While most Quebecers were busy enjoying a gorgeous summer weekend, the sovereignists in the province were being used as unsuspecting (and, by all accounts, unwilling) pawns in an escalating diplomatic spat between Canada and Saudi Arabia.

Attempting to publicly “shame” Canada for “interfering” in their internal affairs, an army of Saudi Arabian online accounts started trolling the Canadian government this past Sunday with a batch of insults. The trolls said that Canada, too, has a bevy of internal issues it needs to resolve.

Saudi Arabia's social media campaign to discredit and “shame” Canada internationally has been bizarre, writes @toulastake — particularly its decision to focus on Quebec independence. #qcpoli #cdnpoli #SaudiArabia #humanrights

The online retaliatory outburst took a strange turn when bots started tweeting in support of Quebec independence, implying that Saudi Arabia could have interfered with the 1995 Quebec referendum and supported the province’s bid to separate, but graciously chose to remain on the sidelines.

Going back 23 years in time to dig up an issue that most Quebecers are no longer that passionate about is probably not the most effective method of penalizing Canada for meddling in Saudi business.

The Saudi trolls' strategy was lazy and destined to be a bust. If only they had spent a little more time digging, they would have noticed that Quebec voices have been among the most vocal critics of the Saudi regime and unlikely to ally themselves in this type of fight against the Canadian government.

This whole saga started on August 2, when, compelled by the recent arrest of Samar Badawi, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland denounced the Saudi Arabian government over their human rights violations via a tweet.

Last September, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced that he would be overturning the country’s longstanding ban on women driving, a change that went into effect on June 24. Because of this promise, and other similar initiatives, he has been widely seen as a more liberal and open-minded ruler; intent on modernizing his kingdom.

The jubilation didn’t last long, however. A few months ago, Human Rights Watch revealed that Saudi authorities had arrested seven prominent women’s rights advocates, just weeks before the driving ban on women was set to be lifted.

Among them, Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan, outspoken women’s rights advocates who have long opposed the driving ban as well as the kingdom’s guardianship laws, which require women to get permission from their husbands or fathers for a variety of activities.

This past week, Canadians were, once again, informed of additional arrests. One of the women detained was Samar Badawi, a prominent women’s rights activist in her country, as well as sister to Raif Badawi, who has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for the past six years for blasphemy.

Following criticism and calls for Samar Badawi's release on the part of Freeland, Saudi Arabia reacted by immediately expelling Canada’s ambassador and freezing trade with Canada. It then announced that it was pulling thousands of its students from Canadian universities.

To say that Saudi Arabia was over-reacting would be an understatement. It was also hypocritical considering Saudi interference in Yemen has cost significant loss of life. One also has to momentarily wonder if the fact that the criticism was publicly coming from a woman in power, while the Saudi regime is attempting to squelch a feminist uprising, has anything to do with it. It was, however, the ensuing online social campaign to discredit and “shame” Canada internationally that has been a highly bizarre one — particularly its decision to focus on Quebec independence as a potential point of dissent or international embarrassment for the country.

Vicious and bizarre Saudi online trolling

Via the #saudis_are_deeply_concerned_about hashtag, the Saudis quickly attempted a social media campaign they hoped would go viral and embarrass Canada, by “meddling” in Canada's affairs and giving Canadians a taste of their own medicine. Encompassing tweets that ranged from valid criticism of Canada’s lacklustre track record on Indigenous communities and tackling homelessness, a sudden interest in Quebec independence and Quebec's anglophones, and head-scratching accusations that sex with animals is legal here, the results were rather strange, to say the least. My particular favourite was "Calm down, frozen country!" as if a reminder of our brutal winters would make us all psychologically break down and fall apart, forever unable to voice any criticism of human rights abuses.

Often copying and pasting the exact same sentiments, word for word, the tweets lacked the sophistication of harder-to-detect online trolls (see: Russia) that operate with the intent of destabilizing governments or riling up supporters. They were obvious and amateurish in nature. A Saudi youth group called Infographic KSA also posted a tweet that — whether on purpose or not — was perceived by many as a thinly veiled threat, by alluding to the 9/11 terrorist bombing. It was quickly taken down, but thanks to screenshots we all know that tweets live forever.

And then, trying to hit Canada where it hurts, the Saudi trolls turned their attention to Quebec and the never-ending issue of independence. The (almost identical) tweets came fast and furious, often adorned with the Quebec fleur-de-lys and patriotic words of support for a "Quebecan" victory. They were a sight to behold and, frankly, highly ineffective.

First off, Canada and Quebec have had an uneasy love/hate relationship for centuries now. We have survived the Quiet Revolution, the birth of Quebec nationalism, two highly contentious referenda, the FLQ bombings, the October Crisis and the War Measures Act, Parizeau’s disastrous “money and ethnic votes” speech, the Meech Lake Accord mess, constant Quebec bashing in mainstream Canadian media, and having the gall to call ourselves a bilingual country when only the one province that has ever attempted to separate has ever come remotely close to that ideal. Saudi Arabia trying to stir a pot that’s been stirring all on its own for as long as any of us have been alive is almost comical. Quebec independence may be a longed-for dream for some Quebecers and a terrifying nightmare for others, but it’s never been a secret people whisper. It’s always been out in the open and it’s a topic that has been discussed loudly and extensively for decades.

Quebec is the wrong target if Saudis are looking for an ally

The most misguided part about Saudi Arabia’s attempt to use Quebec as a pawn in this shame game is that they're perhaps unaware that most Quebecers (yes, even those who favour independence) would side with the Liberal minister on this issue. In fact, not only would they side with her; they are the ones who have been leading the country on this issue. So much so in fact, that in 2015 Quebec’s National Assembly passed an official and unanimous motion condemning Badawi’s sentence.

Parti Québécois leader Jean-François Lisée quickly tweeted: “Memo to Saudi dictators: the PQ was the very first to denounce the arrest of Raif Badawi. We also requested, the same time as Ottawa, that Samar Badawi be released and have expressed our opposition to the sale of military weapons to your regime.” In other words, Quebec separatists are anything but an ally to Saudi Arabia, whatever their relationship may be with the rest of Canada.

Another strong voice coming from Quebec has been Daniel Turp’s. The University of Montreal professor, as well as former Bloc Québécois MP and Parti Québécois MNA, took the Trudeau government to court last year, demanding that Canada stop the deployment of Canadian-made combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia. Turp’s attempts primarily stemmed from reports that the Saudis were using the combat vehicles against their own citizens and the kingdom’s overall abysmal human rights record, therefore Canada was violating its own human rights obligations by selling to them. While Professor Turp lost the lawsuit because the judge felt there wasn’t enough proof linking Canadian-made vehicles to any violence against citizens, video footage later surfaced that seemed to support his claims, forcing the government to launch a probe.

Evelyne Abitbol, co-founder of the Quebec-based Raif Badawi Foundation for Freedom and a special advisor on diversity to Lisée’s opposition cabinet tweeted out her congratulations to Freeland yesterday, praising her for not backing down and for reiterating Canada’s support for Badawi’s family. She copied Irwin Cotler in her tweet.

Cotler has also been vocal in his support of Badawi and his family. In response to the latest events, the former federal justice minister and founder of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, tweeted in French: “A Saudi ‘chill’ is not a mark of exclusion, but a point of pride. It is a sign that Canada prioritizes its responsibility towards the Saudi people – by defending human rights – obligating the government to respect its obligations towards Canada as a co-signatory of the international treaties. Freeland should be commended for her human-rights leadership, in solidarity with the courageous defenders of freedom, Raif and Samar Badawi. Her words and her actions relieve their suffering and help advance their righteous cause.”

It's also worth pointing out that Raif Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children took refuge in Canada after her life was threatened in Saudi Arabia. They became Canadian citizens last month and have been living in Sherbrooke, Quebec for years, embraced by Quebec residents and local media.

Whether the Quebec independence movement will ever enjoy a renaissance in the future remains to be seen. But it certainly won’t be because Saudi Arabia decided to so obviously and awkwardly attempt to manipulate Canadian politics in reaction to public criticism over their repeated and blatant human rights violations. When it comes to the Saudi kingdom, this is one area where both Quebec sovereignists and staunch federalists refreshingly see eye to eye. Better luck next time, Saudi Arabia.

Editor's note: This story was edited at 6:36 p.m. EST on August 7, 2018 to correct the spelling of the Parti Québécois leader's name.

Toula Drimonis writes from Montreal. Use the promo code TOULA today and save 20% on an annual subscription to National Observer.

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