Will Trudeau address civil rights violations on Canadian soil?

Will Trudeau address civil rights violations on Canadian soil?
5 min read
08 Dec, 2017
Comment: How many more acts of violence and racism need occur before Ottawa admits we have our own home-grown issues, asks Hadani Ditmars.
Canada needs to address racial profiling and the curtailment of civil liberties [Getty]

In light of another awful racial profiling story, in which Arab-Canadian writer Amal El-Mohta was detained by border guards for hours at the Macdonald-Cartier International Airport in Ottawa last week, will the Trudeau government actually take action to prevent such harassment of Canadian citizens from happening on their own soil?

Or at the very least, ensure timely apologies and compensation?

American excesses and travel bans aside, I - a fifth generation Canadian - had the pleasure of being detained, searched and interrogated for hours by Canadian border guards in Calgary last year after a long-haul flight from a lecture in London and covering the Carthage Film Festival in Tunis on my way back home to Vancouver.

This caused me to miss my connecting flight and spend several unpleasant hours at Calgary airport in a room full of mainly non-citizens, recalling time spent in police states as a journalist and contemplating the value of my passport.

Racial profiling and civil liberties

A website called antiterror.ca that includes activists, legal scholars and grassroots media producers launched last year as "a radical online resource to encourage informed and meaningful participation with the goal of repealing the controversial Anti Terrorism Act 2015".

It serves as a compelling document of racial profiling and civil liberties curtailment in Canada.

Created by Anushka Nagji, a front line legal advocate, and Alnoor Gova, a scholar researching the nexus of hate crimes, Islamophobia and national security laws, it is meant to be "a comprehensive tool for all members of the public to utilise in order to put pressure on the government to scale back the massive assault on citizens' rights, and privacies and actively consult with the public before any further legislation on national security is passed".

Co-author Nagji warns of the federal government's attempts at 'radically changing definitions of what constitutes terrorism acts', including 'implicating peaceful protest and dissent'

Fear of terrorism, the website notes, "enables the government to implement policies and legislation that allow for mass surveillance, violations of the Charter and basic human rights, arrests and detentions without warrants and other terrifying intrusions and controls of all its citizens. In the name of national security, our human rights are in jeopardy".

The website's audio series 'Unpacking Anti-Terrorism' features more than two dozen interviews with leading Canadian experts on anti-terror legislation.

Interrogations and detainments at airports on Canadian soil are only one of many issues documented. Co-author Nagji warns of the federal government's attempts at "radically changing definitions of what constitutes terrorism acts", including "implicating peaceful protest and dissent, conscripting judges to break the law and override the constitution".

Such actions are "not befitting of what we would and should call democracy", she writes. "In fact it's quite the opposite."

Experts on the site include Michael Vonn of the BC Civil Liberties Association, who has spoken out about secret trials and no-fly lists and the chill on free speech from de-radicalisation to journalism.

Noor al Gova also wrote a report in 2008 with the UBC Law Faculty documenting the experience of Muslim Canadians at border crossings and even sent a copy to Border Services.

Unsurprisingly the correspondence did not receive a response.

Violence and racism

Meanwhile, as activists fight racial profiling on the civil liberties front, the egregious consequences of ongoing racism and Islamophobia continue unabated in the True North, Strong and Free. 

Nineteen-year-old Yosif Al-Hasnawi is the latest victim.

He was shot and killed outside a mosque in Hamilton last week by a "white male in his twenties", who is currently in police custody. Al-Hasnawi was assisting an elder in his community being harassed by the man and an accomplice.

His young life might have been saved if it wasn't for the callous actions of local paramedics who, according to witness accounts, accused al-Hasnawi - who had been shot at close range in the stomach - of "faking" his injury and pain, claiming he had only been shot by a BB gun.

This kind of questioning of racialised people's experience, that in this egregious case lasted an entire 20 minutes before al-Hasnawi was taken to a hospital, much farther away than a local trauma centre, is familiar to many Canadians.

The line between being questioned at a border crossing, and detained indefinitely because some white border guard thinks your story about being a journalist returning from assignment, or a well-known author on her way to a writing workshop, or a woman who wants to go shopping with her child but is turned away because her faith is "fake" - and being shot at in the street and then denied timely medical services - is a real one.

But it often appears to be invisible to national authorities, who blithely point the finger at human rights abuses in other countries, or self-righteously proclaim that egregious acts of racism only happen in our neighbouring nation to the south.

How many more acts of violence and racism need to happen before Ottawa admits we have our own home-grown issues, ones that only serve to exacerbate the excesses of Trumpian America?

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq. A former editor at New Internationalist, she has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades. Her next book, Ancient Heart, is a political travelogue of Iraqi heritage sites.

Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.