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Email scandal behind him, Tory MP focuses on religious-freedom plan

Conservative MP Bob Dechert speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Feb. 11, 2011.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

He may have embarrassed the Harper government recently but MP Bob Dechert shows no signs of being sidelined from his plum post as a parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Mr. Dechert, enveloped by controversy last month over amorous emails he sent to a Chinese government journalist, was put in charge of a delicate task Monday at Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade headquarters.

The Mississauga MP has always been the lead Foreign Affairs parliamentary secretary on the Harper government's 2011 campaign promise to establish a religious freedom watchdog within DFAIT. And on Monday, it was clear he's still entrusted with that delicate task.

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He was at DFAIT's Pearson Building chairing consultations with religious and human rights groups on how to implement this centrepiece campaign pledge.

The Tories promised during the spring 2011 election that they'd create an $5-million-per-year office within DFAIT to promote monitor and religious freedom around the world.

With Mr. Dechert as chair, about 100 people from religious, ethnic and human rights organizations offered the Conservatives ideas on how to set up the Office for International Religious Freedom.

As the meeting wrapped up, Mr. Dechert shared his email address with the assembled group, asking them to send any additional submissions to him.



Canada is not alone in setting up watchdogs to keep tabs on religious freedom abroad.

In the United States, for instance, there's an ambassador for international religious freedom who's closely associated with the State Department as well as a more independent U.S. commission for international religious freedom.

Mr. Dechert was the subject of intense media coverage last month over the email attention he showered on a Chinese reporter.

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On Sept. 9, Mr. Dechert, a Conservative MP with special foreign affairs duties, admitted to sending "flirtatious" e-mails to Shi Rong, a journalist with Xinhua News Agency, a media organization controlled by the Chinese government.

He denied compromising Canadian secrets and said his messages – which include professing love for the younger woman – were part of an "innocent friendship."

After the controversy broke, Ms. Shi flew home to Beijing to meet with her superiors.

The Prime Minister's Office stood by Mr. Dechert, saying it had no information to contradict the Mississauga–Erindale MP's assertion that he has not engaged in "inappropriate behaviour." Prime Minister Stephen Harper later said he no reason to believe what transpired with Mr. Dechert in any way compromised Canadian government interests.

Canada's top spy warned last year that the Chinese were trying to infiltrate Canadian politics. Western intelligence agencies consider Xinhua a tool of the Chinese state that collects information for Beijing.

The Dechert affair has drawn special attention to Beijing's activities in Canada just as China is preparing to build up its public-relations outreach to Canadians.

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China Daily, a state-run English-language newspaper, is planning an expansion into Canada – part of a ramped-up soft power campaign by Beijing to shape world opinion.

The paper is preparing to publish an edition for distribution in Canada starting in December, a staffer in its New York office told The Globe and Mail last month.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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