Aug 12, 2009 04:30 AM
LESLEY CIARULA TAYLOR
Nothing in Canadian law stops the government from "picking and choosing" which Canadians it will help and who it will abandon, a former senior diplomat warns.
In the case of Suaad Hagi Mohamud, a Toronto woman who was detained in Kenya for 12 weeks, "overzealous" civil servants chose to abandon her, said former consular services chief Gar Pardy.
What’s worse, he said, is that Ottawa could just say, "`Sorry it happened’ and that’s the end of it" unless somebody ensures there is a "protection of Canadians act."
Such an act would turn "Crown prerogative" – meaning Canadians are at the mercy of the government for anything not spelled out in law – into something that gives overseas Canadians some protection.
Mohamud’s ordeal was closer to being over yesterday after Ottawa agreed to issue travel documents so she could return home. But other Canadians are still vulnerable.
"This is an issue that is not as uncommon as people would think," said Toronto lawyer Lorne Waldman. "If it weren’t for the fact she had supporters here she would probably have gone to jail for six months or a year for using a false document. Clearly that’s problematic.
"There are lots of other cases where people don’t get all the publicity because people aren’t interested or they don’t have advocates in Canada and they get stranded."
Many people are just assumed to be guilty, he added.
The Conservative government has clearly tried to stay away from Mohamud’s case.
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon and Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan avoided comment even when a legion of supporters, family members and even Mohamud’s Toronto employer came forward to verify her identity.
Pointing to a case in contrast, Pardy discussed the plight of Brenda Martin, who was jailed in Mexico, rescued by a minister’s intervention and flown home in a government plane.
"I’d like that same level of service for everyone. It shows how this is a matter of discretion and discrimination" the way different Canadians are treated.
In another case, Justice Russell Zinn ordered the government to bring Abousfian Abdelrazik back from his Kafkaesque nightmare in Khartoum, where he received permission to travel but was denied a passport until he somehow disproved terrorism allegations.
"The only basis for the denial of the passport was that the minister had reached this opinion; there has been nothing offered and no attempt made to justify that opinion," Zinn said.
Pardy agrees that the litany of abandoned Canadians, from Maher Arar, tortured in a Syrian jail, to Abdelrazik and Mohamud should force someone in government to weigh the consequences.
"We get brown stuff on our faces every time this happens. There must be a better way of doing this.
"This is going on week after week. There should be some learning, some political will somewhere in the system to fix it."
Mohamud’s ordeal started in May when airline KLM and Kenyan authorities flagged her as suspicious, saying her lips and eyeglasses didn’t look like her Canadian passport photo.
Then the staff at the Canadian High Commission in Kenya not only failed to help her as a citizen but also sent her passport to Kenyan immigration authorities for criminal prosecution.
That step astonishes Pardy. "You would think they would bloody well have made sure their judgment was based on something more than thick lips," he said. "The ministers should be insisting on a proper investigation.
"Ministers have been getting a free ride. They are more and more sliding away from direct responsibilities when things go wrong. If ministers aren’t responsible, then nobody is responsible."
When Mohamud’s lawyer pleaded her case to federal court, the Tories refused to comment because the case of mistaken identity was now a legal matter.
One of the few remarks came from Cannon, who said she would have to try harder to prove that she was the person pictured in the passport.
All the crucial decisions in Mohamud’s frustrating tale of a trip gone wrong were actually made in an office building overlooking the Ottawa River, where bureaucrats in the Consular Services and Emergency Management Branch of Foreign Affairs have the power to help or hinder Canadians in need of their government’s help.
"The buck stops with them, and the advice they give to the minister," said MP Dan McTeague, a former parliamentary secretary responsible for Canadians abroad under former prime minister Paul Martin.
"When these matters become political, it’s entirely the discretion of the minister responsible in the case and they’re often told not to speak."
The overriding lesson, said Pardy, is "we need to make sure nobody forgets this."