MONTREAL – One week from now, seven days before voters take part in one of
the closest elections in recent Canadian history, a window will open onto a
crime that appalled and captivated people throughout this country and worldwide.
But until the inquiry starts June 21 into the case of Maher
Arar – a Canadian citizen nabbed by U.S. officials in a New York airport
as he flew home from a vacation, then deported to Syria where he was allegedly
tortured for months, all with the possible complicity of Canadian security agencies
– it appears his story will remain largely silent. As will the questions the
Arar case provokes about this country's security laws, its ties with Washington
and its attitudes toward Muslims and other immigrants.
That the Arar Commission
has lain buried in the Canadian psyche since it was announced in January is
the result of a clever strategy by Prime Minister Paul Martin's government,
says one observer.
"To make the announcement before the election (took) the sting out of this
issue for the government. If the inquiry hadn't been held, then I think the
Arar issue would have been a very high-priority topic of discussion," says
Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International's Canadian section.
In addition, the early days of the hearing will likely be devoted to general
issues, making it improbable that any explosive headlines will hit the media
during the campaign's final week, he added.
Neve said Amnesty would like the Commission, to be held in the capital Ottawa
where Arar lives, to reveal exactly what happened to the Syrian-born Canadian
citizen in the United States, in Jordan (where he landed on the flight from
New York on Oct. 9, 2002) and in Syria.
It should also unveil the role that Canadian officials played during the 13
days he was detained in New York and while imprisoned in his homeland, he argues.
Evidence suggests security agencies here passed information to U.S. investigators
and had access to what Arar told his Syrian interrogators, Neve added.
"What I think we need to know on this end is to what extent, first of all,
did Canadian action or inaction or provision of information unleash the chain
of events that led to Maher Arar ultimately ending up being detained for one
year without charge or trial, subjected to torture, and essentially having the
whole range of his human rights completely violated."
That the lid has remained tight on the Arar story, with its potential revelations
of Canada's once-esteemed Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) colluding with
U.S. agents to ship a suspect in Washington's ever-expanding "war on terrorism"
to a regime known to practice torture, will probably produce little joy for
Martin's government now.
Since the prime minister called the election in May, his long-ruling Liberal
Party has nose-dived in opinion polls and now trails the opposition Conservatives
by a couple of percentage points. The best hope for the prime minister, who
replaced his predecessor Jean Chretien only in December, now appears to be to
form a minority government on the day after the Jun. 28 vote.
A spending scandal and the general arrogance that grows from wielding power
for more than a decade appear to have alienated Canada's 22 million plus voters
more deeply than the Martin team imagined when it decided to drop the election
writ a year sooner than necessary.
One organization that is watching the Arar inquiry closely says it is not counseling
its members to vote for a particular party, but is approaching the polls with
a "left of center" perspective.
"We tell them 'you are the best judge in your locality to do your homework
and see which party and which candidate you will vote for'. We published just
recently something about the Conservative platform, and we think that it's actually
dangerous for Canada, but this is our opinion because of our study," says
Mohamed Elmasry, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.
He believes the Arar incident carries both legal and social dimensions. "Because
of our community's position in terms of 9/11, we've been found guilty by association
in the court of public opinion, and there is a negative stereotype which has
been fed by the media."
Having received official "intervener" status in the hearing, Elmasry says his
group will "try to convince that inquiry that we're paying, as a community,
a high social cost, in terms of discrimination – at the workplace, in universities
and schools – and (that) social workers in the frontlines are reporting higher
cases of loss of identity, especially among young Canadian Muslims."
"That means people would like to change their names from Mohamed and Fatimah
to some kind of Anglo-Saxon names so they will not be identified as Muslims,"
Elmasry seems to believe the Commission is more likely to produce positive
change than the election.
"Racial profiling and Bill C-36 (Canada's anti-terrorism law): we're hoping
to make it an election issue. We have not succeeded so far in making it an election
issue in the public square", although Muslim voters are concerned, he says.
Just four months after Sept. 11, 2001 and in the shadow of U.S. accusations
that the Sept. 11 hijackers crossed into the United States from Canada, this
country's Parliament passed the Anti-Terrorism Act (Bill C-36), which amended
19 existing laws and allowed authorities to suspend long-held judicial rights
to combat vague threats.
Aside from that new law, Sept. 11 ushered in a climate that emboldened security
agencies to make use of extraordinary powers that were already part of the legal
system but seldom employed, according to experts.
In addition, prior to Parliament's shutdown for the election, the Liberals
were close to adopting the Public Safety Act, which would increase sharing of
personal data (including passenger information) between law enforcers, intelligence
agencies, security authorities and governments, according to the group Kairos:
Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives.
"We are calling upon the Senate to postpone adoption of this Bill until a full
review of existing legislation has taken place to ensure that it does not infringe
further upon human rights, and after the results of the Maher Arar inquiry are
made public," it said in a statement.
Those findings are not expected until late this year, by which time a tax-cutting
Conservative government could have launched some of its reforms, a prospect
that worries many Canadians and civil society groups.
While Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper repeats at every chance that
he will not pursue a right-wing agenda, his admission that his government would
review a law outlawing hate speech against gays, along with some candidates'
ambiguous statements about abortion (now unrestricted) leave some voters wary.
Harper also supports closer ties to the administration of George W Bush, whose
policies are disliked by a majority of Canadians (as does Martin – but more
The Conservative leader continually harangued the Liberals after 9/11 that
they should work more closely with Washington to tighten security in North America.
At the other end of the political spectrum is the New Democratic Party (NDP),
rejuvenated by the energy of new leader Jack Layton, who claims that both Harper
and Martin are too cozy with Bush.
One of Layton's star candidates is Monia Mazigh, wife of Maher Arar, who spearheaded
the fight to have her husband released from Syria.
"I didn't choose to be a public figure, but when (the imprisonment) happened
and when I came to be known, I think it is one of my personal duties, as a Canadian,
to do something to help people around me," Mazigh told the media when she
announced her candidacy.