the Canadian compound shows discarded bottles of wine on the ground and a Taliban member saying, “They must have had a lot of money to eat this much … They used to eat good food, get drunk and then have sex with each  other.”

The first reference to this event in Sproule’s documents comes in a note he wrote on Sept. 20, 2021. In it, he says he plans to formally register “concern about Taliban individuals entering our diplomatic property in Kabul in violation of Afghanistan’s treaty obligation to protect diplomatic property.”

The documents say Sproule brought up the event again during meetings in October and November of 2021 with different Taliban representatives. He reports he was told to “forward the video clip of the incident for the matter to be pursued.”

The last meeting between Sproule and Taliban representatives summarized in the documents took place on Feb. 16 of this year. One document says Sproule warned the Taliban that “future engagement of the international community” with their government would be “directly influenced by its actions against terrorist groups” and that Afghanistan should “not again be allowed to serve as a base for terrorist activities.”

In response, says the document, Taliban defence official Abdullah Hanefi insisted that the Taliban controlled “all of Afghanistan’s territory” and while small cells might exist, no terror group was using Afghanistan as a training ground or to finance activities.

Nipa Banerjee, a professional in residence at the University of Ottawa School of International Development and Global Studies, said that while it may not be easy to conduct diplomacy with the Taliban, “it is absolutely essential.”

“Abandoning the Taliban at this stage, to me, is equivalent to abandoning the ordinary Afghans who have nobody to support them,” she said.

Banerjee worked at the Canadian embassy in Kabul for four years that overlapped with Sproule’s tenure as ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007.

Nipa Banerjee, a former staffer at the Canadian Embassy in Kabul, says the Canadian government and western allies should set clear benchmarks for the Taliban. (Toni Choueiri/CBC)

Banerjee said Canada could team up with allies in the international community to open a representative office in Afghanistan in order to have a presence on the ground — without committing to a full embassy.

She said such an office could fact-check Taliban claims that it is allowing girls to return to school and is not jailing political dissidents.

“Whether or not [the Taliban] are trustworthy is something that needs to be established and the government has to figure out how to establish that,” she said.

“I’m saying that fact-checking with goals, outcomes and indicators of outcomes, this can be done and we should work on that.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Wednesday that while he doesn’t support recognizing the Taliban government, he does support talks between Canada and the Taliban.

“Our goal as New Democrats is to make sure we get people that have put their lives at risk, that have supported our troops, we find a way to get them to safety,” Singh told a news conference.

“If that means having some meetings and having ongoing dialogue, then for the goal of securing the release and the safety of those who have put their lives at risk to support our troops, yes, we should do that.”

Singh added he also wants to see the Canadian government put pressure on the Taliban to respect human rights in Afghanistan.

GAC’s departmental statement to CBC News suggested it has little basis to believe the Taliban’s claims. It noted “the human rights situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate severely, especially with regard to secondary education for girls,” and it is “deeply concerned about reports of extrajudicial punishments … such as reprisals and summary executions, disappearances and detentions.”

Canada has allocated more than $143 million in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and the region this year.

Former foreign affairs minister Marc Garneau appointed Sproule as senior official for Afghanistan during the last Canadian federal election. He made the announcement on Twitter on Aug. 27, 2021.

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China to firmly protect lawful rights of domestic firms following U.S. ban

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China will take necessary measures to firmly uphold the lawful rights and interests of Chinese companies in the wake of the recent U.S. move to ban imports and sales of telecommunications equipment from five Chinese firms, said a Chinese Ministry of Commerce spokeswoman on Thursday.

Shu Jueting, the spokeswoman, made the statement at a press conference in Beijing, responding to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s latest ban on the imports and sales of telecommunications equipment from five Chinese companies under the pretext that these companies pose “an unacceptable risk” to U.S. national security.

The U.S. side has time and again overstretched the concept of national security and abused national power to maliciously suppress Chinese companies, Shu said, adding that China is firmly opposed to such moves.

Such practices on the part of the United States will not only harm the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese firms, but also hurt the interests of U.S. companies and consumers, undermine the international economic order and trade rules, and are of no good to either side and the world at large, Shu said.

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The United States should immediately correct its mistake, stop politicizing and weaponizing economic and trade issues, and treat all enterprises, including the Chinese ones, equally, Shu added.

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Flu surges on heels of RSV, COVID-19 to overwhelm children’s hospitals in Canada

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A flu season that started early, hospitalized far more children than usual and overwhelmed emergency departments has revealed that Canada’s healthcare system is chronically underfunded when it comes to the most vulnerable citizens, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist says.

Dr. Jesse Papenburg, who works at Montreal Children’s Hospital, said a system that was already struggling with a surge of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, on the heels of COVID-19 is now overwhelmed in much of the country.

“Certainly, Ontario and Alberta in particular have been hit very hard with an early and really quite explosive influenza season in pediatrics when it comes to more severe disease requiring complex hospitalization. And we’re also observing in Montreal as well that our influenza admissions are really starting to pick up,” he said.

The last week of November saw the highest number of pediatric hospitalizations for a single week in the past decade, said Papenburg, who is also an investigator for IMPACT, a program that monitors hospitalizations for vaccine-preventable diseases at 12 children’s hospitals across the country.

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A typical flu season sees about 1,000 kids admitted to hospital. Due to pandemic public health measures, he said last season saw only 400 and there were none the season before that.

Up to the end of November, over 700 children had been hospitalized with the H3N2 strain of the flu, which typically takes a toll on older adults. But the season could continue until March or April, Papenburg said of the unexpected epidemic.

“When you’re already stretched to the limit under normal circumstances and there’s something exceptional that takes place, it really has a greater impact on the type of care that we can deliver to Canadian children,” he said. “It’s unacceptable, in my view, that this is happening, that we are having to delay important surgeries for children because we need those resources for dealing with acute respiratory infections.”

While the number of RSV hospitalizations is stabilizing, there’s still a “significant burden of disease requiring complex hospitalization,” he said of the Montreal hospital.

Alex Munter, president of Ottawa pediatric hospital CHEO, said the Red Cross will be helping take some of the pressure off critical-care staff starting this week.

He said two teams of nine people will work rotating overnight shifts and that some will be porters while others get supplies or sit with patients.

“Having these Red Cross teams on-site will allow us to send back redeployed staff to their home base,” he said.

“The test positivity rate last week for flu was 30 per cent compared to 10 per cent at the end of October. That’s a big increase and it’s still climbing so flu hospitalizations are increasing and RSV is plateauing,” Munter said.

CHEO, including its emergency department and urgent care clinic, is also getting help from pediatricians, family doctors and nurses in the community while some patients are being transferred to adult hospitals, Munter said.

“We can’t run our hospital this way in perpetuity. I think the moral of the story here is that we have undersized child and youth health system in Canada.”

SickKids in Toronto continues to see high patient volumes in the pediatric intensive care unit and since November has reduced the number of surgeries so staff can be redeployed to provide care in that unit.

“We have been co-ordinating closely with other hospital partners that have the ability to care for some pediatric patients,” the hospital said in a statement, adding it is not currently seeking staffing support from external organizations.

Dr. Shazma Mithani, an emergency room doctor at both the Stollery Children’s Hospital and Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, said a temporary closure of a pediatric hospice in Calgary is “tragic” as staff are being diverted to a children’s hospital.

“It means that kids who are dying are not getting the palliative and comfort care that they deserve and need, and that acute care is taking priority over that,” Mithani said.

Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos has said Ottawa recently gave provinces an additional $2 billion as calls grow for both levels of government to do more to help hospitals facing unprecedented challenges.

Mithani said funding has to be targeted for children’s hospitals and could also go to staffing after-hours clinics, for example.

She said people planning large indoor gatherings over Christmas and for New Year’s Eve should consider scaling back, while schools should transition to temporary online learning if they have a large number of viral illnesses

Health officials also need to make a concerted effort to educate the public on the importance of vaccination amid misinformation on social media, Mithani said.

“The most vulnerable people in our society are suffering as a result of the decisions that adults made. That’s what’s happening here, that kids are suffering from the poor decisions of adult decision-makers who can’t seem to do the right thing in order to protect our kids.”

— With files from Jordon Omstead in Toronto

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 5, 2022.

This story is produced with the financial assistance of The Canadian Medical Association. It has no say in editorial choices.

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‘Bumbling and stumbling’: Alberta’s UCP caucus votes for changes to sovereignty bill

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'Bumbling and stumbling': Alberta's UCP caucus votes for changes to sovereignty bill

Alberta‘s governing United Conservative caucus says it wants changes to fix a bill that grants sweeping, unchecked powers to Premier Danielle Smith and her cabinet to pass laws behind closed doors without the scrutiny and approval of the legislature.

Smith, meanwhile, is facing Opposition demands to explain to Albertans whether she is authoritarian or incompetent, given the way her signature sovereignty bill has rolled out.

“She either got caught in her attempt to seize power and is now desperately scrambling to cover that up, or she literally didn’t know what was in her bill and very possibly still doesn’t,” Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said during question period Monday.

“She’s lost people’s trust with this bumbling and stumbling.

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“Her bill is beyond saving. Why won’t she just withdraw it?”

Smith responded that she welcomes the changes.

“I want to make sure that we get this bill right and I’m grateful that my caucus is going to propose amendments to do that.”

Smith said over the weekend that amendments were in the works to reverse provisions of the sovereignty bill that grant her cabinet the unfettered powers.

Smith told her Saturday morning radio talk show that the unchecked powers were never supposed to be in the bill, but she didn’t explain how they got there.

“You never get things right 100 per cent right all the time,” she said on the show.

Smith’s United Conservative caucus said in a news release Monday that it voted to propose an amendment to clarify that any changes cabinet makes to laws under the act can’t be done in secret, but must instead come back to the house for the normal process of debate and approval.

The caucus also voted to change the act to more narrowly spell out when cabinet can take action.

Under the current bill, cabinet has wide latitude to respond to whatever federal law policy or program it deems harmful to Alberta’s interests.

With the amendment, harm would be defined as anything a majority of the legislature deems to be an unconstitutional federal intrusion in provincial areas of responsibility.

“These proposed amendments reflect feedback we’ve received from Albertans who want to see aspects of Bill 1 clarified to ensure it gets across the finish line,” government whip Brad Rutherford said in the release.

The release does not contain suggested legal wording of the amendments and the amendments have yet to be presented to the house.

The bill is now in second reading.

Political scientist Duane Bratt said the proposed amendments represent a major climbdown.

“Both of those were flagged early and often by critics of the bill. Those were two of the most outrageous things in there,” said Bratt, with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

He said the outstanding question is how did these clauses end up in the bill in the first place.

“Either they meant it that this is something they wanted to do … meant it and didn’t think anyone would notice, meant it but didn’t anticipate the backlash or they were just cut-and-pasting legislation and they didn’t think it all through.”

Either way, said Bratt, “it looks incompetent.”

Smith introduced the bill a week ago, characterizing it as a deliberately confrontational tool to reset the relationship with a federal government that she accuses of interfering in constitutionally protected areas of provincial responsibility from energy development to health care.

The bill has been widely criticized by political scientists and legal experts as constitutionally questionable and a threat to the checks and balances that underpin a healthy democracy.

Indigenous leaders have called it a heavy-handed trampling on treaty rights. Business groups, including the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, warn the legal uncertainty surrounding the bill is not good for investment.

Concerns remain over the provision that would grant Smith’s cabinet the right to order provincial entities — municipalities, schools, health regions, city police forces and others — to flout federal laws.

Under the bill as it currently is constructed, once cabinet identifies a federal harm, it would send a resolution to the legislative assembly spelling out the nature of the harm and the remedies to fix it.

If the Legislature gives its approval by majority vote, cabinet takes over and can pass laws and direct provincial agencies.

The current bill says cabinet “should” follow the direction of the house but doesn’t mandate it.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 5, 2022.

— With files from Colette Derworiz in Calgary

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