When the people of erstwhile East Pakistan were fighting against the Pakistani occupational forces for an independent Bangladesh in 1971, many foreign individuals and heads of government extended support in various forms.
Then Canadian prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau was one of the prominent figures to come forward despite having close ties with Pakistan.
To recognise his contribution – speaking in favour of the Liberation War at the international level and recognising Bangladesh immediately after the independence, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina conferred Friends of Liberation War Honour award posthumously on Pierre Trudeau.
[caption id="attachment_16782" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina hands the Friends of Liberation War Honour crest to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, son of former Canadian prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, in Montreal, Canada on Friday
She handed over the award to his son and Canada's incumbent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a ceremony at Hyatt Regency in Montreal, Canada on Friday.
Bangladesh has already honoured several hundred foreign citizens and organisations for their outstanding contributions to the War of Independence of Bangladesh.
Pierre Trudeau also received a warm welcome when he first visited Bangladesh along with his son Justin Trudeau in November 1983 as reported by journalist John Ferguson of The Ottawa Citizen of Canada who also accompanied the then Canadian premier. He earlier visited erstwhile East Pakistan, long before the war.
Media reports say the Canadian government sent a parliamentary delegation to India to witness the situation of the Bangladeshis fleeing the war-torn country first hand.
Upon their return to Canada, the three-member delegation released a statement in Ottawa on July 19, 1971 stating that the number of refugees in India were from 6.4 million to 6.8 million. They also mentioned the atrocities in Bangladesh carried out by the Pakistani military, and suggested actions.
“... Near borders between East Pakistan and West Bengal, we ourselves saw and spoke to people trudging along the road who told us that they had walked for ten days to get across the border which they had crossed within last 24 hours,” the statement said.
[caption id="attachment_16770" align="alignleft" width="300"] Pierre Trudeau, 1975
The delegation recommend that the Canadian government increased provisional figure of its commitment to $50m from $200m to India for the sake of the rising number of refugees. They also urged the Canadian citizens to extend supports generously.
“From our inquiries of many of the refugees it is clear that the great exodus of people was prompted by fear. We were given many sad and depressing accounts – of violent actions by the West Pakistani military forces and other groups – many reported their homes burned, members of their families put to death and other incidents which led them to flee in terror to sanctuary across Indian border.”
The Canadian delegation said that external funds would also be required for medical supplies to rehabilitate citizens returning from India. “One of the most urgent needs is 15 coasters to repair damage to transportation system to enable food to be taken from ports to where it was needed.
They also asked the Canadian government, either by itself or in collaboration with other nations, “to bring question to attention of the UN as conscience of mankind stressing the right of humanitarian intervention on behalf of world community and willingness of the UN to make available observers to supervise and encourage ... refugees from West Bengal to East Pakistan.”
Finally, the parliament members urged upon parties concerned – the Government of Pakistan and the representatives of East Pakistan – that a political settlement be reached reflecting clear expression of opinion in the 1970 election for greater autonomy and a role in their own affairs.
It is also said that at some point of the war, the government of Pierre Trudeau had imposed arms sanction on West Pakistan.
Canada adopted four-strand policy
On the other hand, British politician Richard Pilkington in his book “In the national interest? Canada and the East Pakistan crisis of 1971” mentioned that Ottawa had established an important relationship with Islamabad “as a provider of substantial amounts of development aid and as a partner in Pakistan's nuclear power programme.”
Despite knowledge of the atrocities in East Pakistan, the Canadian government “chose not to exert hard influence by threatening the withdrawal of aid or technical assistance, but to adopt a four-strand policy based upon public neutrality, the private encouragement of a political settlement in South Asia, calls for restraint to both India and Pakistan, and the provision of humanitarian relief.”
According to Pilkington, this approach served to protect Canada's relationship with Pakistan, deemed desirable in terms of national interest, narrowly construed, and maintained Canadian neutrality with regard to a foreign secessionist issue that might have stirred unwelcome comparisons with its own separatist debate over Quebec.
It was extremely unlikely, given ongoing support for Pakistan from both China and the US, that firmer Canadian action would have led to the resolution of the crisis, Pilkington said.