Canada

The Haider mystery

Why did the Freedom Party leader visit Montreal?

Tom Fennell February 28 2000
Canada

The Haider mystery

Why did the Freedom Party leader visit Montreal?

Tom Fennell February 28 2000

The Haider mystery

Canada

Why did the Freedom Party leader visit Montreal?

Jörg Haider once extolled Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's “orderly employment policy” and lauded veterans of the Waffen SS as “decent people of good character.” Such views got attention: when his Freedom Party joined Austria’s governing coalition last month, many nations, Canada included, downgraded official relations with that country. What then, to make of Haider’s whirlwind, controversial two-day trip to Canada last week? In the end, he departed as he arrived—in a swirl of mystery. But some observers think the visit, and Haider’s unsuccessful overtures to Jewish groups, may have been an attempt to clean up his image. “This was just to manipulate public opinion,” said Moshe Ronen, president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. “He wants public opinion to accept him as a decent, wonderful person.”

By the time Haider left last Thursday, it remained unclear with whom he had met—or who invited him to Canada. Haider said he had been asked to attend a wedding in Montreal’s ultraorthodox Tash Hasidic Jewish community. He even produced a letter from Tash Hasidic Rabbi Israel Lowen, congratulating him on his recent 50th birthday and asking for a meeting. But Lowen denied sending it. “They had nothing to do with it,” said Ronen of the Tash Hasidic community. “We’re not aware of any official interaction between him and Jewish groups in Montreal.”

The Austrian Embassy in Ottawa offered the Canadian Jewish Congress a face-to-face meeting with Haider, but Ronen declined. A Montreal lawyer recruited by Haider later claimed he did meet with 10 leading members of the Jewish community, but refused to name them. The Freedom Party leader also asked to visit Montreal’s Holocaust museum, but was rebuffed.

Haider did meet with the editorial board of The Gazette, Montreal’s English-language newspaper. But according to William Marsden, the writer who interviewed him, “we didn’t know whether he was coming until he arrived.” Haider then disappeared, claiming he was going to Toronto. That triggered speculation that he was on his way to meet Austro-Canadian Frank Stronach, founder of Magna International Inc. The auto-parts giant has large holdings in Austria, and the country’s new finance minister, KarlHeinz Grasser, is a Freedom Party member and formerly served as Magna’s European spokesman.

But Stronach was in Los Angeles, and a Magna official said he had no intention of meeting with Haider in the first place. In the end, Haider finally resurfaced at Dorval, when he boarded a flight for Amsterdam. “I met very important people,” he claimed before departing. Who, when and why were questions that remained unanswered.

Tom Fennell with Brenda Branswell in Montreal

Tom Fennell

Brenda Branswell