Governments like to say there is only one class of Canadian citizen – that no matter whether we were born here or naturalized, no matter our religion, ethnicity or political views, we receive equal treatment from the state. That is what governments like to say.
Unfortunately, this is not true – particularly when citizens find themselves in trouble abroad. If a middle-class Canadian tourist is killed in Mexico, the story is front-page news. The minister of foreign affairs makes statements; the Mexicans are asked to explain. Similarly, if a Canadian is mistreated by a country we disapprove of – like Iran or even China – Ottawa is happy to talk tough. The former Liberal government roasted Iran over the jailing and murder of Zahra Kazemi. Stephen Harper, the current prime minister, is taking China to task over its imprisonment of Huseyin Celil.
But if a Canadian is unlucky enough to run into trouble with a country that Ottawa does not wish to offend, it is a different story. In those cases, the government says little and does less. If the Canadian is unpopular or lacks media-savvy supporters, the government pays even less attention.
So it was with software engineer Maher Arar at the beginning of his torture-imprisonment ordeal. So it is still with Omar Khadr, the 20-year-old Canadian imprisoned for five years by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay. The Canadian government finally moved on the Arar file, in large part because his wife cut a sympathetic figure with the public. The government is able to stall on the Khadr file, in large part because his family does not.
Bashir Makhtal is one of the latest to fall victim to this cruel double standard. Born in the rebellious Ogaden province of Ethiopia, raised in Somalia, a Canadian citizen since 1994, Makhtal – like many others in the Somali diaspora – returned to Mogadishu to do business. In his case, business consisted of importing used clothing.
In December, when Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia to oust the government of the day, he fled to the Kenyan border.
What he didn't know, however, was that the geopolitics of the region had shifted. With a new military command based in Ethiopia, the U.S. quietly helped its client state unseat an Islamic government in Somalia that Washington didn't much like. Kenya was also onside with the Americans. Makhtal was caught in the middle.
Along with 84 others, he was illegally transferred by Kenya to Ethiopia via Somalia for interrogation and imprisonment. A letter received by his relatives in Hamilton says he was threatened with torture and forced to make a false confession. Consular officials have not been allowed to see him.
Ottawa's response has been spectacularly anemic. Makhtal's name been raised only once in the Commons. Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay has said his usual little. He has not taken Kenya to task for deporting a Canadian to a country with a dodgy human rights record. Nor has he pressured Ethiopia to release Makhtal. The reason, it seems, is America. Amnesty International says U.S. agents have been involved in the interrogation of the Kenyan deportees. And when Washington is involved, the Canadian government stays mum.
Makhtal's relatives and friends continue to push for action. It is an uphill battle. They hold demonstrations that no one reports on. They receive only minimal attention from politicians. As someone who is neither famous nor beautiful, Makhtal does not lead the newscasts. In this very brutal version of Canadian Idol, he does not get many audience votes.
A group of lawyers, politicians and human rights organizations have called on Stephen Harper to negotiate directly with the US to bring Khadr home to Canada. Peter MacKay says Canada must wait until the appeals process is finished. The appeals process! As if any part of this process has a shred of legitimacy. A teenage boy is held in a concentration camp for five years, then after he's cleared him of all charges, Ottawa still won't intervene to bring him home to Canada.
I dream of a Canada that stands up to the bully south of the border. A Canada unafraid to assert its own values - which, from a selfish point of view, could only increase its standing on the world stage. Instead, I see a Canada that blithely brushes off human rights, international law and basic decency, so as not to ruffle the feathers of its major trading partner.
As much as some wmtc readers - mostly in the US - love to point fingers at Harper and MacKay, there's little evidence that Khadr would fare better under a Liberal government. A Liberal government got Canada into Afghanistan, then did nothing to help Khadr for four years before the Conservatives were elected. I sometimes wonder at the venom spewed against Harper, when in many ways he's just maintaining the status quo.
When it comes to the US's war of terror, Canada is still the US's handmaiden. Maybe there's some tough talk at election time, but that's where it ends. It's naive to think this is a Harper issue. This is a Canada issue.
Here's an excellent long article from Rolling Stone on Khadr's ordeal, and background from Amnesty.
If you're unfamiliar with Bashir Makhtal's ordeal - or what we know of it - here's some background. Also: Friends of Bashir Makhtal.