OTTAWA – Nadia Murad had tears in her eyes as she described the power that individual MPs can have when they stand up to vote.
A few minutes earlier, she had watched 313 MPs vote unanimously in favour of a Conservative motion to recognize that the violence perpetrated by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant against the Yazidis constitutes genocide — and commit to providing asylum to women and girls from the persecuted minority group within 120 days.
Speaking through an interpreter last week, Murad — a 23-year-old Yazidi activist who had escaped sexual slavery by the Islamic militant group after they raided her village in northern Iraq — told reporters she felt ISIL losing power with every MP who stood up to vote for the motion.
“(They) never thought their slaves will one day come out and will be speaking against them,” she said.
“They thought they will always remain slaves for them. Because of this, it was a very important day for me and I would like to thank you — to thank everyone that made this happen,” she said.
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel, the immigration critic who had put forward the opposition day motion, was one of them.
For months, the Liberals had skirted her increasingly loud calls for asylum, saying they were concerned about the level of danger in Iraq and the need to work with the UN Nations High Commission on Refugees, which refers refugees for resettlement. But last week, the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP were all on the same side, backing Rempel’s motion.
“It was one of those things where it renewed my faith that Parliament can do something that resembles work,” the Calgary MP said of how she brought everyone onside.
“But it was like pushing a boulder uphill.”
Rempel remembers first hearing about the plight of the Yazidis two years ago after ISIL captured the town of Sinjar in northern Iraq, forcing nearly 50,000 people to flee to a mountaintop where they were under siege for weeks.
Advocacy groups pushing the Liberal government to bring Yazidis to safety in Canada have argued they had been forgotten in the efforts to make good on their promise to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees.
Motivated in part by the mounting frustration of the Yazidi community and their supporters, Rempel convinced her Conservative colleagues to use a rare opposition day to put forward a motion on the issue.
Rempel said she then reached out to a handful of unnamed Liberal MPs she thought might be sympathetic, to see if they could suss out the likelihood of getting government support for the motion. But she said they came back with the impression it was not going to fly.
So Rempel prepared for a fight. She also called in some reinforcements, urging Murad, a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, to come to Canada and make her case directly to Liberal MPs.
Meanwhile, Rempel had some quiet — and some not-so-quiet — support from Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj, who had been one of four Liberals to break ranks and vote in favour of a failed Conservative motion in June declaring the atrocities committed by ISIL to be a genocide.
The Toronto MP said he cannot go into detail about private conversations or caucus deliberations, but pointed to the speech he gave in the House of Commons during the debate on the motion Oct. 20, which made it clear he was on Rempel’s side.
Wrzesnewskyj remembers inviting Murad to his office after she came to testify before the committee in July, then taking her on a tour of Parliament Hill.
He invited her to sit in the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons and imagined she might have been thinking about where she was that day, compared to where she had been when she was in captivity.
“I told her that I will do everything I can so that one day, the child or grandchild of Yazidi-Canadian genocide survivors would get up in this House and mark the anniversary and thank Canada for having given their communities’ daughters and granddaughters the opportunity to rebuild their shattered lives,” he said.
Going into the weekend, Rempel figured she probably had at least a dozen Liberal MPs ready to support the motion, which she thought was enough, given the New Democrats had also committed to voting for it.
She said the Conservatives were prepared, had the government not signalled its support, to devote virtually an entire question period to the issue while Murad was expected to be watching from the gallery.
“There is power in somebody being there to witness proceedings,” she said.
Meanwhile, talks were ongoing to come up with amendments to the motion, with the Conservatives eventually deciding to remove language accusing the Liberal government of having “neglected” to do enough, and extending the timeline from 30 to 120 days.
That part was key for Immigration Minister John McCallum, who said the Liberals had already decided they were going to support the motion.
“I don’t particularly think we should be lectured to on refugees by the Conservatives,” McCallum said in an interview, noting that as the motion was tabled, government officials were already in Iraq to investigate the Yazidis’ situation, a secret visit he said had taken months to plan.
McCallum said he also had an initial conversation with Germany on Oct. 26 about how they worked around some bureaucratic hurdles at the UN to bring in Yazidi refugees.
McCallum said the Liberals would have preferred some other changes — such as a reference to “making best efforts” instead of a solid commitment — but decided to let them go. He announced the government’s support the day before the vote.
McCallum saying he was reminded of something former prime minister Paul Martin had once said about a motion on the atrocities in Darfur.
“He said when people are being killed, it’s not a top priority to debate about the wording of a motion.”