Friday, July 01, 2005

O Canada

At this time of celebration in the sticky heat of an Ottawa day, I think of Maher Arar and what his vision of Canada must be like.

His story contains everything that is true and wonderful and tragic and terrible about his adopted country. If we can ever get at the slippery concept of "Canadian culture," it will be through the prism of such people and their narratives.

The basic facts are known to everyone here. Born in Syria, he came to Canada at the age of 17. He became a Canadian citizen in 1991 and moved to Ottawa in 1997, along the way becoming qualified as a wireless technology consultant. The story was a not-unfamiliar one: an immigrant who worked hard, got an education, and settled comfortably into his new home. Canada was built by such immigrants, looking for something better, and finding it here.

As we all know, things changed in 2002. Returning home with his family from a holiday in Tunisia, Arar was detained by US officials , and spirited off to Syria, where he was confined in a tiny cell and brutally tortured for nearly a year, as a suspected al-Quaeda operative. A "confession" was eventually extracted from him, duly delivered to CSIS and the RCMP by the Canadian Ambassador at the time, and in the natural course of events selected bits and pieces found their way into the media.

Upon his release and return to Ottawa, Arar looked Canada in the eye and told us in simple, sometimes halting words, what had happened to him. We looked back, and saw right into the man's soul. There was no trace of a performance there, no rehearsed statements, no attempt to manipulate, no hidden agenda. What we saw was what we got, and we knew it, and the nation was horrified--not only by what he had endured, but by the growing suspicion that paranoid and obsessive American officialdom had been helped along by Canadian authorities.

Our possible complicity in Arar's "rendition" is now the subject of a Commission of Inquiry, a good deal of which is happening behind closed doors. We have heard from our former Ambassador to Syria, Franco Pillarella, who claimed to be unaware that Syria used such interrogation methods. (An appalled Paul Heinbecker, former Canadian Ambassador to the UN, said afterwards that Pillarella's testimony has tainted the reputation of the entire diplomatic service.)

Gar Pardy, a now-retired Foreign Affairs official, found "warning signs" early on that Arar was being mistreated, and heatedly claimed he had passed this information up the line. But ex-Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham, offering Arar a firm handshake and a weak apology for not getting him out sooner, claimed no one had told him about any torture.

Meanwhile CSIS has been wiggling on a hook of its own making. According to Lorne Waldman, Arar's lawyer at the inquiry, it's been leaking selective information to the media to try to absolve itself of blame.

As for the RCMP, the senior officer in charge of the went-nowhere investigation of Arar in 2002, Superintendent Michel Cabana, says Arar was tortured all right, but so what? The Mounties have no choice: they have to work with miserable regimes like the Syrian one because the safety of the Canadian public is at stake. So they offered to share all the information they had on Arar with his torturers, an offer that the Syrians never took up.

Essentially admitting that Arar had only been of peripheral interest in a much wider investigation, Cabana nevertheless stoutly defended the RCMP's generous offer of cooperation. Indeed, shortly after Arar's incarceration in 2002, his lawyer had asked for a letter from the RCMP affirming that he was not the subject of a criminal investigation. Cabana refused, stating that this would be "problematic and inappropriate." Only in the summer of 2003 did the government of Canada confirm to Syria that Arar was not a threat to national security and should be sent back.

Cabana was asked if he knew whether Syria had received Canadian investigative information through US channels. He paused, a government lawyer objected that he shouldn't answer the question, and that was that. The cover-up continues. A lot of asses are being covertly removed from the fire under a convenient "national security" blackout. Arar is having his day in court, but there are a lot of hours missing.

So there you have it. An honest man, an immigrant to Canada, caught up in the post-9/11 hysteria, thrust into a nightmare designed
and produced by Franz Kafka with the assistance of the Marquis de Sade. Faceless, bumbling officials filling out forms, passing along information, doing their jobs, covering their butts. Excuses, always excuses: "I didn't know." "I did, but I couldn't do anything about it." "I knew, but I didn't think I should do anything about it." "I'm sorry. No one told me." The just-following-orders crowd, just following orders.

But you know what? When you weigh everything in the balance, and not to minimize in any way the suffering that Maher Arar and his family endured, something overwhelmingly positive seems to emerge. This is Canada, where bumbling officials come under the glare of spotlights. This is a country where an innocent man can tell us his story and be believed. This is a country where senior officials, even Ministers, if not ultimately called to account and punished, can at least be caused no end of discomfort.

This is Canada, where ordinary citizens are aroused by official injustice, incompetence and complicity in maltreatment: they're mad as hell and not too shy about expressing it. This is a country where five men, not even citizens, are held under a star-chamber "security certificate" system, but where a groundswell of opposition is everywhere felt, where individuals and organizations dedicate long, unpaid hours, days, months, years to obtain such things as charges, a fair trial and access to the evidence against them.

Is Canada some kind of utopia? Obviously not--ask the Lubicon, ask the family of Dudley George, in fact ask any First Nations person. We're just a country where a surprising lot of people have good values, a sense of justice and humanity and fairness and decency, clear vision and the desire to make things better. Where countless individuals and groups are willing to go to bat for a fellow-citizen, to give him the benefit of the doubt over the official fiddling and foozling of police forces, diplomats and government spokespeople caught with their pants down under the kliegs.

O Canada! I'm proud today, proud as hell. I'm raising my first glass to Maher Arar, citizen. And my second to the rest of you.

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