Like many Canadians, I go out of my way to show my Canadian-ness when I travel.
I sew a Canadian flag to my knapsack, try to speak in a heavier Canadian accent, and try to stay as close as possible to the Canadian embassy in the country I’m visiting. Over the past two years, I’ve visited four different continents. And everywhere I’ve been, I’ve never hesitated to let people know where I’m from.
It’s become something of a routine. "I’m Canadian, eh" I usually say with a big smile, only to be greeted with even bigger smiles and the inevitable barrage of questions about hockey, immigration, and whether or not I’ve met Toronto Raptors star Vince Carter. For a long time, I believed that one of the best things about being Canadian was my passport. To me, it represented more than just a stack of 48 stapled pages teeming to the brim with visa stamps. It was a key. It meant that ordinary Canadians, like me, could unlock new worlds, discovering new ideas, people, and places that citizens of other countries could only dream of.
And throughout my travels, I always felt secure knowing that no matter what problems I would encounter, help from the Canadian embassy would be just a phone call or a taxi ride away. But now, I’m not so sure.
A series of recent events involving Canadians who have been mistreated abroad has me wondering what my passport is really worth. First, there was the highly publicized case of Maher Arar, the Ottawa-based engineer who was on his way home from a family vacation in October 2002, when he was detained at New York’s JFK airport. He was later flown from New York to Jordan, and then driven to Syria, where he spent nearly a year being tortured in a jail cell that he says "felt a grave."
To the Americans, Jordanians, and Syrians who took away a year of his life, it didn’t matter that he had master’s degree in telecommunications, was a long-standing member of Ottawa’s Muslim community, and was a dedicated husband and father. And it certainly didn’t matter to them that he was a Canadian citizen travelling on a Canadian passport. Had Arar’s case been an anomaly, it would have been easy to dismiss it as an odd occurrence that almost never happens. But tragically, he is not the only Canadian whose country has failed to protect him while travelling abroad.
The Khadr brothers, Omar and Abdulrahman, were captured by American forces in Afghanistan and flown, in hoods and shackles, to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They were "detained" there for more than two years, denied consular visits and access to Canadian lawyers. To this day, neither the U.S. or Canadian intelligence apparatus has presented any shred of evidence linking them to any crime, whether in Afghanistan or anywhere else.
Then, there is the case of Jamal Akkal, the 23-year-old Canadian who was detained on November 1st in Israel for allegedly plotting to assassinate a senior Israeli official visiting the U.S. and to attack members of the U.S. and Canadian Jewish communities.
Israeli officials say Akkal confessed to the plot. But Akkal’s lawyer says he was just a Canadian kid visiting his fiancÃ©e in Gaza, and that his confession was extracted through torture, including sleep deprivation and lengthy periods of having his hands bound behind his back while seated on a chair.
When Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham was asked how Canada would ensure that Akkal was not mistreated, he told reporters outside the Metro Toronto Convention centre: "We have to respect a Canadian who has a Canadian passport and we’ve asked the Israeli authorities to do that. They will."
Politely "asking" Israeli authorities to treat him well is an insult. Suppose Akkal were being held in a Chinese, North Korean, or Syrian prison. Would it be enough to just "ask" the authorities in those countries to treat him well? Of course not. The same standard should apply for all Canadians in all countries. If anything, given that Israel is the only country in the world to have legalized the use of torture during interrogations — for which human rights watchdog Amnesty International regularly criticizes it — the Canadian government owes it to its citizens to go to even greater lengths to ensure Akkal’s fair trial and proper treatment.
None of this is to presume Akkal’s guilt or innocence. That is for a Canadian court to decide. What matters most is that Akkal was let down by his own country, one where he voluntarily chose to become a citizen.
Sadly, it now appears that Akkal’s case is just the latest in a chilling pattern, one that suggests the Canadian government will no longer protect its citizens equally when they travel abroad. And this seems especially true if those Canadians are Muslims.
By not defending the rights and dignity of Canadians who travel abroad, the Canadian government is sending a dangerous message to Canadians, like me, who enjoy travelling: You’re welcome to go anywhere your passport will take you; Just don’t expect us to help if you get in trouble.
The next time I travel, maybe I’ll think twice before telling people here I’m from.