Monday, December 8

Civil Liberties in a Northern Province 

The other day I went to a panel discussion on "Human Rights and Security" in Canada at The Forum. The subject is certainly topical. In addition to the case of Maher Arar, which is finally getting media attention, there is the recent debacle of "Project Thread," to remind us of the dangers that the fear of terrorism and corresponding desire for "security" create.  Speakers at The Forum reminded us that this tension is hardly new.  Professor Shin Imai reviewed the justifications and long-term consequences of the treatment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War, and Serge Roy detailed how he and many other Quebequois were stripped of their rights during the FLQ crisis.  

What does all this have to do with empires, you may ask?  Well, one of the audience noted that these events all mirrored similar abuses by our Southern neighbor.  True, the US did not deal with the FLQ, but the brutal repression of Quebec activists in Canada echoed the treatment of peace and civil rights activists in the US.  And this is the important point.  While the US was not responsible for the Canadian government's abuses of human rights -- the Empire was not secretly plotting Canadian domestic policy -- nevertheless Canada appears to have looked South for moral guidance, or moral justification.  This is exactly how the Roman Empire worked.  It did not rule by the sword alone.  It did not simply force all its provinces to follow Rome's lead.  The provinces took it upon themselves to gauge what Rome wanted (which given the complexities of Roman politics was not always obvious), and to comply.  It was rare that Rome needed to actually force its provinces to adopt the policies it wanted, even though the provinces had their own governments and legal codes.

So it is that, following the creation in the US of the Patriot Act, Canada passed Bill C-36.  It is legislation with a similar potential for abuse.  And it is notable that it is legislation.  Both earlier examples of institutional attacks upon Canadian civil liberties were legally justified as temporary measures.  They were legitimized by the war measures act.  Bill C-36, on the other hand, has no expiry date.

This is, of course, all very troubling.  No one wants their civil liberties eroded.  Yet it would be a bit less upsetting if we could really believe that it is Canadian security that is at stake.  What galls many is the growing suspicion that Canadians are losing their rights to preserve the security, or perceived security, of the US.  In other words, that these erosions are not merely global trends but a policy of imperial appeasement.

In the case of Maher Arar it first seemed that the US had simply ignored the rights of a Canadian.  But now there are accusations that he was essentially sold out by Canadian officials to placate the US and Arar and his supporters have been demanding a public inquiry.  Prime Minister Chretien, however, has flatly refused to investigate.  Whether the incumbent, Paul Martin, will go any further remains to be seen.  He has made promising signs, but has not explicitly promised to initiate an independent inquiry.  He should, for a number of reasons.  Not am I alone in thinking so.  It was clear at the Forum that the vast majority of the audience agreed that one was necessary.  After all, over 43% of Torontonians are immigrants.  Arar's status as a dual national is hardly unusual here.  The danger he faced from having two passports is a real threat to many.  

Yet in the end, I would be very surprised were Martin to follow through.  He has also promised to improve Canadian-US relations, and it is hard to see how he could keep the US happy whilst demanding that the US submit to an investigation of its security agencies.  If anything, Martin appears even more likely to appease the Empire than Chretien.  

Will the US invade Canada?  No.  That's not how empires work.  Will Canada transform into nothing more than a province of the US?  That remains to be seen.