OTTAWA - The one thing John Baird has rarely done in his 15 months as Canada's top diplomat is sow doubt about where he stands on an issue.
Canada's usually outspoken foreign affairs minister stepped out of character Monday with a low-key response to last week's sentencing of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, which has sparked condemnation worldwide.
Three members of the punk band were sentenced to two years in prison on hooliganism charges for singing a song in Moscow's largest church that criticized President Vladimir Putin. Their trial has been globally denounced as an example of Russia's growing decline in tolerating dissent.
At an event on another topic Monday, Baird spoke cautiously, without naming the band, or the country, when asked about the case.
"We believe in every part of the world of sentencing having some relation to the serious nature of the crime," he said.
"Obviously, there's, I think, widespread concern that this was perhaps too much and that were perhaps political considerations. We support around the world independent judiciaries, and we certainly take note of what's happened."
That followed the muted statement that Baird's office released the day of the verdict that didn't even mention the trial: "The promotion of Canadian values, including freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, features prominently in our ongoing dialogue with the Russian authorities."
Key Canadian allies, including the United States, Britain and the European Union, have taken a much tougher stand. They all denounced the sentence as "disproportionate" and questioned Russia's commitment to freedom.
More often than not, it is Baird who finds himself on the opposite side of such lines. Baird has billed himself as an independent, against-the-grain spokesman for a more robust brand of Canadian foreign policy that — as he has said repeatedly — won't just "go along, to get along."
In that vein, Baird has expressed unwavering and unapologetic support for Israel. He never misses a chance to slam the repressive regimes in Syria and Iran. He's been an outspoken supporter for gay rights and religious minorities in the face of repression. He even took a few swipes at China's rights records prior to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's visit there earlier this year.
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar believes Baird is taking a pass on Pussy Riot as part of a broader attempt by the Harper government to thaw what have been icy relations with the Kremlin.
After all, Harper also departed Monday for his annual summer tour of the Canadian Arctic.
In past years, Dewar noted, the government has lashed out at Russia for provocative behaviour in the Arctic. It all started when a Russian submarine planted a flag under the North Pole five years ago.
Periodically, Harper's cabinet ministers and his own advisers have crowed about how Canadian fighter jets had to chase away the prying eyes of Russian bombers from the edges of Canada's Arctic air space.
Since then, some of Canada's other Arctic allies have counselled the government to tone down the anti-Russian sentiments and work to resolve boundary disputes and other issues.
Canada steps into the chairman's seat of the Arctic Council next year, a group that includes Russia and the United States, as well as Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway.
"The Northwest Passage is big; the Russians acknowledge our right there, the Americans don't. Maybe they (the government) are starting to figure out that they need a friendly voice and support in Moscow, and it's time to turn down the usual rhetoric," said Dewar.
While he welcomes the lack of hyperbole toward Russia on the Arctic, Dewar said he would have liked to have seen a "stronger articulation around how dissent is dealt with in Russia."
Dewar said also he wondered whether Baird was reserved because of the increased focus on religion he has brought to foreign policy. The Conservatives have promised to create an Office of Religious Freedom in Foreign Affairs to champion the rights of religious minorities.
Pussy Riot's contentious, albeit brief performance was shot through with religious overtones — their performance took place in Moscow's main cathedral and mocked Putin's closeness to the Russian Orthodox Church.
"I just have to wonder if their focus on religious freedom, quote unquote, has in any way curtailed their response here," said Dewar.
"It is something that Canadians are deeply concerned with — that dissent is Russia is being dealt with with a sledgehammer," Dewar added. "It's not about the group and whether you like the music or what they are saying. It's about people being able to express dissent in a democracy."
Baird was back in stride by day's end Monday. His office released a statement saying he was "concerned" about reports of the arrest of a Christian girl in Pakistan for allegedly violating the Islamic country's strict blasphemy laws.
The incendiary issue led to the death of two prominent Pakistani politicians last year after they spoke out against the controversial law. One of those was Shahbaz Bhatti, the country's only Christian minister, who met and impressed Harper, one month before he was killed in March 2011.
Baird's Monday statement said: "Canada strongly condemns any act of religious persecution. We urge Pakistan's government to ensure equal rights for all Pakistanis, including members of minority communities."