A reader from the other week’s post on Why Your Canadian Citizenship Means Nothing linked to this story in the Toronto Star.
Apparently another Canadian, Suaad Mohamud Haj, who is of Somali descent has been trapped in a foreign land. However, this time around it was Canadian officials who stripped her of her passport effectively stranding her in Kenya and leaving her at risk of being deported to Somalia (not, as you can imagine, the safest country in the world).
Is she a Canadian citizen? I don’t know. However, she does have numerous other documents attesting to her citizenship as well as an ex-husband, a 12-year old son in Toronto, and former Federal Minister willing to state that she is indeed Canadian. Still more striking, she has offered to be fingerprinted so that her prints can be matched against those she provided to the government back in 1999 when she first immigrated to Canada.
None of these facts however have prompted the Canadian government to act either swiftly or compassionately. After preventing Suaad from retuning home on May 17th, Ottawa released a statement in the last week of June stating: “Following an extensive investigation, officials at the Canadian High Commission in Nairobi have determined that the individual arrested by Kenyan authorities is not Ms. Suaad Mohamud Hagi.”
No evidence is cited, no reason is given. Apparently, if you end up in front of a Canadian official abroad and they don’t believe you are Canadian, not only should you expect to wait months before hearing why your passport was stripped from you but when you finally do get an explanation, don’t expect to hear any reasoning. To be fair, why should they have to explain themselves to you… you aren’t Canadian.
So in summary, after marooning someone who very much appears to be Canadian in a foreign country (on May 17th) our government took weeks to find confirm they hadn’t made a mistake (last week of June), then took another two weeks to accept a two month old offer the accused themselves made to submit their fingerprints to prove their identity. This is the treatment Canadians can expect from their own government. Again, if this is how our government will treat some citizens, this is how they could treat any citizen. That includes you.
Sadly, this is treatment you can expect if you are still alive. I don’t even want to begin to talk about what happens if you happen to be tortured and killed for political reasons in a foreign jail. Even if our government says it wants those responsible actively brought to justice it will do pretty much everything it can to ignore the issue, even when it has access to witnesses. Indeed, it will become more concerned about the negative press its inaction might generate then about ensuring justice and safety for Canadians abroad.
The more I read about these cases the angrier I become. One of the most basic roles of government is to protect its citizens and here we have two recent cases (I’m not even counting Arar) where our government has actually put its own citizens in grave danger, in one case tacitly encouraging their torture. And what message does this send? Why should other governments care about how they treat Canadians when our own government doesn’t seem to care. These are dark times.
It isn’t easy to say and I despise typing the words, but it is hard to draw any other conclusion: if you travel abroad your Canadian Citizenship means nothing.
As a Canadian born abroad, it takes 10 months to get a new Citizenship card – 5 of which are to check that the payment was included in your application.I can't use my old (expired) passport to renew. To get a new passport, I need that card. The original one was given to me 16 years ago, and I can't believe it's somehow more believable than a 7 year old passport. I really don't look the same.Last time I went to the US, I had a tough time getting back through into Canada. I now travel on a French passport, which only took 3 weeks.Just dealing with a system that will take 10 months (unless they lose my application, which they have in the past) gives me ulcers; I feel like a 2nd class citizen. At least I don't get put in jail.
We all know that the media typically only profiles bad news and seldom focuses on positive stories about government. Even socially, we rarely celebrate publicly– we more often say something publicly when we’re not happy. And that’s what bothers me about your post. Now, this is no way meant to marginalize Suaad's experience – I can't imagine how horrible her experience must have been – however, I have yet to see any useful data showing whether this kind of issue is endemic, or an exception. I'm not saying that the number of bad experiences would be justified by a larger number of positive experiences – I believe that those issues should be resolved, both proactively and reactively, regardless of what the numbers may show. But I wouldn't categorically declare that a Canadian passport means nothing. Case in point: A friend recently provided me with a link to a blog post of someone having a positive experience with the Canadian embassy in Vietnam – an experience that makes the blogger immensely proud to have a Canadian passport. (here's the link, if anyone is interested: http://holbrookben.wordpress.com/2009/07/13/i-l…) Is there an issue that needs to be addressed? Yes. Should we be talking about it? Of course. Does it warrant a categorical dismissal of the value of the Canadian passport? I don’t think so. However, if we want assurances, and consistency as to what a Canadian passport does mean, I think we have to start with information (what exactly does it entitle us to?) and discussion (is there a deficit between what are entitled to vs. our expectations? What are our expectations?) Then, hopefully we can translate those conclusions into some action to reduce that deficit.
Tariq – I strongly disagree with your comment. The story you link to is great, it is nice to see embassy staff reaching out and doing their job, I'm not sure it invalidates why I believe we have a serious problem. Is the title of this blog post aggressive? Absolutely. Is it true? Also yes. When Canadians travel abroad they are at their most vulnerable. Foreign governments may imprison them, quarantine them, deny them the right to return to Canada. This is precisely the moment when one's citizenship is most important. Canadians need to have confidence they can trust and work with their government to stay safe and secure. When then is denied them by their own government – I don't care how few cases there are. This is a major issue and it should be to all Canadians.Most importantly however, I think your comment falls completely apart because this problem is endemic. In the cases I've cited the initial infractions, while serious, might have been forgivable had they been quickly remedied. But in all the cases above the government, at both the bureaucratic and political level has either moved slowly, been uncooperative or worse, complicit in making the problem worse. In each case the Canadians impacted have had almost no recourse of appeal and have been at the mercy of opaque decision making processes. Indeed, the complete silence of the Minister's involved in these cases in totally discouraging.I'm all for celebrating the success of the public service, but when a process is broken and it its ramifications are a serious as they are in this case, I believe you have to call a spade a spade.
David-I wasn't trying to invalidate why you believe it's a serious problem. And I'm not arguing that the problem isn't endemic. I honestly don't know the answer to that question. But I still take issue with the title of your post. Quite frankly, by declaring that my citizenship is meaningless simply because the government isn't meeting your expectations, is presumptuous. (Coincidentally, I think our expectations are actually the same, but you haven't asked, so how do you know…)Please don't misinterpret my comments: I do agree with you, there is obviously an issue that needs to be addressed. I'm not exactly tickled pink about the idea of travelling abroad with a name like “Tariq” in a post-9/11 world. I just think that the conversation needs to be more focused on expectations vs. actual entitlements, learning about what we have, and then deciding if that's what we collectively want. I'd like to see the same protection for Canadian citizens overseas as you do. Is that a reasonable request on my part? I don't know. Sovereignty is a strange bird. Could the government deliver if they tried? Again, I don't know. How can we address the effectiveness, efficiency and consistency of our foreign policy if we generally don't know much about it…all we do know is what we hear in the media. Granted, it's your blog, so you're entitled to rant. I just personally saw your post as encouraging more anger. I'm arguing for less anger, more information…more conversation…
This article from today's Toronto Star provides some more details, including interesting comments from a former DFAIT official about how common this problem is and how unacceptable the Canadian embassy's actions were: http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/679861When an airline thought her lips were bigger than on her passport photo, the Canadian embassy sent her passport to the Kenyan police to start a criminal investigation. What sort of officials wouldn't instead phone her friends and family in Canada for information? Well, the same sort of officials who advised Abdelrazik to keep an appointment with the Sudanese police – resulting an an *additional* nine months of torture and detention. I'm pretty sure that doesn't meet anyone's expectations of how the government should treat them when abroad so let's start the conversation at that point – how should Canadians get remedies and compensation when the government's support is inadequate? Right now, we seem to rely on the Federal Court. Should there be a rule that any Canadian is entitled to re-enter Canada? Should there be a general ban on turning over travel documents and Canadians to foreign police, particularly when there's a risk of torture? Does any of this require new legislation? Should the opposition introduce new legislation that sets out some of these standards?Minister Cannon apparently hasn't been silent, unfortunately, instead saying she needs to do more to prove her identity – you know, I usually rely on my passport for that when I go on vacation…I'm not too confident this is the guy who's going to improve the system.
Tariq – awesome response. We are 99% on the same page. There was a great follow up piece in the Toronto Star today with a former diplomat covering these issues (h/t to trevor123 below for the link). In particular I found this quote pertinent for us:
I'd love to see a debate that encodes what those protections could be.
Unfortunate things happen to good people sometimes. That's just the reality of life. Two cases documented here, a hundred out there that have ended quite well for those that have gone through quite a number of ordeals overseas. Sometimes whilst travelling, I'd phone the Canadian office to enquire about various things, some a result of unfortunate events, others are a result of my own stupidity- like travelling to places where it says “avoid all travel”. Sometimes they're a bit short and point to the publicly available info that I clearly missed (ignored?), and most of the time they're there with the answers . But, I'll tell you why my particular Canadian passport / and citizenship mean something to me. with parents of mixed origins from different countries, I've had the privilege to travel under their particular citizenship's passport. And let me tell you, travelling through hostile and friendly borders was an ordeal and then some with select passports. But in all cases and with all citizenships, I never quite knew whether or not to count on my country of birth/residence in case of emergency. Would they care? Do they even have a system in place for me to contact them and send an SOS if need be? No. My Canadian passport is something else. I've travelled to the same countries that have been hostile in the past, only to have them be courteous and respectful. In several occasions, I've actually used my passport to get ahead and catch a flight, get a problem sorted faster or just get myself out of some situation. I got the feeling that I was helped only *because* of the passport I was holding, which to me says these people have a note somewhere that says the Canadian citizen has a set of rights that will be enforced by the help of the representatives of his or her government, therefore the customary “messing about” with foreigners is at a minimum level. And no, I don't think it's because we're perceived as the nicest people 'round – nor do I go about with my little maple leaf flag sewn on my backpack. It's simply flashing the passport and being treated like a first class global citizen (yes, i said first class – b/c when it comes to passports, they're definitely not all equal – and since it means nothing to you, try holding on to a 3rd, 4th or 5th class passport and see how much more “something” that would mean to you). And after that, phone a non-Canadian agency and see if they 1. pick up the phone and 2. give a toss.safe travels ~n.
Gar Pardy, the former diplomat who commented earlier on the Mohamud case, has a good opinion piece in the Globe that ties this into the broader picture and sort of parallels the points you've been making. I still think officials overseas have a lot of responsibility for errors in specific cases, but the Minister is accountable for mitigating them and seeing that they are avoided in the future.http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/fa…
Trevor – completely agree. I'm a big believer in Ministerial accountability and we can't expect every mistake conducted by a front line employee to shake a ministry up. What was so disconcerting about this case however is that the minister and senior ministry officials were completely silent – even as it became more and more obvious something was amiss. Mistakes happen – this I understand. An unwillingness to engage in a conversation that there might have been a mistake, that isn't forgivable.