Commentary By: Avi Benlolo in Toronto
Today is International Day of Democracy. Yet, the western world seems to have lost hope of the very fundamentals we are supposed to hold dear to our hearts – freedom, equality, respect and peace building. Democracies are far from perfect and disparities within exist and must be addressed to alleviate hardship and continued inequality. However, Gross Domestic Product, mortality and literacy rates are amongst the highest in the world among leading nation states which practice democracy. Third-world developing nations struggle with persistent war, poverty, disparity, environmental degradation and inequity. It’s no wonder that democracies like Canada enjoy an inflow of migrants who hope to live in a nation which respects the UN Declaration for Human Rights, unlike the majority of the UN General Assembly.
Still, democracies have become far too forgiving or compromising. While we preach gender equality, we look the other way as non-democracies practice gender apartheid and withhold women's rights, for example. We say we want to promote "women and girls' leadership and participation in political, social and peace-building processes" which would be essential to building democracies worldwide, but we timidly look the other way. We provide military equipment as Canada has to Saudi Arabia and promote trade with nations that discriminate against others, and in many cases are spreading the seeds of hate and intolerance worldwide.
For all of its good deeds in assisting the developing world with billions of dollars of investment aid in order to further democracy, the west is targeted relentlessly by terrorists who use the very freedom of movement and assembly to harm innocent people. Today, on International Day of Democracy, European cities have been placed on high alert as a result of a number of incidents, including a bomb in the London subway which injured 22 people; a hammer attack in Lyon that critically injured two women by a man running down the street yelling "Allahu Akhbar"; a knifeman stopped by police in Birmingham and a highway closed in Malmo after explosives were found in a car.
Yet our democracy is failing to curb the attack on the west, on our institutions and our citizens. We have seen a slow and steady degradation of our way of life since 9/11 with increasing spate of terrorism and relentless usage of rights like 'free speech' to sow hate and discord. In many ways, Jewish communities across Europe have been like the so-called canaries in the coal mine – having been the initial recipients of most terror attacks. Now it has spread to society at large.
In Canada, while we speak about equity, anti-racism, tolerance and peace building, our hate crime laws fail to be enforced giving way to more hate crime. We learned this week that in Quebec, the Crown Attorney dropped charges against two imams who were captured on video preaching hatred and violence against Jews at a Montreal mosque. In Toronto, a Muslim community calls for the elimination of Jews each year at its annual "Al Quds" protest at Queen’s Park while violence promoting antisemitic pamphlet circulates the province, with little reaction from authorities. Graffiti stating "Hitler was Right" is spray painted on bridges without condemnation from our premier or leading public figures.
If we are going to celebrate democracy and its fundamentals, we must learn to protect and defend our values and ideals. If democracies celebrate tolerance, they cannot and should not tolerate those who are intolerant of others. They must stand up to hate, enforce hate crime and hate speech laws and place our very values and ideals – like women's rights, justice and equality – first and foremost. Otherwise, I fear that if we are not passionate about our exceptional democratic system, hope for humanity might be lost.
Avi Benlolo is a Canadian human rights activist, President, and Chief Executive Officer of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, the Canadian branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
by Winnie Hwo in Vancouver
The world is still catching up to Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier.
A year before being appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2006, she presented a landmark legal petition to the Inter-American Council on Human Rights, linking the disastrous impact of climate change to human rights in the Arctic and urging the United States to set emissions limits and work with Inuit communities.
"Today, it's mainstream language – everybody talks about [climate change] as a human-rights issue," said Watt-Cloutier in 2010, when she was a teaching scholar at Bowdoin College's Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center. "I think we've been successful in changing the discourse on this issue to making that connection."
Her book The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic, and the Whole Planet was released last March. Later in the year, a UN Report on the same subject was presented at the Paris Climate Summit, stating that climate change and human rights are intricately linked and that recognizing this connection will help protect the fundamental rights of communities and people across the planet.
The book was a finalist for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing in 2015 and British Columbia's National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction in 2016.
Watt-Cloutier’s story begins in the hunting and fishing village of Kuujjuaq, a coastal Inuit community in Northern Quebec's Nunavik region.
“During the short summer months, cloudberries, blueberries, arctic cranberries and black crowberries grow among the green leaves and tundra . . . In the winter, the landscape is transformed into a brilliant vista of ice and snow that stretches under the vast expanse of the blue Arctic sky.”
At the age of 10, Watt-Cloutier was sent south to be “educated.” She struggled with being away from her mother, grandmother, and the land that nurtured her, but later admitted that the experience of separation helped shape her role as an activist in defending and promoting the “northern” way of life.
Watt-Cloutier’s personal story and her message of our interconnectedness are powerful not because she went through a single life-changing event. Her story evolved with the discovery of her own strength and power through disappointments and losses.
Like many young people, she had high hopes for herself. She dreamt of being a doctor and worked hard to meet that goal, yet it remained elusive.
Watching home disappear
After returning home from Churchill, Manitoba, Watt-Cloutier worked as an interpreter, educator, and eventually a community advocate. Within her own generation, not only did she witness how environmental degradation and global warming took away her people’s identity as hunters and trekkers, but also how it stripped them of their dignity and physical health.
As an immigrant from a former British colony, I do not need my environmental hat to understand the frustration and helplessness Watt-Cloutier felt as a young girl, witnessing the rapid disappearance of her traditional way of life in Canada’s North.
For the Inuit people, everyday life is tightly knit with their natural environment – hunting, fishing, travelling by dogsled. When the eco-system in the Arctic erodes and gradually melts away, so too goes the Inuit people’s cultural identity.
With colonization, climate change, and toxic pollution, the cold and pristine northern country Watt-Cloutier knew so well was quickly disappearing along with the melting ice and snow.
Linking global communities
Watt-Cloutier’s big break as a national and international advocate for the Northern indigenous people came when she was elected to lead the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), representing Inuit people from Canada, Russia, Greenland and Alaska. Working closely with allies and NGOs, the ICC focused on negotiating a global treaty that would ban toxins known as POPs – persistent organic pollutants that travelled airborne from factory smokestacks in the south to the north.
Toxins leaving factories travelled fast in hot air. When they reached the cold North, they would freeze and stay there.
Northern wildlife tends to store more fat, and as it turns out, these toxic particles did well in fatty cells. They survived in the seals and whales that were eventually hunted and consumed by Northern indigenous people.
When an Inuit mother breastfed her babies, the toxins were passed on to her children, ultimately harming the health of the entire Northern population. Watt-Cloutier’s campaign ended with the signing of the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants to eliminate or restrict the production and use of POPs.
Today, Watt-Cloutier continues to do what she does best – fighting for the rights of her people to live in a healthy environment. And she will fight the way she knows best – with strong words, clear ideas and succinct translation.
“What’s happening today in the Arctic is the future of the rest of the world. In one lifetime, we Inuit have seen our physical world transform, the very ground beneath our feet shifted dramatically . . . As we head into stormier seas, we must ask ourselves, 'If we cannot save our frozen Arctic, how can we hope to save the rest of the world?'”
Winnie Hwo joined David Suzuki Foundation’s Climate Change Team in 2010 after a long and stellar career in journalism. She is passionate about Canada’s multicultural policy and healthy environment.
by Aurora Tejeida in Vancouver, British Columbia
The University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program is suggesting that Mexico be removed from Canada’s “safe country” list, making it easier for sexual minorities and those living with HIV to seek asylum here.
The report, published on World Refugee Day Monday, comes at an awkward time: just when Ottawa is moving to remove visa restrictions imposed on that country by the previous Harper government in 2009.
The UofT study, co-authored by Kristin Marshall and Maia Rotman, was based on in-country interviews with 50 Mexicans, including journalists, activists, members of the country’s LGBTQ+ community, health care professionals and people living with HIV. It documents the gap between laws to protect minorities in Mexico and the on-the-ground reality of discrimination and exclusion faced by vulnerable populations.
This spotlight on Mexico’s human rights comes on the heels of violent clashes between government forces and Mexico’s largest teachers’ union. The most recent conflict in Oaxaca left at least four protesters dead and hundreds of people injured, including police officers.
Mexican President Peña Nieto is visiting Ottawa next week for a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama for the Three Amigos summit on June 29.
Canada considers Designated Countries of Origin (DCOs) (or, “safe country”) as those that “do not normally produce refugees, but do respect human rights and offer state protection.” The list includes countries like the U.S., Denmark, Finland and Germany, but also countries like Hungary, Israel and Mexico, which was added to the list only in February 2013
“I think these two countries, Mexico and Hungary, were targeted because there were such a high number of claims,” explained Marshall.
“They wanted less Mexican [refugee] claimants, and the government rhetoric at the time was about deterring bogus and unfounded claims from Mexico and Hungary, their thinking was that by giving faster timelines and no option to appeal, all of these "baseless" claims would go through the system and the people would get deported back to their countries,” added Marshall. "It sends the message 'don't bother coming' because we think Mexico is safe.”
Fewer refugee claims
The twin measures resulted in fewer Mexicans seeking asylum, which fell to 1,199 from more than 9,000. However, the percentage of successful refugee claims remained about the same.
Marshall thinks that signalling that Mexico is “safe” could have an impact on cases that might have otherwise been successful.
However, the “safe country” designation is not imminent. All an Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) spokesperson would say is that “being listed on Canada’s designated country of origin list does not prevent individuals from seeking refugee protection in Canada.”
The IRCC added that it “continuously monitors all designated countries of origin to determine whether conditions remain similar to those at the time they were designated. In the event of significant changes, IRCC may undertake a review of country conditions to determine if removal from the designated country of origin list is warranted.”
The spokesperson confirmed that Canadian officials are currently working with their Mexican counterparts to lift the visa requirements.
Clearly, a “safe country” designation is a mixed blessing.
Commenting on the UofT report, Dr. Chris Erickson from the University of British Columbia’s Department of Political Science, noted, "On one level it looks like inclusion on the ‘safe countries’ list is a compliment to whatever state is put there. On the other hand, it does allow for significant abuses to be entirely whitewashed. The language itself indicates that any claim to asylum coming from someone from one of the states on the list is likely to be false.”
Not safe for minorities
In one particularly shocking section of the report, the writers describe an attack on a transgender woman in the northern state of Chihuahua. The woman was beat up and shot in the head just days before Mexico City’s 2015 Pride parade.
“The victim’s body was wrapped in a Mexican flag — apparently a protest against the Supreme Court’s June ruling allowing gay marriage,” reads the report.
Despite enacting laws to protect LGBTQ+ rights, including a recent proposal from President Nieto legalizing same sex marriages, according to Mexico’s Human Rights Commission, the country has the second highest number of hate crimes against sexual minorities in the Americas.
“There's a great effort and determination invested to project a certain image to the world, but the will to implement laws isn't there,” explained Marshall. “There are also issues with resources that are unavailable, and many of the problems faced by sexual minorities also have to do with conservative values in Mexico, which means deep down there isn't a desire to see these rights protected.”
The report recommends offering assistance to Mexico to create specialized health care services for trans people and working with the government to create educational resources about sexual and reproductive health.
“I don't think human rights will feature prominently in the Three Amigos summit,” said Marshall. “But I do think this is a new government [in Ottawa] and it's a new opportunity for Canada to show international leadership.”
by Susan Korah in Ottawa
Canada’s foreign policy is caught in a precarious balancing act between the “sunny ways” of election promises and the realpolitik of weapons sales to countries with dubious human rights records.
In his new book, Two Freedoms: Canada’s Global Future, former Senator Hugh Segal suggests a solution that he says is focused, principled, and based on two foundational principles – freedom from fear and freedom from want.
Segal’s expertise in foreign policy was acquired through more than 30 years of involvement in foreign and security policy. This included chairing the Senate Foreign Affairs and Special Anti-Terrorism committees and the Canadian Institute for Strategic Studies, as well as a serving term as President of the Institute for Research and Public Policy (IRPP), a non-partisan think tank and research institution.
Introducing his book at a launch hosted by the IRPP in partnership with the Ottawa International Writers’ Festival, he explained that while he has the highest regard for some of Canada’s hardworking diplomats and other foreign service personnel, he is concerned that foreign policy is a mess of shifting priorities swinging from right to left, according to the ideology of the government that happens to be in power.
His aim, he said, is to give some clarity and direction to foreign policy, which in his opinion, should not be dependent on party politics.
More foreign aid
Elaborating on freedom from want, Segal said it is in Canada’s interest to see that families, communities and nations around the world live in reasonable prosperity, buoyed by a sense of hope for the future.
“Living in a state of economic and social despair can produce huge and even cataclysmic consequences, not only for those living in despair, but for their neighbouring communities and countries,” he pointed out, adding that the total absence of hope leads to violent behaviour based on a “nothing-to-lose” attitude.
“Putting those two freedoms – freedom from want and from fear – at the centre of our foreign policy would make it more coherent and the world would understand better what we stand for as Canadians,” Segal said.
He added that if extreme poverty is the root cause of violence, we have to ask ourselves what we can do to diminish this cause.
“I think that both in terms of foreign aid and international development and in terms of doing our fair share militarily, we are not doing enough,” he said. “In the [Prime Minister] Lester Pearson era we contributed 0.7 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP) to foreign aid, but in recent years our numbers have been much lower.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently pledged to boost funding to the global fight against HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, but said Ottawa will not meet the goal to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid anytime soon.
Increase military capacity
Another key point that Segal makes in his book and highlighted at the event, is that Canada needs to reinforce its values-based foreign policy with an appropriate military capacity.
“We have a great military, but we need more of them,” he said. “Canada should probably have Armed Forces of 150,000, of which 100,000 are regular forces and 50,000 are reserves rather than our present number which is in the 50,000 to 60,000 range.”
He said Canada also needs a 60-ship fighting navy, rather than one that has 20 or 30 ships, that can be deployed on humanitarian and diplomatic missions “to send a clear message about Canadian values.”
Giving some examples of how such military strength could help Canadians and those abroad, Segal said, “We need to make sure the Chinese respect the territorial integrity of Taiwan and other people.”
“Our failure to engage with [Bashar al-] Assad three or four years ago is why we have such a horrendous situation now,” he added, referring to the ongoing civil war in Syria.
Using a Western Canadian expression, he said: “We have a big hat, but no cattle,” a reference to cowboys whose boastful talk is not matched by action or even the capacity for action.
Decline since Chrétien era
“There has to be more cohesion between our foreign policy and defence policy,” he emphasized.
Segal’s central thesis is strongly reminiscent of a 2003 publication While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World by Ottawa writer Andrew Cohen. Both authors lament the decline of Canada’s foreign policy and its military, especially since the glory days of Prime Minister Pearson.
Both consider that it took a turn for the worse under the leadership of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. Segal points out that in that era, by sending delegations of Canadian business people and politicians around the world to increase trade, it became necessary to tread carefully so that no potential trading partner would be offended.
Both Segal and Cohen call for a values-based approach.
“The notion that this book might contribute to that debate in some constructive way would be my fondest hope,” said Segal.
by Vicky Tobianah in Toronto
Making distant readers empathize with historical events they have not experienced is a challenging feat.
Mohamed M. Keshavjee grapples with getting individuals to feel the pain of the global collective and experience events that they have not been touched by in his latest book Into That Heaven of Freedom: The Impact of Apartheid on an Indian Family’s Diasporic History.
Keshavjee, a second-generation South African of Indian origin, not only takes readers through his own family history, but also through the history of Indians living in Africa over the course of a hundred years.
The title comes from Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore’s poem “Where the Mind is Free:”
“Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”
The poem is part of Tagore’s Nobel prize-winning poetry collection, Gitanjali. The book also has a forward written by Ahmed Kathrada, who spent 26 years in prison with Nelson Mandela and is the longest serving human rights prisoner alive today.
Path to self-discovery
Keshavjee describes the political struggle against apartheid, beginning with his roots – his family’s establishment in 1894 in Marabastad, a settlement in Pretoria, South Africa. He then describes Mahatma Gandhi’s fight against racism during the beginning of apartheid. Keshavjee’s family continues its journey to Kenya and eventually relocates in Canada.
While Keshavjee writes with authority and knowledge, lurking behind every page is also the realization that he is discovering his own role in this narrative and not merely uncovering the role of his family in history. It is as much self-realization as it is storytelling. We are merely there for the ride as Keshavjee takes his own journey through history.
At the onset of the book, Keshavjee states: “If I have started a conversation amongst my readers about their own antecedents and their personal recollections, I shall be happy.”
However, as I continued reading his memoir, I began to suspect that the most important conversation Keshavjee would have as a result of this storytelling is with himself, about who he really is as he grapples with finding out who he was not in the country of his birth, and who he was in the country of his ancestors.
It is by watching his journey that a reader can hope to embark on the same one through their family’s history.
Where readers might get lost is in the minute details – names of brothers, cousins’ shops, and small communities, each explained in heavy detail throughout, which sometimes feels as if one is reading a classroom history book – ironic for Keshavjee who writes that as a child, he looked forward to the time when he would no longer have to attend school.
Each new chapter brings with it new characters who are all part of Keshavjee’s history. While the story could have been told without some of those details, it is again evidence of the author's desire to record the names, dates and places of those that came before him, struggled before he did, and persevered to allow him to find his own place, too.
Although the book is very much a journey, it hints at the times in Keshavjee’s life when he did start to locate his place in the world. It’s the 1950s when Keshavjee starts to like school and impresses his teachers with his creativity and talent.
In the childhood stories he writes, “Autobiography of a Penny” and “Autobiography of an Old Shoe,” Keshavjee imagines himself as the coin or shoe and the many places it might have been placed, the people who might have touched it, and the home it ended up in.
These stories, although only mentioned over the course of a few lines in this almost 300-page book, foreshadow this memoir, as Keshavjee once again describes the life he has and underneath the surface, the life he might have had, had he been born in a different country, to a different race, with a different skin colour.
Today, Keshavjee is a graduate of Queen’s University and the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, among several other academic achievements. He was called to the bar at Osgoode Hall in Toronto and is a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada. He also practised law in the United Kingdom and Kenya, and served in the Secretariat of His Highness the Aga Khan.
His success is apparent as the memoir winds down and Keshavjee seems to find his answers.
“I am no longer a refugee in search of a homeland,” he writes. Perhaps that is not just because he has found a physical home, but a metaphorical one too in this book. As he notes, “I am grateful that, unlike my ancestors, I have been able to tell my story.”
Vicky Tobianah is an experienced writer, editor and content strategist. She has a bachelor of arts, honours from McGill University in political science and English literature. She is passionate about the future of digital media. Find her work at: www.vickytobianah.com
Human Rights advocate and senior Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Harvinder Singh Phoolka, who has been fighting to secure justice for the next of kin of Sikhs killed in Delhi massacre n 1984, said that he had been purposely targeted by certain pro-Khalistan groups while visiting Canada this week. Phoolka will be honored by members [...]
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by Aurora Tejeida in Vancouver
Before reopening relations with Iran, the Canadian government should hold the Middle Eastern country accountable for human rights violations against minority religions, say some members of Canada’s Bahá’í community.
On January 27, 24 members of the Bahá’í faith, including two of Amir Parsa’s family members, were imprisoned in Iran.
“We know the political relationship between Canada and Iran is being restarted,” says Parsa. “My expectation is that if Canada wants to restart their relationship with Iran, they have to make it based on an agreement that Iran will stop these violations.”
Parsa says he learned about his relatives’ arrests on Facebook after a list was published on a page he follows of the detainees and information on their sentences — which range from six to 11 years each — on the day of their imprisonment.
“We already knew this was coming because they had been arrested in 2012, but they had both been released on bail,” explains Parsa. “We were just waiting for the sentence.”
The 24 imprisoned men and women range in age from 21 to 60 years old.
“They were given very heavy charges,” says Parsa. “One of them was accused of engaging in propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
A representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations (UN) heavily condemned the verdict, stating the individuals were imprisoned for no other reason than their faith — a common occurrence in Iran, where the Bahá’í faith is not recognized in the constitution.
Parsa says it is not the custom of Bahá’ís to hide their beliefs, making it easy for the government to know who they are.
Evaluating how Canada will re-engage
Former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government suspended diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on the promise to reopen Canada’s embassy in Tehran, and Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion said this is just one step the new government is taking to restore relations with Iran.
John Babcock, a Global Affairs Canada spokesperson, states the department is “cautiously, but expeditiously, evaluating our process of re-engagement, but a precise timeline has not been determined.”
He adds that Canada has been one of the strongest voices condemning Iran’s human rights violations, including at the UN, where Canada has been the lead sponsor of the General Assembly resolution on the situation of human rights in Iran since 2003.
The Bahá’í faith originated in Iran in 1844, making it one of the youngest religions in the world.
“The most important thing is to remind ourselves all the time that the current system in Iran is a theocracy,” explains Amir Hassanpour, an associate professor in the department of near and Middle Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto. He adds that Iran recognizes Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity as religions, but not the Bahá’í faith.
According to Hassanpour, the reason why Bahá’ís are the most targeted religious minority is because they don’t recognize the prophet Mohammed as the last prophet Allah sent, and in Islam there cannot be any other prophet after Mohammed.
This explains why, following Iran’s Islamic revolution, repression of Bahá’ís increased.
A difficult time for Bahá’ís
Hassanpour lived in Iran when the Islamic Republic was founded.
“In 1979, Bahá’ís were required to renounce their religion and convert to Islam. They had to put an ad in the newspapers with a photograph of themselves saying they had renounced their religion and were not Bahá’í anymore,” explains Hassanpour.
It was a particularly difficult time for members of this religion, as dozens of Bahá’ís were killed or jailed; land, houses, shops and other belongings of the community were also seized. This was the case with Parsa’s family.
“When we came back from summer vacation, our house was confiscated and our belongings were gone. We were left with two suitcases,” recalls Parsa.
The family managed to live with family and friends for two years, eventually deciding to relocate to Turkey.
“We couldn't get passports so we went over the mountains to Turkey, and claimed refugee status there,” says Parsa. “Then we waited for 15 months for the Canadian government to accept our refugee claim.”
Parsa and his family came to Canada in 1999, when he was 18 years old, allowing him to study, as Bahá’ís are systematically denied access to higher education in Iran.
Now 43, Parsa works as a computer engineer at a high-tech company in Ottawa. He recently sent a letter to Karen McCrimmon, his local member of Parliament for the Kanata-Carleton are, requesting to meet with her.
According to the Bahá’í Community of Canada, only 30,000 Bahá’ís live in Canada, which may explain why many people in this country aren’t aware of the existence of this faith, its followers or their unique set of challenges.
In Iran there are currently over 80 Bahá’ís in prison out of an estimated population of 300,000, according to the Bahá’í International Community. In 2013, 49 per cent of the country's religious-minority related human rights violations involved Bahá’ís. This is despite promises made by President Hassan Rouhani to improve the human rights situation in Iran.
“Engagement does not mean that we agree with Iran’s policies, but it does establish a pathway towards economic opportunity, dialogue and regional security,” says Babcock. He adds that re-establishing relations with Iran would enable Canada to hold the country accountable on issues of human rights violations.
by Danica Samuel in Toronto
Policy makers, journalists, professors and lawyers are putting their best ideas forward to find the right solution to tackle the problem of racial profiling in Ontario.
“We hear the term a lot,” says Renu Mandhane, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), about ‘racial profiling’. “Our job at the commission is to really come up with a concrete understanding of what that means across communities and to understand those experiences.”
The OHRC held a public lecture, in collaboration with Toronto’s York University, to discuss its policies and develop new strategies in combatting racial prejudice in a range of institutional and community settings.
Speakers at the public lecture used their background and personal experiences to shed light on the issue of racial profiling. Each took the stage to present their views and encourage the community to take a stance against racial discrimination.
Keynote speaker at the event, Toronto Star columnist, Haroon Siddiqui, spoke on discrimination against Muslim people, calling Islamophobia a “disease” and “a social cancer eating away at our demographics.”
“It’s not an isolated phenomenon; it’s an unholy alliance of very unlikely partners,” said Siddiqui, author of the 2008 book Being Muslim. Islamophobia has become mainstream like other forms of discrimination, including anti-Semitism and homophobia, which people have come to condemn, he added.
According to Siddiqui, the damage of Islamophobia is the eroded self-confidence in Muslims and their democracies. “We are no longer confident that we can tackle the criminals, or build a war against terrorism,” explained Siddiqui. “We are just turning on each other.”
Keith Corston, chief of Chapleau Cree First Nation, added that racial profiling can be self-destructive to communities.
“Many of our young people made a conscious effort to be tough, which subsequently led to a lot of us ending up in jail and resorting to alcohol abuse,” he explained. “We always felt that we had to be better and tougher and defend one another. As a result, we missed out on our childhood.”
York professor, and former vice-chair of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, Faisal Bhabha, spoke about the actions of police forces, calling the logic of profiling the same as that of the police state.
“It might appear to be effective,” he said. “While stereotypes sometimes do confirm actual attributes, there’s no way to know or assess the prevalence of correct or incorrect stereotyping. Profiling, even when it leads to correct results, is all a stab in the dark.”
Bhabha encouraged the audience to refrain from seeing racial profiling as an attempt to be ‘safe rather than sorry’, because “false promises of safety are just as dangerous as doing nothing at all.”
Resistance, response, reform, restore
According to Mandhane, the OHRC continues to work on several initiatives to bring topics of discrimination to the forefront.
“We are putting in submissions to the governments on their new draft regulations of carding and segregation,” she said. “We are bringing a race lens to the use of segregation in jails and prisons.”
Anthony Morgan, policy and research lawyer at the African Canadian Legal Clinic, presented a visual model of what social transformation could look like, using four key words – resistance, response, reform, restore. Morgan used past social movements to demonstrate how his module is applicable, including the 1992 Yonge Street riots.
In response to the riots, there was the release of the Stephen Lewis Report on Race Relations in Ontario and the creation of the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC) – steps Morgan deems a social response.
“We continue to go in the same circle,” Morgan said. “We’re not addressing the ultimate impacts that these systems have. Racial profiling has damaged many lives – African-Canadian lives.”
Morgan said the solution is looking at ways to “restore communities” while pointing to the word in the middle of his module.
“Restoration is about tackling and informing community members on how they choose to resist and respond to the government on [racial profiling].”
Important to continue the discussion
For newcomers, Siddiqui said the discussion on racial profiling shows that in Canada we want every citizen treated equally.
“If that’s what the law says, we need to implement that law,” he said. “Our constitution, our charter, our human rights legislation and our entire body of human rights sub-culture is important to Canadians.”
Morgan explained that new Canadians may not be familiar with the repercussions and tactics of racial profiling, but having an event like the public lecture can give them a sense of comfort.
“Sometimes you may feel like you’ve been treated differently, but you’re not quite sure,” he said. “Being in a space like this, says that it is part of a larger language in which some people end up being treated [differently] because of their ethnicity.”
Chief Corston summarized the importance of the community discussion of racial profiling by stating it leads back to education.
“If we’re going to fix a problem we have to recognize we have one,” he stated. “It’s not about blame, it’s about learning the history of wrongdoing and the history of bringing down people.”
Mandhane stressed the importance of dialogue in moving beyond the surface of racial profiling to create a policy that can guide institutions in solving the problem.
“Actually meeting and speaking with people, hearing their experiences, it’s the whole reason we do the work,” she said. “If, in the short term, that doesn’t result in the sorts of changes we want, you have to believe that you’re in for the long haul if you’re interested in systemic discrimination.”
by Alireza Ahmadian in Vancouver
In this piece, journalist Alireza Ahmadian discusses Canada’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia with Cesar Jaramillo, Executive Director of Project Ploughshares, a non-governmental organization working in Canada and abroad to advocate for policy reform to prevent war and armed violence.
The deal, valued at almost $15 billion, is the largest arms export contract in Canadian history and was awarded during the 2013-2014 fiscal year. It will see the shipment of an undisclosed number of light armoured vehicles, manufactured by General Dynamics Land Systems, based in London, ON, to Saudi Arabia.
It is not just HRW and AI who condemn the abysmal human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. Every authoritative organization in the world consistently ranks Saudi Arabia among the worst human rights violators [on] the planet.
There is a widespread and well-documented pattern of violations of virtually every category of human rights in Saudi Arabia, so Canadians should definitely be concerned about the possibility that Canadian-made goods might be used to sustain a repressive regime and enable the further violation of human rights of civilians.
What do we know about how Canadian arms are being used in Saudi Arabia? Are there any safeguards or ways of ensuring these weapons will not be used to violate human rights?
We certainly know about the proclivity of the Saudi regime to systematically target civilians. In 2011, there were reports of Saudi forces using armoured vehicles, such as the ones Canada is set to ship to Saudi Arabia, to crush peaceful civilian protests in neighbouring Bahrain.
The primary safeguard to ensure Canadian goods are not misused should be Canada’s own military export control policy, according to which the government must first determine that “there is no reasonable risk” that Canadian-made military goods might be [used] against civilians.
Given what is widely known about the Saudi dire human rights record, it is hard to comprehend how there can be “no reasonable risk” of misuse. But so far the government has resisted calls to explain how the Saudi arms deal can be reconciled with the human rights safeguards of existing exports controls.
Former foreign affairs minister, John Baird, also said that this deal has economic benefits for Canada. For instance, the arms deal supports “3,000 unionized workers in London, Ontario." What’s wrong with an arms deal that hires 3,000 Canadians?
Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with job creation … However, we must recognize that this is a special case that merits special scrutiny. Valued at $15 billion, this is by far the largest military exports contract in Canadian history. And, as stated above, it is widely accepted that Saudi Arabia is a human rights pariah.
So, while job creation is a legitimate pursuit of any government, in a case as egregious as this, we must assess as a society what is the real value we place on the protection of human rights.
If economic gains are taken as the sole justification for arms exports authorizations, what’s to stop a country from selling weapons to ISIS or North Korea or organized criminals halfway around the world?
The Harper government did not sign the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) that seeks to regulate international arms trade and prevent military exports from fuelling armed conflict and human rights violations. Canada is the only country in North America, the only member of the G7 group of industrialized nations, and the only one of the 28 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, that has not signed the treaty.
It is worthwhile to note that countries such as Syria, Pakistan, North Korea and Saudi Arabia are also non-signatories.
Do you think that signing this Treaty would address concerns over lack of transparency in Canada’s arms deals with other countries? How so? Do you think the new government will sign the treaty?
Yes, I believe the new government will accede to the Arms Trade Treaty. It was an election pledge of Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau, and was a specific priority of foreign affairs minister [Stéphane] Dion’s mandate. This is a position to be welcomed and encouraged.
The ATT entails increased expectations of transparency around arms deals and greater vigilance in regards to the end users of military exports.
At the same time, Canada may find itself sending a mixed message about its willingness to live up to the ATT’s heightened expectations of transparency when legitimate concerns about the human rights implications of the Saudi arms deal remain unaddressed.
It has been reported that in May 2015, Martin Zablocki, the president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Commercial Corporation, the crown corporation that brokered the arms deal with Saudi Arabia, said that the Middle East is a “strategic region” for Canadian arms sales. How does this deal serve Canada’s strategic interests? What would you say to those who argue that other countries are selling arms to the Middle East?
It is a strategic region from a purely business perspective, of course. It is no secret that the previous government made economic diplomacy a cornerstone of its foreign policy. In this context, the Canadian [Commercial] Corporation has acted as an active facilitator in the pursuit of these deals, not just as a passive intermediary.
“Everyone else is doing it,” sounds like an argument void of any ethical considerations and undermines the credibility of Canada’s military export controls — which Ottawa calls “some of the strongest in the world.”
The Liberal government said that it would honour the arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Why do you think the Liberals decided to follow through with this deal even though they are trying to undo other aspects of the Conservative’s legacy?
This deal would present a complex policy challenge for any party in power. There is a real confluence of economic, strategic and human rights dimensions that must be taken into consideration. But, again, Saudi Arabia isn’t a case of a handful of unconfirmed human rights violations. The human rights situation in the autocratic kingdom is absolutely abysmal.
In a case where red flags are so apparent one would hope that the government would recognize, at a minimum, the need to publicly explain how this deal can be justified in light of existing export controls.
The Canadian public has a right to know that the economic well-being at home is not being tied to the suppression of human rights elsewhere.
How would you suggest the new government pursue future deals like this?
There are specific human rights safeguards that are part of Canadian military export controls. Of course, however strong they might be on paper, they are only as effective when implemented.
Beyond the need to abide by domestic and international regulations (including the Arms Trade Treaty, following accession) there is a need for greater transparency and oversight around the process by which arms exports authorizations are granted.
by Amanda Connolly in Ottawa
The federal government’s 2015 report on human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia is in its final stages of preparation, but no date has been set yet for its release to the public, says an official at Global Affairs Canada.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion said over the weekend he would release a redacted version of the report upon request when it is completed.
The report, which is separate from the human rights assessment conducted as part of the export approval process for the government’s $15-billion arms deal with the kingdom, is expected to run between 60 to 70 pages and to be similar in style to those posted publicly by the U.S. State Department and the U.K. Foreign Ministry.
Meanwhile, the human rights assessment completed to meet federal arms export control requirements for the light armoured vehicles deal is not expected to be made public.
It’s been four years since the government last completed a country report on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
Country reports under the previous Conservative government were not released publicly; Dion said the current government wants to move away from that approach — and is open to suggestions on how best to balance security concerns with the public’s right to know what the government knows about how human rights are handled in allied countries.
“I have asked my officials to review current practices regarding these reports and to provide me with recommendations,” Dion said in an e-mailed statement. “I want to ensure that we respect the safety and security of identified sources.”
Canada-Saudi relations point of controversy in the past
Canada’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has been a source of controversy in recent years. The country has been widely condemned internationally for its treatment of women, religious minorities and political activists; it’s also a powerful Western partner in Middle Eastern affairs.
The State Department’s 2014 assessment of human rights in Saudi Arabia flagged multiple issues ranging from denial of due process and arbitrary arrest to human trafficking, discrimination, citizens’ lack of ability to change their government and “pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the Internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women, children and noncitizen workers.”
The issue of relations with Saudi Arabia popped up briefly during the election campaign, when party leaders were asked whether Canada ought to cancel the deal to provide light armoured vehicles to the Saudi Arabian National Guard — essentially the royal family’s private army.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper defended the deal, saying it didn’t make sense to deprive Canadian workers of the jobs it would bring.
“Look, we express our outrage, our disagreement from time to time with the government of Saudi Arabia for their treatment of human rights,” he said in September. “I don’t think it makes any sense to pull a contract in a way that would only punish Canadian workers instead of actually expressing our outrage against some of these things in Saudi Arabia.”
Speculation of little change to come for Canada-Saudi relations
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, then debating Harper as leader of the Liberal party, declined to give a clear answer on whether he would scrap the deal — leading to speculation that he would do little to change the relationship if elected.
That’s proved to be the case so far, despite increasing tensions between Saudi Arabia and its regional rival Iran over the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.
Saudi Arabia announced two weeks ago it had killed Nimr al-Nimr, who was charged with terrorism offences over allegations he incited anti-government sentiment during the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’.
Protestors firebombed Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran in response, prompting the kingdom to cut off diplomatic relations with Tehran and urge its allies to do the same.
Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and several other countries in the region announced over subsequent days that they were severing or downgrading relations with Tehran — but reaction from Canadian political leaders was tepid.
“Canada’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is strategically important, for our security and for the security of the region,” said interim Conservative Party Leader Rona Ambrose in a press release.
Dion also issued a press release in which he stressed that Canada regularly chats with Saudi Arabia about what it should do better to protect human rights.
“The Government of Canada raises concerns about human rights and due process with senior Saudi Arabian officials on a regular basis and will continue to do so,” the release said.
“In the wake of these executions, we reiterate our call to the Government of Saudi Arabia to protect human rights, respect peaceful expressions of dissent and ensure fairness in judicial proceedings.”
Republished in partnership with iPolitics.ca.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit