Prisoners of the War at Home
The “Secret Trial Five” and the new face of the working class in Canada
By Ivan Drury
Under the “Security Certificate” provision of the “Immigration and Refugee Protection Act”, Immigration Canada can have anyone who is not a Canadian citizen arrested and detained indefinitely. All it takes is a single judge to be convinced that they may pose an unspecified risk to “Canada” due to suspicions of connections to “terrorist” organizations. The courts are not required to provide the accused or their lawyers with any information about their case. The courts do not have to release evidence that could be used against the accused. They do not have to release the charges against the accused. They do not have to allow the accused or their lawyers the opportunity to defend themselves. It is not a secret that there are trials happening where they are accused, but the trials themselves remain secret; all they know are the results.
The results have been found – in the now highly publicized cases of the “Secret Trial Five” – against the accused. How could it be different in a secret trial?
The “Secret Trial Five”
Arrested in June of 2000, Mohammad Mahjoub was stuffed away in an overnight holding cell where he was held for five years with the lights on 24 hours a day until he and co-imprisoned Hassan Almrei went on a series of hunger strikes in 2005. Almrei staged two hunger strikes in 2005: the first, which lasted 39 days was for a pair of shoes to wear in his freezing cold cell. The second, lasting 73 days, was for an hour’s exercise a day. Mahjoub struck at the same time, demanding treatment for the Hepatitis C that he contracted while in custody.
Last year Mahjoub, Almrei, and the third Secret Trial Five-er who is still imprisoned, Mahmoud Jaballah, were moved to the newly constructed Kensington Immigration Holding Centre (KIHC) – part of the Millhaven Maximum Security Prison. The conditions there can hardly be considered an improvement.
After a visit to the holding centre in January of this year, NDP MP Bill Siksay wrote in an editorial in the Hamilton Spectator, “KIHC is two small, school portable-like buildings. One is the residential unit and the other the administration unit. Cells are small. There is no real exercise yard, just a paved area the length of two wheelchair ramps between the buildings. The detainees have no programs, have complained of harassment by guards and face restrictions on their religious practices. They are subject to petty procedures, such as standing counts three times a day in a facility that has only three prisoners. In the five and six years of their detention, they have never been allowed a private visit with their families or ‘touch’ visits with their spouses, something regular prisoners at Millhaven can access regularly.”
Minister Siksay’s visit to the KIHC was instigated by a combination of, first - the hunger strike of the three inmates there passing its’ 80th day, second - a ground-swell of support mounting for these three men from labour unions all the way up to Canada’s national union federation, the Canadian Labour Congress, and third - a political opportunity to better define the NDP’s position on Canada’s imperialist war drive.
Immediately following Minister Siksay’s visit to KIHC, Canada’s Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Stockwell Day, also visited KIHC. He, however, took an invisible tour of the holding grounds, refusing to meet with, speak to, or even see the prisoners. His comments on the floor of parliament were geared to discredit the three’s hunger strike that was approaching its three-month point. Day said, “[in KIHC] ...there is a large kitchen where any detainees have their own washer and drier, microwave, refrigerator stocked with a variety of juices, soups, soy milk, chocolate sauce and honey."
As if in response to this attempt to slander the hunger strikers, Amnesty International spelled out the situation that faced the Secret Trial 5 in a letter sent to Minster Day on February 5th, 2007:
“Amnesty International recognizes that a hunger strike can be a form of non-violent protest against an abuse of human rights. It comes as no surprise that these individuals, facing great stress and with no other effective options, have resorted to such action. … concerns about lack of a fair process and risk of return to torture lie at the heart of the hunger strikes. … These men have felt compelled to take this desperate step as a result of the government’s failure to address these serious human rights shortcomings.”
Or for an even better explanation of the conditions of the hunger strikers and their relationship with the government of Canada, consider the words of the hunger strikers themselves… in an open letter released by Mohammad Mahjoub, Hassan Almrei, and Mahmoud Jaballah on January 8th, they stated:
“Some people have called this place Guantánamo Bay North. Like the detainees in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, we are held indefinitely. This is a kind of psychological torture that is almost unimaginable. We do not know when, or if, we will be released from jail.”
The Release of Mohammad Mahjoub
Suddenly, on February 15th, an about-face. The very courts that had placed Mohammad Mahjoub in prison indefinitely without charges in June of 2000, were releasing him. These were the same courts that had him held for years without adequate footwear or blankets against the cold in a cement overnight facility, denied him necessary medical attention, forbade him private contact with his wife and children. These courts were suddenly releasing him.
Why this sudden change? Let the newspapers speak for the vulnerabilities of the Canadian ruling class:
The Ottawa Sun ran a headline on February 3rd, “PM grilled on hunger strikers.”
Canadian Press headline, February 4th, “Hunger strikers being 'left to die' by 'unaccountable' government: advocates”
From the Ottawa Citizen, February 8th, “Given the lack of an independent complaints process and the apparent failure to carry out ongoing medical monitoring, it is vital that the government move without delay. It must ensure there is an impartial review of the allegations and demands made by the hunger strikers.”
Or Maclean’s Magazine February 14th, the day before the ruling, quoting Conservative Senator Hugh Segal: "This is not the old Soviet gulag or Iran or China under the Cultural Revolution - this is Canada, and we should not let people starve when they are guests of Her Majesty. On a humanitarian level, no effort should be spared."
The newspapers sounded the alarm, giving voice to human rights organizations like Amnesty International. Within days it was being echoed by certain Parliamentarians and Senators. Then the government and courts acted on the tip – they had gone too far. On the heels of the embarrassment of the Maher Arar scandal, that Canada had supplied Syrian torture chambers came this. At the same time, the news of Maher Arar-esque abuse against Abdullah Almalki, Ahmed Elmati and Muayed Nuredin. The hunger strikes of three of the Secret Trial Five were too much too soon. The release of Mohammad Mahjoub was the sound of the Canadian ruling class retreating to release the pressure of “human rights” scandals, and to regroup.
Without a hint of irony, and after six-and-a-half-years, Federal Court Judge Richard Mosley stated, “The applicant today is an ailing and aging man preoccupied with his health and the lack of contact with his family apart from telephone calls and occasional visits. The conditions of his detention have exacerbated that problem." He ordered Mahjoub released to the care of his family and friends, under a bail bond of nearly $100,000 from those same supporters. Judge Mosley clarified, "I wish to stress that this will amount to a form of house arrest and that Mr. Mahjoub will be returned to custodial detention if he violates the terms and conditions.” Could these same “reasons for judgment” not be said for the remaining of the Secret Trial Five? These are personal, not legal, not “national security” reasonings…
But nonetheless, Mohammad Mahjoub has joined Adil Charkaoui and Mohammad Harkat in house arrest. Although this is far from being “freed” and very far from having their names exonerated of “terror-links,” it is also far from solitary confinement in the KIHC, and represents a turn in the form of the approach of the Canadian ruling class to the Secret Trial Five. This tactical turn is clearer when we look at the other things regarding immigrant and refugee rights that went down in the middle of February 2007, and also the importance of immigrant labour to Canadian bosses at this time.
Are the Streets Paved with Gold Now?
“Canadians count on their government to uphold our country's proud record of human rights and respect for justice. It would be remiss for the Conservative government to ignore those principles domestically while preaching them abroad.” – NDP MP Bill Siksay in Feb 7th 2007 edition of the Hamilton Whig
“The special powers contained in C-36 are far less draconian than comparable measures adopted in other western democracies, such as the United Kingdom.” – Liberal MP John Manley in response to Parliament discussion on Bill C-36 as recorded on the Maclean’s Magazine website, Feb 15th 2007
The same day that Mohammad Mahjoub was ordered released by the Supreme Court, the issue of Canada’s anti-terror laws, enshrined in Bill C-36, was discussed on the parliamentary floor. On this day, the Liberals came out against a continuation of the same bill abolishing civil liberties and the rule of law that they themselves had enacted in 2001-2002.
For the first time since these laws were introduced in the wake of the September 11th “anti-terrorist” hysteria (when it was possible for the ruling class to steamroll through any repressive legislation they could dream up), every opposition party has come out against a continuation of Bill C-36. The Liberals remain largely divided, but the official party position now lines up with the NDP and the Bloc Québécois. They all now say what none had the gumption to say in 2001 – that Bill C-36 is a third wheel. That, in the words of Liberal Justice critic Sue Barnes, “We know today that the Criminal Code already contains all the necessary offences and powers for law enforcement officials to adequately respond to the threat of terrorism.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was quick to respond, in his characteristic fashion on February 14th, “For the first time in history we have a leader of the opposition who is soft on terrorism.” And Minister of Public Safety Stockwell Day chimed in the very next day, “I would remind my colleagues that Canada is still on Osama bin Laden's list. He named several countries which he was directing his malevolent forces to attack whenever they had the opportunity. Canada is still on that list.” He went on to list every terrorist attack not carried out by Canada, the US, UK, or Israel in the past 6 years as proof of why Bill C-36 is essential to the safety of Canada.
Notwithstanding the views of the party-in-power, the sunset clause written in to Bill C-36 at the time it was enacted means that it will expire on March 1st unless it is voted on in parliament to extend its life. The united opposition of the opposition parties means that the minority government will not be able to plug in the iron lung of this reactionary bill on its own. And the pressure is on. Canada got a black-eye from the torture of Maher Arar, and Bill-C-36 is a monument to Canada’s “bending” of civil liberties.
On February 22nd the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, a “multi-sector coalition that promotes respect for human rights and civil liberties” (from their release) released a statement calling for the withdrawal of Canada’s “Anti-Terrorist” Act. This monitoring group is composed of the very organizations that set public opinion in Canada and internationally about the “good” and “bad” countries regarding human rights; groups like Amnesty International, Canadian Auto Workers Union, Canadian Association of University Teachers, Canadian Labour Congress, CARE Canada, David Suzuki Foundation, Greenpeace, PEN Canada, World Vision Canada, and more.
Then, mere days later, all the way on the other side of Canada, Amir Kazemian was seized from the sanctuary of Saint Michaels Church in Vancouver. Kazemian is an Iranian refugee who took sanctuary in Saint Michaels when his claim was rejected by Immigration Canada just over two years ago. Although “sanctuary” is not legally protected, it has been a principle that has traditionally been respected by the police, courts and government of Canada.
The only other time police have broken the principles of sanctuary, gone into a church and dragged out their hunted, they have sparked tremendous outcry and protest from respectable organizations and church officials all across Canada. That was in 2004, Algerian refugee Mohammad Cherfi was seized from a church sanctuary, and the United Church of Canada responded, “we denounce the violent intrusion of the Quebec police into one of our sanctuaries. Moreover, it appears this police action, an action we deem both unwarranted and wrong, was carried out with the full knowledge and concurrence of your ministries.”
Kazemian was the most high profile church sanctuary dweller in Canada, setting an unofficial record for the length of his stay in the Saint Michaels Church. When the Vancouver Police Department arrested him and took him from his sanctuary, the government though twice. By the time Kazemian’s supporters had a chance to gather in front of the offices of immigration Canada the news had been released – the government was blaming an innocently ignorant single officer for the arrest of Kazemian. Furthermore, they had approved his refugee claim on humanitarian and compassionate grounds – a statute only approved in around 2% of the cases it is applied for. They had buried the scandal.
The changing dynamics of the working class in Canada
Of course, things are not rosy at all. In the midst of last year’s non-status worker awakening prompted by the massive immigrant rights protests in the US the October 26th Globe and Mail reported, “Ottawa has ruled out amnesty for the estimated 200,000 undocumented workers toiling in Canada's underground economy…” The same article noted that more than 80,000 permitted temporary workers were imported into Canada in 2005.
And the Toronto Star reported on January 31st, “[A] Statistics Canada report released yesterday found that in 2002, immigrants during their first year in this country were 3.5 times more likely than Canadian-born people to be low-income. By 2004, the rate had dipped slightly to 3.2 times. That's up from about 3.0 in the 1990s. And it has happened despite a 1993 shift in the immigrant selection process that put the emphasis on admitting more highly skilled immigrants. Among immigrants defined as "chronic low income" – meaning they had lived in poverty for at least four of their first five years in Canada – 41 per cent who came in 2000 had university degrees, compared to 13 per cent of those who came in 1993.”
It is here where we find the tides that pull, draw, push, and drag the levels of immigration closed vs. openness, and repression vs. ‘pro-immigrant’ legislation and manoeuvres.
The CIA world factbook ranks Canada’s birth rates as only number 186 out of 224 regions in world. This, combined with an aging “baby-boomer” population means that immigrant workers are needed by the Canadian ruling class. But, in the context of a world economic crisis where, in the words of last years’ international strategy document, Canada must become, “A Place of Pride and Influence in the World,” Canada must “break out” of its historic middle power status; or risk losing it all.
The population born-in Canada – as with Europe and the US – is shrinking. The relatively prosperous 1970’s to 1990’s created a top heavy layer of relatively well-off workers that are now aging and tipping the labour market unfavourably to the bosses, who always prefer a buyers market when it comes to buying and selling workers labour. The Canadian ruling class needs more workers, but not just any workers - they need workers who will continues the past decade’s trend towards de-unionization and therefore lower wages and deteriorating conditions. They need mechanisms of control and terror over these communities of immigrant workers - and suddenly - here we are again with the Secret Trial Five.
The face of the working class in Canada is changing, and the ruling class is still divided on how to approach the management of this new crop of workers.
Neither A nor B – No one is illegal!
The two approaches of the Ruling Class of Canada to this problem of managing these new workers are best explained by the factions that have emerged in Parliament:
A. On one side there’s the ruling Conservative Party with its main spokespeople, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Minister of Public Safety Stockwell Day. Their “option A” is in defence of a “traditional Canada” with big guns. They are for a full assault on the rights and lives of the new immigrant workers – right alongside their strategy for a full-out assault on the people of Afghanistan. They stand for more troops to Afghanistan, more regressive anti-immigrant legislation to further destabilize immigrant worker communities with the constant threat of deportation. They are also for the most restrictive “anti-terrorist” legislation to drive deeper wedges between so-called “white-Canadian” workers and the new generation of immigrant workers, and to fracture these immigrant communities themselves with direct terror.
B. On the other side is a hodge-podge of ideas about what this new working class might look like and differing estimates regarding its strength. While they generally see more clearly that this “new face” of the working class is inevitable, and therefore their approach is less aggressively oppressive than the Conservative camp, coalition “B” is still calculating how to best manipulate these immigrant workers to best defend and advance Canadian capital and business. This is what Liberal justice critic Sue Barnes was getting at when she said, “We know today that the Criminal Code already contains all the necessary offences and powers for law enforcement officials to adequately respond to the threat of terrorism.”
The NDP-Bloc Quebecois-sometimes-Liberal camp is saying that it is not necessary to have a whole separate “anti-terrorist act” because that just “unnecessarily” aggravates relations with Muslims. They agree that there should be more “guest worker” programs to fulfill the needs of Canadian capital and are sure that wages can be kept low by keeping these workers quarantined from unions through temporary visas and instability. They on-and-off agree that Canada should reduce its prominence in Afghanistan, and should pull back from Kandahar to a more “traditionally Canadian” role in Kabul.
Stop the “War on Terror”! Free the Secret Trial Five now!
From the perspective of working people in Canada, the face of the working class is really not changing at all. Since the foundation of the Canadian state, the working class has always been built mostly of immigrants. It wasn’t long ago, when in 1931 the RCMP arrested the entire leadership of the Communist Party of Canada under Section 98 of the Criminal Code, in order to try to break down the labour movement in Canada.
At that time it was anti-immigrant racism and anti-communist hysteria that the government and police used to show workers that these arrests were to protect them against “Commies” and “Polaks”.
While it should be obvious that the racist Conservative “war on terror” must be fought against, it should also be clear that the so-called “alternatives” that are being put forward on the floor of parliament are no answer either to the problems facing working people in Canada.
The 1931 arrests of the Communist Party leadership was an example to the communities – largely though not entirely of immigrant workers – that they came from. A friend of this newspaper who lives in Campbell River said that these Toronto arrests terrified Eastern European immigrants all the way across the country on Vancouver Island. He recalled his own Mother and Father gathering up and burning all their radical pamphlets and newspapers and burning them the night they heard of these arrests. He also remembered that the feared police did come, to “talk”, weeks later.
In 2006-2007 the dates have changed, and so have the names of the lightning rods that the ruling class is picking out to strike with their thunder. Krawchuk and Lapshinoff has been replaced with Mahjoub and Ali, and “Communist” with “Muslim,” but their cause is the same. In 2006, when they arrested 17 young Muslim men in the Toronto area, the government, CSIS, and the RMCP left upon Muslim leaderships across Canada to define themselves against these “bad apples.” For the most part, these leaderships did just that. And the division of communities into “good” and “bad” has meant – in 1931 as today – the gagging of the entire community of oppressed people because to protest is to pass into the camp of the “bad” immigrant. 1931 led to the internment camps of 1940, of these same communists, alongside Japanese, Italian and German “bad” immigrants.
It should be clear that the attacks on the civil, democratic, human, labour, immigration, and legal rights of immigrant workers– especially today with the increasingly new-immigrant face on labour in Canada – is an attack on the rights of all workers in Canada.
The motions towards immigrant-defence that have come from some of the higher levels of the labour movement should be taken as a very good sign. Recent demonstrations organized demanding an end to the use of Security Certificates have been sponsored by the Canadian Autoworkers Union, the Canadian Labour Congress, the Canadian Postal Workers Union, alongside activist groups and human rights NGOs. This has opened more space for immigrant and non-immigrant workers to stand together and struggle together for an end to these attacks on working people in Canada, and to say:
We reject the government’s racist baiting to continue the “war on terror” in Afghanistan and against immigrant workers in Canada.
We defend and demand the full rights of all workers, without question of status or conditions.
We demand the opening of all books in the cases of the Secret Trial Five and their immediate release.
We demand an end to Security Certificate legislation unconditionally and all so-called “anti-terror,” anti-democratic, anti-immigrant, anti-worker legislation.
End the “war on terror” now.
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