The curse of the Komagata Maru: More on that Unfortunate Event in Surrey

Well, huh. How about that? Apparently, my entirely uninformed theorizing on what might have gone so horribly wrong in Surrey last weekend was pretty darned close to what actually took place.

According to the Globe and Mail, at least, which has a fantastic behind-the-scenes piece on the frantic last-minute negotiations between the PM’s office and the organizers of the event — complete with excerpts from the increasingly combative email exchange:

The foundation had invited Mr. Harper two months ago to speak on Sunday at the 13th annual Mela Gadri Babian Da, an Indo-Canadian community event in a park in Surrey, B.C., attended by thousands of people.

Organizers said they were led to believe Mr. Harper would say that the federal government would formally apologize in Parliament later this fall for the incident in which Canada for racist reasons turned back a vessel with more than 300 Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims aboard.

As requested by the Prime Minister’s Office, the organizers sent a draft of a gracious thank-you speech that they intended to deliver after Mr. Harper made his remarks. The Prime Minister’s Office did content and grammatical edits of the speech and approved it for delivery.

However days before the event, the organizers heard unofficially that Mr. Harper would apologize in the park but nothing would happen later in Parliament.

E-mail correspondence with the Prime Minister’s Office released to The Globe and Mail show that Mr. Sandhu and foundation president Sahib Thind tried to dissuade Mr. Harper. They strongly advised that an apology in the park without an apology in Parliament would not be welcome. They recommended that Mr. Harper should announce a date for an official apology in Parliament.

“We respect the PM and appreciate his sincere initiative as well as his gesture to build new bridges with the Indo-Canadian community,” Mr. Sandhu and Mr. Thind wrote in an e-mail dated Aug. 1.

“We do not want to cause any embarrassment to our good leader, the Right Honorable Stephen Harper. I hope you take our recommendation very seriously,” they stated.

But Mr. Harper ignored their advice. He offered the apology and left the stage immediately afterward, without waiting to see if his host would deliver the pre-arranged thank you speech.

If the Globe has its story straight – and it has the ring of truth, no doubt about it – then it would seem that the PM has nobody but himself – or, at least, his office – to blame for the resulting debacle, since they were apparently told in no uncertain terms what it was that the crowd was expecting to hear from him — and what the reaction would be if he didn’t deliver. Not only did he ignore the advice, but it looks as though I may have also been right in my speculation that Harper’s office deliberately kept his planned apology under wraps until the last minute, as indicated by the fact that the groups only heard of it a few days before the event — “unofficially” at that.

Putting on my communication(s) director hat for a moment — shh, nobody tell Kory Teneycke; I promise I’ll give it right back — I’m not sure what the right course of action would have been. Presumably, canceling the PM’s appearance at the last moment would have seemed just as risky, if not more, than going ahead with an unwelcome apology, although now I have to wonder whether a convenient stomach flu might have worked out better for all concerned in the end. Given all that, the only other option would have been to scrap the apology itself; have the PM say a few non-contentious words, and send someone back to the negotiating table to hammer out exactly what, short of an apology in the House, would be acceptable to the community.

Yes, it would have meant postponing whatever was decided until the fall, but in hindsight, at least, it probably wouldn’t have resulted in quite so perfectly disastrous an outcome – from a cold, calculating political perspective, at least. My guess: the PM figured that the organizers were bluffing. He was wrong. Lesson learned? I guess we’ll see.

Oh, and one more thing: that someone that would have been dispatched to make peace would be someone – anyone, really – other than Jim Abbott. In fact, on that note, ITQ has a message for Jim Abbott, which will no doubt have been preceded by a very similar one from PMO that will have been less public, but more dripping with quiet menace:

Stop talking. Just — stop. You’re making it worse.

It’s hard to imagine how you could have thought for a moment that it was a good idea to go on an Indo-Canadian radio station in Surrey and claim that a formal apology in the House is still being “contemplated”. The mind boggles, and then reboggles. Even ITQ, a virtual-inkstained wretch so far out of the loop that she can’t even get added to Ryan Sparrow’s mass distribution list, knows that it most emphatically is not. It never was. Every time you suggest otherwise, the story grows another leg. It’s only a spider now, but if you don’t stop trying to fix things, it’s going to be a millipede by the end of the week. It’s at times like this when I actually start to see the wisdom in the Bucklerian strategy of keeping MPs under a permanent gag rule.