OTTAWA — A B.C. woman whose four children were abducted by her ex-husband to Iran says she was shocked to see Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion make a dismissive thumbs-down gesture when her ordeal came up in the House of Commons.
Alison Azer, who was sitting in the public gallery at the time, says she felt "disrespected and dishonoured."
But Dion says the gesture was aimed at Conservative MP Michael Cooper, whom he accused of playing politics with the Azer case.
UPDATE: Dion said he was sorry Friday that the gesture was "interpreted" the wrong way.
The incident occurred just before question period, when Cooper accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of doing nothing to bring Azer's kids, who were abducted 15 months ago, back to Canada.
Conservative MP Michael Cooper looks on as Alison Jeffrey speaks in the foyer of the House of Commons on Oct. 6, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
Conservative and New Democrat MPs say Liberals began heckling Cooper and Dion joined in, making the thumbs-down gesture.
Dion refused subsequent demands for an apology, saying he was signalling his disapproval of the way the Conservatives were trying to score political points on a matter that requires delicate diplomatic handling.
"We want these children to be with their mother. For that we should not play politics," Dion told the Commons, adding that no one should question Trudeau's determination to find a solution.
"If I expressed my disregard to this behaviour, very strongly, it is because I mean it, Mr. Speaker," he added, to jeers from the Conservatives.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion speaks in the House of Commons on Oct. 6, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
But that's not how Azer saw it.
"Today was one of many days I've sat in the gallery and it was the first time I felt truly disrespected and dishonoured, not just on behalf of myself but on behalf of my children and my parents,'' she said outside the Commons, her voice cracking and her eyes welling with tears.
"And I expect more from this government. They can do more and they must do more. If not action, at least I think that we deserve some respect."
Azer has been harshly critical in the past of what she considers a lack of government action on her case.
Ironically, only moments before Azer expressed her disappointment with Dion, a Canadian recently freed from prison in China showed up outside the Commons to thank Trudeau and Dion for their diplomatic efforts on his behalf.
Kevin Garratt, who was imprisoned for more than two years, and his wife Julia, who had also been detained for six months, thanked Trudeau, Dion, the previous Harper government and all parties and levels of government "that have worked on our behalf to bring us safely home."
Conservative MP Michael Cooper gives the thumbs down as he demonstrates an action he alleges Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion did during question period on Oct. 6, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
Cooper said Dion's behaviour was "completely unacceptable'' but "unfortunately indicative of the tone and approach that this government has taken to this important file."
Azer's MP, New Democrat Gord Johns, called Dion's response to Cooper's statement was "unbelievable disrespectful" of Azer.
Liberal MP Omar Alghabra, parliamentary secretary to Dion with special responsibility for consular affairs, said he met with Azer on Wednesday and told her that "many of our officials at the highest levels of our government are involved" in trying to bring her children home.
"The minister's not satisfied, our prime minister's not satisfied until we see the children back home," Alghabra said.
"Given the magnitude of this case, given the pain and suffering of the mother and all of us who have been working extremely hard on this case, to turn it into a partisan football, it is very disheartening."
With files from Joanna Smith