Monday, March 08, 2010

The colour of justice

Today we learn of yet another example of the Harper government's less than colour-blind approach to Canadians in difficulty abroad. And once again, only the courts stand between this government and the basic rights of our citizens.

Dwayne Grant is a Black Canadian who is presently serving a seven-year sentence in Costa Rica after attempting to return to Canada with 34 kilos of cocaine in a suitcase.

Under Canadian law, citizens imprisoned abroad may apply to serve out their sentences in Canada. As journalist Paul Koring points out, Brenda Martin was flown home at a cost of $82,000 to the taxpayer, after being convicted of a fraud that affected 15,000 people, who lost $60 million.

But Grant is not Brenda Martin. Two women convicted with him for the same offence were permitted to return, but Grant's application was refused last July by then-Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan, despite the unanimous advice of his senior officials.

Readers will remember Van Loan. He's the man who didn't exactly cover himself with glory over the Suaad Hagi Mohamud affair, and refused to meet with Abousfian Abdelrazik after the latter returned from his government-imposed exile.

The new Public Safety Minister is family-values guy Vic Toews, who has just been ordered by the courts to justify or reconsider his predecessor's refusal. It may well be out of the frying pan and into the fire for Grant, but at least a little transparency--always a problem for this government--is being imposed.

Justice Robert Barnes, who previously crossed swords with the Harper regime over another repatriation case, was blunt: the Van Loan decision was "inconsistent and arbitrary, and therefore it lacked consistency." And he goes further:

Mr. Grant's two female accomplices were accepted for transfer by the Minister notwithstanding their apparently equivalent culpability....There may well be a valid explanation for this differential treatment that is not gender-based, but Mr. Grant should not be left to guess about it.

"[T]he reasons given by the Minister are entirely insufficient to meet the requirement for intelligibility and transparency," Justice Barnes went on, having already noted that the two repatriated women had "apparently equivalent culpability."

The women, as it happens, are Black, which no doubt will be seized upon by those wishing to take issue with Grant's lawyer, who suggested ministerial racial profiling, and his fiancée, who suspects the same thing.

But don't be too quick to dismiss that suggestion. At the intersection of race and gender, surprising things may happen. While, for example, women were certainly lynched in the Deep South, the overwhelming majority of such victims were Black men--and boys.

Anyone who has seen Birth of a Nation is aware of the "wild Black man" trope--the dangerous, savage id-creature in a state of nature who poses a threat to all that is civilized and orderly. Van Loan stated (see below) that Grant "may, after the transfer, commit a criminal organization offence," but he offered no substantiation for his fears.

Grant had no previous criminal record; he has strong family associations in Canada, and he was a third-year student and a varsity athlete at the University of Toronto. The judge also noted that
under section 10 (2)(g) of the International Transfer of Offenders Act the Minister may refuse a transfer if in his opinion the person concerned "will"--not "may"--commit such an offence.

It is hard to avoid the suspicion, at least, that the "wild Black man" was running through the jungles of Van Loan's mind when he made his decision. In any case, the results of the upcoming court-ordered reconsideration, expected in April, will be well worth our attention.

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