Friday, March 21, 2014

Does Ottawa Believe Salvadoran Government is Terrorist?

By Matthew Behrens
            It was down to the wire, but last week, Salvador Sánchez Cerén emerged as the next president of El Salvador on behalf of the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front). A legal political party since 1992, the FMLN, under which Sánchez Cerén was himself a commanding general, had previously been a political/military coalition resisting the Salvadoran death squad dictatorships whose brutal U.S.-sponsored wars of the 1980s claimed over 75,000 lives.
            During that decade, when slogans such as “Be a Patriot, Kill a Priest” were popular among government forces who disappeared, tortured, and massacred thousands with impunity – including the assassination of priests conducting mass –Salvadorans from all walks of life joined the resistance under the FMLN umbrella. (The FMLN was widely accepted as the only available outlet for opposition voices, recognized by the governments of France and Mexico in 1981 as “a representative political force.”)
            Since Sánchez Cerén’s election – indeed, since the previous election of an FMLN government in 2009, at whose inauguration sat then Canadian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Peter Kent and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – the Canadian government has carried on normal relations with the government of El Salvador. In addition, 63% of Salvadorans living abroad who were registered to vote supported the FMLN.
            Against this backdrop, two Salvadorans who refused to participate in the U.S.- and Canadian-backed terrorist regime that ruled the country during the 1980s – and who, like thousands of their fellow Salvadorans, became associated with the FMLN – are now facing a Kafkaesque immigration nightmare. At the same time Canada recognizes the FMLN government in San Salvador, it is trying to deport long-time Canadian residents Oscar Vigil of Toronto and Jose Figueroa of Langley, BC, because of their former membership in the FMLN, claiming it is an organization “that there are reasonable grounds to believe engages, has engaged or will engage in acts” that include “espionage,” “terrorism,” and “subversion by force of any government.”

Canada Calls FMLN Terrorist Force
            Both men are understandably scratching their heads, but their cases represent the tip of the iceberg in the ongoing, ideological abuse of Canada’s immigration system, long documented by the likes of Reg Whitaker in his excellent study “Double Standard,” and now represented by hundreds of Palestinians, Tamils, Iraqis, Kurds, Libyans, and others who have resisted tyranny in their homelands only to face “security inadmissibility” hearings after coming to Canada. In years to come, it will be curious to see if any of the individuals with whom Prime Minister Harper expects to meet shortly in Kiev will eventually wind up as inadmissible to Canada given their own role in the subversion by force of the democratically elected government of Ukraine.
            The terror designation is a broad and amorphous one applied based on political expedience, with Ottawa welcoming individuals who have ordered torture and assassination (Bush, Cheney, Rice, Clinton, Obama, Kissinger et al.) while turning away former British MP George Galloway and numerous members of the African National Congress (though Nelson Mandela’s advocacy of armed struggle to subvert the apartheid regime did not prevent him obtaining honourary Canadian citizenship). Indeed, Salvadoran judge Eugenio Chicas, invited by one arm of the Canadian government to attend a 2009 conference, was detained for 24 hours in Toronto by border officials horrified to find that he had been a member of the FMLN. 
            In an interview shortly thereafter with the Globe and Mail, Chicas noted: “They told me that because of my affiliation with the organization, they wouldn't let me into the country. I told them that the war in El Salvador ended 17 years ago and the FMLN is now the governing party in El Salvador, but they told me that was the information they had available.”
            The notion of “membership” in a terrorist organization is so broad that literally anyone who contributes to a newsletter, makes sandwiches for a meeting, or babysits the children of a group member is held to be a member of that named group and, therefore, complicit in anything wrong the group is alleged to have done. As always, the world of national security is full of flaky rationales and loose definitions that are vague, elastic, and lacking in any sense of consistency, due process, and rule of law.
Twice Accepted, But Overruled
            Oscar Vigil freely admitted in filing his 2001 Canadian refugee claim that he had been involved with opposition activities since grade 9, and that he became media coordinator for the FMLN in 1988, but left in 1994. Both he and his wife, Carolina, were high-profile journalists who were subject to death threats in El Salvador. They have since lived in Toronto, raising a family and becoming deeply involved in human rights-related community activities, with Vigil’s by-line appearing frequently in the Spanish language press while he also works as executive director of the Canadian Hispanic Congress.
            Although Vigil was declared inadmissible under security grounds, a 2009 pre-removal risk assessment concluded he was a person in need of protection who should not be deported, as “there is a lack of state protection for journalists or social activists in El Salvador” and that he “faces a risk to life or of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment” if returned there. A 2012 Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) assessment found he did not directly participate in “any combat, guerrilla or terrorist activities during his involvement with the FMLN” and further that he “does not constitute a danger to the security of Canada.” With that second positive assessment, Vigil was assured he was on the road to permanent residency and Canadian citizenship.
            In 2009, Vigil also applied for ministerial relief under an exemption in the immigration act that allows humanitarian considerations to be considered in granting someone permanent residency when they have been found inadmissible on “security” grounds. But five years later, he has received no response.
            Instead, in early 2014, at the same time his wife and three children were being sworn in as Canadian citizens, the Canadian government decided to ignore the positive findings of its own two assessments and ordered Vigil to be removed. In a coldly worded rejection, immigration case management officer Karine Roy-Tremblay acknowledged El Salvador is one of the 10 most dangerous countries on the planet, but sternly lectured Vigil that “it will be up to him to make the right choices to protect his security and his life.”  Roy-Tremblay also rejected out of hand the disturbing re-emergence of death squads in El Salvador and numerous other Central American countries.
Approved in Principle, but Overruled
            While Vigil and his legal team consider their options, B.C.’s Jose Figueroa is marking six months in church sanctuary. In a scene that perhaps felt more akin to his experience in El Salvador than Canada, he has had to assuage his children’s worries over the intensive CBSA surveillance of the church where he is currently staying.
            Figueroa and his wife came to Canada in 1997 but in May 2000, they were denied refugee status because the Canadian government claimed El Salvador was a safe place and NOT because Figueroa, a teacher, admitted he was a member of the FMLN from 1986 to 1995. Indeed, the denial of their claim in fact recognized the FMLN as a legitimate political party and made no mention of alleged terrorism. In 2004, he and his wife were approved in principle for permanent residency following a positive humanitarian and compassionate application that was determined with full knowledge of his FMLN membership, good news for the family of five (including three Canadian-born children, one of whom has autism). Unfortunately, permanent residency was never finalized and, in 2010, Figueroa was declared inadmissible to Canada. An outline of Mr. Figueroa's protracted dealings with Canadian immigration authorities can be found at
            Immigration’s Karine Roy-Tremblay handled this case as well, and noted with a similarly cold bureaucratese that even though Figueroa’s intensive work with his autistic son made a huge difference in the youngster’s transfer to a regular classroom, removing the father would not be traumatic as the kids still have their mother and “with all the technology available for communication,” he can provide emotional support for his family from afar.
            In an additional sign of how far removed from history and reality Canadian immigration officers tend to be, Roy-Tremblay patronizingly lectures in a manner that most would find offensive were it applied to anti-apartheid partisans who joined the ANC, even while that organization occasionally engaged in armed actions. Roy-Tremblay notes Figueroa’s predicament is “not the result of circumstances beyond Mr. Figueroa’s control as he chose at one point in his life to become a member of an organization that was involved in the commission of terrorist acts,” even though, as is usually the case, said acts were deemed terrorist because they were in resistance to the status quo of a terrorist government committing horrific atrocities against its people.
            As Mark Danner recounts in his study of the Salvadoran government’s terrorist El Mozote massacre – in which 733 civilians were murdered in 1981, many decapitated by soldiers – the most visible signs of the government’s dirty war “were mutilated corpses that each morning littered the streets of El Salvador’s cities. Sometimes the bodies were headless, or faceless, their features having been obliterated with a shotgun blast or an application of battery acid; sometimes limbs were missing, or hands or feet chopped off, or eyes gouged out; women’s genitals were torn and bloody, bespeaking repeated rape; men’s were often severed and stuffed into their mouths. And cut into the flesh of a corpse’s back or chest was likely to be the signature of one or another of the ‘death squads’ that had done the work, the most notorious of which were the Union of White Warriors and the Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez Brigade.”

D'Aubuisson and the Death Squads
            The Union of White Warriors was headed by Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, who praised Hitler and also founded the right-wing ARENA Party (which until recently ran the Salvadoran government and came in a close second in the March elections). As Elizabeth DiNovella reported in The Progressive (, “The United Nations Truth Commission found that D'Aubuisson also ordered the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero [murdered while celebrating mass]. D'Aubuisson's death squads, run from his office in the Legislative Assembly while he was president of the legislature, had close ties to the Salvadoran and U.S. intelligence services. The Reagan and Bush Administrations condoned D'Aubuisson's activities and lavished funds on El Salvador's military throughout the civil war.” During her 2009 tour of the countryside, DiNovella noted everywhere she went, pictures of the death squad leader were proudly hung in ARENA Party headquarters. It is not known if any former ARENA party members in Canada are inadmissible on security grounds.
            While an immigration bureaucrat insists on labeling the FMLN a terrorist entity, Canada’s Public Safety Ministry confirmed in an interview with the CBC (, at 7:52 of broadcast) that the FMLN is not on Canada’s list of terrorist entities (nor it is listed thusly anywhere on the planet), nor is Figueroa listed as a restricted individual (indeed, former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Peter Kent has even written a letter of support for Figueroa).
            Among Figueroa’s numerous upcoming legal actions is a court application seeking a certificate from the Public Safety Minister under s. 83.07 of the Criminal Code in order to clarify that notwithstanding the finding of bureaucrat Roy-Tremblay, Figueroa is “not a terrorist and has not been involved in a terrorist organization.” Although this request was submitted in June 2013, and the minister was obligated to respond with 15 days, Figueroa received nothing, and is now hoping the Federal Court will order the Minister to comply with the law and produce the certificate.
            Such contradictions are maddening, but the law is the law, these bureaucrats seem to imply, and so it is that the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) member who heard Figueroa’s case in 2010 could turn him down while still remarking, “I completely accept your evidence and testimony that you had nothing to do with the more violent activities” of the FMLN and that “your only purpose was to co-ordinate matters so as to open up the minds of the people to new and better political realities.”
            The IRB decision also quoted from the Salvadoran Truth Commission, which “never referred to the FMLN as a terrorist organization. That’s clear. It referred to the group as a political organization. On the other hand, it did refer to the terrorism through the death squads of the government.” Notably, it is estimated that the FMLN was found responsible for only 5% of the violence reported. The IRB member then says: “I can’t argue that a repressive regime that makes use of death squads needs to be changed. Nobody can argue with that. The question is how the change is brought about.”
            The IRB member later states: “What the people appear to have been trying to do was to stop a regime that ran death squads. There’s some legitimacy, I would say, in trying to arrange matters so that death squads can be eliminated.”

A Right to Resist
            Indeed, that legitimacy is encoded in United Nations General Assembly resolutions on the right to armed resistance to throw off the chains of oppression.
            Even with the FMLN in power (they won by a margin of less than 1%), being deported as a national security risk would place Vigil and Figueroa on the target list of right-wing elements that continue to hold significant power in El Salvador, including powerful elite sectors of society that waged and benefitted from the brutal war against the country’s population.
            These two cases no doubt make life fearful for others who fled the Salvadoran civil war, and with new legislation on tap to allow the stripping of Canadian citizenship for alleged connections to terrorism, many in the Salvadoran diaspora may wonder if they could be next, especially if they speak out on such controversial topics as Canadian mining interests (and related repression) in El Salvador and other Central American countries.   
            Three events to support these men and challenge the inadmissibility regime take place March 24 at 6 pm at Holy Trinity Church in downtown Toronto (, March 28 at Langley’s Walnut Grove Luthern Church (, as well as a dinner in Toronto March 28 (

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

CSIS Still the Cat in the Birdcage


By Matthew Behrens
                  A few years ago, Canada’s bird lovers came in for some well-deserved looks of bemusement when many wondered why their cute little bunchies and canaries kept disappearing every time a cat was placed inside their birdcages. After all, it was argued, cats were subject to significant and robust oversight mechanisms such as the Feline Activities Review Committee, to ensure the birds would be safe from purring predators.
                  That refusal to recognize the nature of the beast also infects the ongoing discussions within the “national security industrial-academic-media complex” about what to do with the fact that Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), along with its next-door neighbor, the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), continue invading the privacy rights of people at home and abroad and violating the law (not to mention committing perjury in front of Federal Court judges and aiding and abetting acts of torture).
                  The latest round of hand-wringing arises from a late 2013 Federal Court decision by judge Richard Mosley. It may be safely assumed that Mosley’s face holds the bull’s eye position on the CSIS Ottawa office’s well-used dartboard, given he is a no-nonsense, hard-working member of the judiciary who, unlike almost all of his weak-kneed colleagues, is not coy when it comes to criticizing the antics of Canada’s scandal-plagued spy agency. His decision, a warrant application by [NAME REDACTED], noted that there “was a breach of duty of candour owed by [CSIS] and their legal advisors to the court,” and that “It is clear that the exercise of the court’s warrant issuing authority has been used as protective cover for activities that it has not authorized.”

CSIS Risks Complicity in Torture
                  In this instance, CSIS was granted permission in 2009 to spy on Canadians abroad, but Mosley discovered that CSIS had, without judicial permission, illegally asked foreign agencies to spy on Canadians overseas, even though, as Mosley noted, this “carries the risk of the detention of or other harm to a Canadian person based on that information. Given the unfortunate history of information sharing with foreign agencies over the past decade and the reviews conducted by several royal commissions, there can be no question that the Canadian agencies are aware of those hazards. It appears to me that they are using the warrants as authorization to assume those risks.”
                  The language is fairly restrained, but in essence, CSIS and its lawyers lied to the court, and “a decision was made by CSIS officials in consultation with their legal advisors to strategically omit information” in Federal Court applications “about their intention to seek the assistance of the foreign partners. As a result, the court was led to believe that all of the interception activity would take place in or under the control of Canada.” Mosley also found that in asking foreign agencies to track Canadians “CSIS and CSEC officials knew…this would involve the breach of international law by the requested second parties.”
                  Mosley sighs that an unspecified number of additional warrants on fresh or renewed applications had been issued by the court and that “in the majority of these cases, if not all, CSIS asked CSEC to task their foreign partners [REDACTED, but clearly in reference to illegal activity.].”
                  Mosley only came to the conclusion something was amiss because he is a voracious reader of various reports and, when he was going over the annual reports of the CSEC Commissioner and the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), he realized that he had been duped. He subsequently called numerous witnesses before him, with one of them, CSEC’s James Abbott, “candidly” admitting that his evidence in support of the original warrant application was “‘crafted’ with legal counsel to exclude any reference” to their plans to use second parties.
                  A special lawyer, Gordon Cameron, was appointed to assist the court, and he concluded that the serious breach by CSIS of the duty of candour to the was exacerbated by the “failure to acknowledge the lack of candour in this proceeding because it demonstrates that [CSIS] does not understand its duty when it comes before this Court ex parte.”
                  In other words, the cat does not understand it should not eat the birds in the cage, even though the Feline Activities Review Committee has repeatedly said such consumption violates the rights of the birds.

Government Lawyer Advice Breaks the Law
                  The Deputy Attorney General of Canada does not fare well in this proceeding either, with Mosley noting that one of Canada’s most powerful legal practitioners essentially argued “that the Court should be kept in the dark about matters it may have reason to be concerned about if it was made aware of them. In the circumstances under consideration that would include matters relating to the prior history of attempts to have the Court authorize the collection of security intelligence abroad and the potential implications of sharing information about Canadian persons with foreign security and intelligence agencies.” Indeed, Cameron also found that the Attorney General’s position seems to be that “CSIS can contract out interceptions of Canadians’ communications or accessing Canadians’ information without any warrant or supervision by this Court."
                  Of course, the world of national security can get blurry sometimes, especially since some parts of the CSIS Act allow spies to break the law. Indeed, Mosley points out, one section allows CSIS to seek special authority “to engage in investigative methods that would otherwise constitute a crime or a breach of the Charter  guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure.”
                  Despite this get-out-of-trouble free card, Mosley notes later that “There is nothing in the CSIS Act or in its legislative history, to my knowledge, that suggests that in enacting [the abovementioned exception]  Parliament granted express legislative authority to CSIS to violate international law and the sovereignty of foreign nations either directly or indirectly through the agency of CSEC and the second parties.” Despite this, he notes, “CSIS and CSEC officials knew, based on the legal advice that they had been given … that [tasking other parties to monitor Canadians] would involve the breach of international law by the requested second parties.”
                  The manner in which the Deputy Attorney General and CSIS are interpreting the law, Mosley found, is not consistent with prior Supreme Court decisions and the law itself, and that “CSIS and CSEC officials are relying on that interpretation at their peril and, as cautioned by the CSEC Commissioner and SIRC, incurring the risk that targets may be detained or otherwise harmed as a result of the use of the intercepted communications by the foreign agencies. Section 12 [of the CSIS Act] does not authorize the Service and CSEC to incur that risk or shield them from liability, in my view.”

CSIS: We Never Break the Law
                  While it is good to see that word liability arise in such a decision – and Mosley
firmly stated that CSIS and CSEC cannot justify their activities based on the issuance of special warrants by the Court – there is no guarantee these agencies will comply. Indeed, in its daily boilerplate special, CSIS responded to Mosley by saying everything it does is consistent with “Canadian laws and values,” and while this may be true given the history of Canadian laws and values that have justified the kidnapping, torture, and murder of First Nations children, the rejection of Nazi-era Jewish refugees, the internment of thousands of Japanese heritage, among countless other violations, it does show that even in the small world where individuals like Mosley try to hold CSIS to some kind of lawful standard, it is ultimately impossible to keep them in check. (Notably, CSIS also quietly admitted in a Senate hearing that they would be appealing the decision).
                  Mosley has previously found CSIS witnesses have failed in their duty of candour to the court. Indeed, one Toronto man, Hassan Almrei, faced a decade-long nightmare of solitary confinement and house arrest because a government witness had lied to the court during a secret hearing, while in the Mohmed Harkat secret trial case (still ongoing), another federal court judge found that CSIS’s failure to be honest led to the finding that “it was found to be necessary to repair the damage done to the administration of justice and to re-establish a climate of trust and confidence in this proceeding.”
                  So what is to be done? Some point to the Security Intelligence Review Committee as a model that could be expanded to encompass all of Canada’s national security agencies. Space does not allow reference to the extensive findings of exaggeration, lack of candour, and other CSIS malfeasance that fill the pages of the SIRC’s annual reports. But the body has no enforcement power and, besides, has essentially become an enabler of CSIS. Indeed, as early as 1991, SIRC had settled into its role as a kindly big bother to poor, befuddled CSIS, noting “Those who have followed the progress of CSIS with interest have seen our Annual Reports change from being compendiums of direct and implied criticism, in the early years, to being much more supportive accounts of CSIS’ activities in recent years…. But our criticisms are no longer based upon strong and fundamental disagreements with the CSIS view of the world. [emphasis added] They are far more the results of differences of opinion regarding the  day-to-day implementation of CSIS policies than, as in the past, our opposition to those policies themselves.”
                  By the mid-90s, SIRC noted “It is our responsibility to review CSIS’ activities and then to assure the public that we know what CSIS is doing, that we believe that those activities are necessary, [emphasis added] and that they are being conducted in an appropriate and legal fashion.”  

Useless Oversight in Parliament
                  Wayne Easter, a Liberal MP who once signed secret trial security certificates, feels the solution is his private member’s bill to create a group of National Security Parliamentarians “permanently bound to secrecy” that will, when necessary, hold secret meetings to discuss national security and that, while the appropriate government minister may, if he feels like it, share information with the MPs, he is also entitled by law to “provide none of the information.” So much for oversight, even in a secret body. While the committee would produce an annual report for Parliament, the Prime Minister would be allowed to exclude anything he felt was contrary to national security.
                  Ultimately, the issue is not so much about oversight or review, much as the problem of the disappearing birds could not be solved by the ministrations of the Feline Activities Review Committee. Such discussions divert us from focusing on the nature of the beast: these agencies have historically and continue to play a repressive role that is wholly contemptuous of democracy and, even at a conservative level, the rule of law. From their earliest incarnations, they have targeted as national security threats First Nations and labour organizers, Quebec nationalists, Communists and “Communist-sympathizers”, Canadians of Japanese, German, Italian, Irish, and Ukrainian heritage, Jehovah’s Witnesses and people of Jewish and Muslim faith, the United and Anglican churches, anti-nuclear campaigners and gays and lesbians, and Salvadoran, Kurdish, and Tamil refugees, among countless others. In this context, it is clear who threatens national security in the same way it is clear who threatens the birds when cats are placed in their cages.
                  CSIS, CSEC, the RCMP, the Attorney General, the “Justice” Department, and their brethren will continue to act illegally and laugh behind the backs of judges, as long as all their minions only ever receive is a slap on the wrist from the system: a few harsh words from a court whose decisions are read and digested by few. Until they face time in the dock, they are unlikely to change their ways.
                  Even then, though, the potential for post-crime accountability does little to assist the individual who has already been tortured, whose privacy has been violated, whose job has been taken away, whose family cannot get to sleep at night for fear of that knock on the door.
                  As things stand, despite a lengthy record of criminality and human rights violations, these “national security agencies” continue to enjoy a remarkable degree of respect and deference from the courts, the Parliament, and “oversight” bodies that always assume their “best intentions,” with former Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci sadly going so far as to state, in his introduction to a report finding federal government complicity in the torture of three Canadians, that we should be “grateful” to such blood-stained bureaucrats.
                   Perhaps a national referendum on the abolition of agencies that rely on the creation and sustenance of fear is in order. And maybe we could throw in a discussion on seriously overhauling the kind of unequal society that relies so heavily on such repression.
                  Until then, the best efforts of the Richard Mosleys and toiling SIRC lawyers will only produce fine words of outrage about illegal acts by secretive men who, nevertheless, will get up each day, go to work, get promoted, and, regardless of the number of skeletons in the birdcage, carry on as before.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Canada's government-sponsored law-breakers 'push the border out'

Matthew Behrens
| January 20, 2014

I recently attended an unfortunate anniversary event: it had been one year since the deportation of a family who were terrified of what awaited them if forcibly removed from Canada. Despite the passage of time, the emotions were still raw, tears flowed and hearts ached. Clearly, this deportation was traumatic not only for those directly forced onto a plane, but also for a whole community that awoke to find their neighbours had literally disappeared from their street, school, community and country.

Such trauma is induced daily across this country by a federal agency with zero oversight and accountability mechanisms: the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA). The name is so blandly beige that it sounds more like a group of Good Samaritans assisting cane-carrying octogenarians through customs than an organization that terrorizes communities by treating non-citizens as suspicious at best and security threats at worst. The CBSA maintains what it calls a "removal inventory" that, though sounding like the waste products of a passenger airline, in fact represents children, women and men who have been ordered to leave the country. A large number of the "inventory" are individuals who have "failed" to be accepted by an unfair Canadian immigration and refugee system and who, at great cost, must be uprooted from their life in Canada to the nightmare that forced so many of them to flee to Canada in the first place.

Although it did not garner many headlines, some statistics released to Parliament last fall illustrate the toll of CBSA-created human misery. From 2006 until November 12, 2013, the "Grand Totals of Removals Executed" stood at 116,266. The use of the term "execution" is quite apropos: some of those who were part of the removals inventory wound up dead in the country from which they originally fled. We do not know exact numbers because the Canadian government does not keep track when it illegally sends people off to face torture and disappearance, but we do hear from advocates, family members and loved ones of such tragedies. Shot in the head and found by a roadside. Tortured. Interrogated and disappeared upon arrival.

Ordered to Syria, Egypt

The countries to which refugees are being ordered to return are not shining beacons of human rights. Among CBSA departure orders -- under which individuals must leave within 30 days -- were Egypt (245 in 2013, despite the brutal coup and crackdown), Syria (376 in 2012 and 415 in 2013, at a time when the Canadian government condemns Assad's war crimes) and Iran (a total of 500 since 2012).

The fear of return is so palpable that some individuals will choose death over the cruel future generated by deportation. Think of 40-year-old Eritrean refugee Habtom Kibraeb, who hung himself in a Halifax park when his options ran out. Another "failed" refugee claimant from Algeria set himself on fire outside an Edmonton federal building. And last fall, a London-area family of three -- Mohamed, Shyroz, and Qyzra Walji -- were killed in a murder-suicide following desperate attempts to avoid deportation to Tanzania. The family had been in Canada for 15 years, and feared discrimination against their daughter, who could not speak and suffered from cerebral palsy, but the Canadian government concluded such discrimination was wholly acceptable because, in its opinion, it did not "rise to the level of persecution." One could see a high and mighty Federal Court of Canada judge sending Rosa Parks back to Alabama in 1956 on similar grounds.

Meanwhile, the CBSA has long been engaged in beefing up a strategy to prevent asylum seekers from getting here in the first place, a clear violation of international and domestic law. The CBSA Multiple Borders Strategy -- a kind of "we own the world" approach -- extends Canada's borders to wherever CBSA wants them to go. Indeed, the CBSA "defines a border for immigration purposes as any point at which the identity of the traveller can be verified…[viewing] the border not as a geopolitical line but rather a continuum of checkpoints along a route of travel from the country of origin to Canada or the United States." Indeed, a listing of their overseas liaison officers and countries of responsibility indicates that for Canada, the border can include everything from Amman, Jordan to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Lima, Peru.
Canada physically blocking refugees

As part of this imperial destiny, the CBSA also hires and trains a group of shady characters to violate Canadian law. Numbering over 60 members, they have the blandly beige appellations of "liaison officers." Indeed, while the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act states that the Canadian refugee system is "in the first instance about saving lives and offering protection to the displaced and the persecuted," the five dozen CBSA officers have vigorously worked since 2001 in some 49 global locations to prevent over 73,000 of the world's displaced and persecuted from reaching Canada's shores.

Their job is to sniff out those using false documents (which a great number of asylum seekers are forced to use, as recognized by Canadian and international law) and, working with overseas airlines and immigration authorities, prevent them from boarding Canada-bound boats and planes. The CBSA strategy to "push the border out" means that anyone they may suspect is an "undesirable traveller" or who allegedly poses a risk to "Canada's security and prosperity are identified as far away from the actual border as possible, ideally before a person departs their country of origin."

Because these "liaison officers" are not required to separate out those fleeing persecution from other migrants, it is not clear how many refugees have been returned to countries where they face arrest, persecution, torture and death. This is nothing new. In fact, Canada prides itself as a world leader in what is known as "interdiction," and assigns fancy names to those doing the dirty work. In a 2003 speech, then immigration minister Denis Coderre (now mayor of Montreal) beamed that "in the past six years, our migration integrity specialists have stopped more than 40,000 people with improper documents before they boarded planes for North America."

For overseas asylum seekers desperate to come to Canada, the CBSA message is clear: you can't get there from here. The United Nations Refugee Convention prohibits Canada and other signatories from punishing individuals who arrive here -- or attempt to come here -- with false identity documents, a principle that is also part of Canadian law.

Some advocates argue that CBSA's overseas efforts to block asylum seekers are intended in large part to deny asylum seekers the protection of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which they could claim upon stepping on Canadian soil. Equally, the overseas CBSA law-breakers preventing refugees from getting here may think that, if they are not within Canadian jurisdiction when engaged in this illegal activity, there are no legal repercussions, though the International Law Commission has found "responsibility ultimately hinges on whether the relevant conduct can be attributed to the state and not whether it occurs within the territory of the state or outside it." In any event, Canada does not seem to care: internal CBSA documents discussed in an excellent November 2013 Harvard University report (Bordering on Failure: Canada-U.S. Border policy and the Politics of Refugee Exclusion) indicate the agency "does not sufficiently emphasize Canada's refugee protection obligations in the training materials delivered by Liaison Officers." Nor does it require its officers to assist those fleeing persecution or to ensure that those they intercept are not returned to persecution.

Subcontracting refugee 'interdiction'

In addition to the five dozen "liaison officers" who daily violate the various human rights instruments that are binding on them, Canada also subcontracts out this law-breaking by threatening private carriers that may be carrying individuals without proper documentation to Canada. As the Harvard study points out, "the threat of sanctions creates serious incentives for private carriers to err on the side of caution and block travelers who appear to lack proper identification from boarding Canada-bound planes or boats, without considering the possibility that they may be genuine refugees. It is widely recognized that carrier sanctions prevent asylum seekers from making refugee claims in Canada."

Some private carriers will go to extreme lengths to avoid penalties: it has been proven that asylum seekers have been thrown overboard on the high seas. (While numbers are hard to calculate since these events occur outside of Canadian waters, it is known that such cases have occurred on Canada-bound boats. In 1997, for example, a Nova Scotia court determined that, although there was sufficient evidence for a second degree murder trial, it did not have the jurisdiction to hear the case of seven officers of a Taiwanese vessel who threw three Romanian stowaways into the ocean before arriving in Halifax.)

Indeed, the federal government enters into a bounty arrangement with Canadian companies called the Airline Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Program, under which carriers will receive reduced administrative fees if they "reduce the number of improperly documented persons arriving in Canada." Hence, an airline will think nothing of kicking off a refugee with a false passport who is seeking asylum because, under the MOU, the airline immediately receives a 25 per cent discount on fees upon signing, with the promise of additional savings of 50-100 per cent of administrative fees "depending on the level of interdiction success as measured against the assigned performance standards." With private airlines acting as deputized border patrol agents, there is a strong incentive that, when in doubt, sending refugees who have false ID back to the torture chambers is a best business practice, resulting in lower costs and a better rate of return on investment, even if it makes airline shareholders complicit in international and domestic law violations.

The Harvard study covers a broad range of additional Canadian policies that are resulting, plainly, in lives being lost. As it concludes, "Canada is systematically closing its borders to asylum seekers, and circumventing its refugee protection obligations under domestic and international law… By implementing and intensifying these measures, Canada sets a poor example for other countries, and contributes to the deterioration of refugee protection around the world."

Wanted: Harriet Tubmans

Even for those allowed into the country under programs such as the temporary foreign worker program, conditions are grim. While most people were nursing New Year's Day hangovers, the Harper regime inaugurated 2014 by declaring that a proposed ban preventing employers who had been convicted of human trafficking, sexually assaulting an employee or causing the death of a worker from participation in the program was being removed because it were deemed "too rigid and cumbersome."

With the Canadian government clearly acting illegally with respect to standard human rights commitments, the challenge for citizens is responding in a manner that protects the rights of asylum seekers who either face deportation and/or need to get here safely. The need for church sanctuary is greater than ever, yet few places of faith will open their doors. The need for an underground and overground railroad that will also provide safe spaces for those facing deportation is an equally compelling challenge that we need to meet as well. Every schoolkid hears the story of Harriet Tubman leading the persecuted to the Promised Land. We need more Harriet Tubmans who will work to keep them here.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Please Support Homes not Bombs During Its 15th Anniversary of Working for Social Justice


25 years ago this month, I found myself sitting in the back of a police car, handcuffed, dressed as Santa Claus, busted with several fellow Santas and elves for trying to remove war "toys" from a store shelf and replace them with cooperative, peaceful games. It was one of many nonviolent actions in which I have had the pleasure of participating, the transformative spirit of which very much undergirds the work of Homes not Bombs.

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Homes not Bombs, the loose-knit network of social justice advocates and nonviolence practitioners who have taken on a wide variety of injustices since we were founded in 1998. We have often been visited by Santa in the course of our work, from resisting the devastating sanctions and wars against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan to singing holiday carols at the immigration detention centres where children – incarcerated simply because they are refugees – wave from behind the bars.

While we generally do not blow our own horn, we felt this would be an opportunity to reflect on some of our successes while also asking that you consider contributing to our ongoing costs so that we can continue on for years to come. 

2013 has been a busy year as we conduct direct action trainings for union locals under attack, provide campaign-building advice for numerous grass roots initiatives that serve to empower youth, and redouble educational and outreach efforts to end violence against women. We also continue working to expose the untold billions spent on Canadian war plans at the expense of social needs at home and abroad, all the while trying to drive home the reminder that we have more power than we know and that positive social change really is possible.

In the past 15 years,  we have many achievements to recall, including:

1. Founding the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada, the group that took on secret hearing security certificates when few would touch the issue. Our work to advocate for the detainees facing secret hearings and years in solitary confinement eventually contributed to the landmark 2007 Supreme Court decision declaring this medieval process unconstitutional. Two of the five Muslim men subject to the process have had their cases quashed, while three others continue the struggle in the courts. We played a significant role in the preparations for the October, 2013 Supreme Court challenge in the case of Mohamed Harkat, and re-staged our production of Kafka's The Trial in Ottawa with readers including Giller-Prize winner Elizabeth Hay. Significantly, we have made the issue so controversial that CSIS has stopped issuing security certificates altogether. That being said, other repressive tools also involving secrecy in the immigration act continue to be used against a growing number of refugees, and so our work is not yet done.

2. Founding the group Stop Canadian Involvement in Torture, which for years has worked to not only bring home those illegally detained and tortured overseas, but to ensure accountability and apologies for those who still suffer the effects of torture. Our cross-Ontario caravans, educational presentations, and ongoing vigils continue as we raise the uncomfortable questions about Canadian complicity in torture. Our work also inspired the only film made about Canadian complicity in the torture of Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin, the excellent Ghosts (see

3. Leading significant nonviolent campaigns and civil disobedience actions across the province of Ontario, from trying to transform the War Department into the Housing Department to working with our friends in Hamilton to organize the Festivals of Life that led to the closure of the Hamilton War Show. We have also played a major role in focusing on drones (doing so beginning in 2002 when few thought this would become a major issue), with an ongoing campaign at L-3 Wescam in Burlington, as well as focusing on the manufacture of assault rifles and grenade launchers at Kitchener's Diemaco and weapons of mass destruction at Northrup Grumman (Litton) in Rexdale. Many of our actions have led to court victories that provide others engaged in direct action with precedents that can help them win their cases as well.

4. Founding the Anne Frank Sanctuary Committee, which has worked to open churches to the idea of hosting refugees at serious risk if deported. We have won two lengthy cases, saving individuals from deportation to torture, and continue working to find safe spaces for those increasingly at risk as a result of repressive legislation.

5. Working with jailed Canadians held in the U.S. or overseas such as Khalid Awan, held since October, 2001, with many years spent in the infamous "Little Gitmo."

6. Founding St. Clare's Multifaith Housing Society, which grew out of our work with homeless youth in Toronto. Since the late 90s, hundreds of not-for-profit housing units have been constructed by St. Clare's.

While these important landmarks remind us of the power we have to frame an issue, focus in on those perpetrating an injustice, and come up with transformative solutions, they represent in many ways the tip of the iceberg in terms of our ongoing campaigning, much of which begins as individualized advocacy with those who have fallen through the cracks and expands into a wider social justice campaign when we see others facing the same plight.

Our work does not always make the news, but it still goes on, sometimes hidden from view given the delicate nature of some of the cases we handle. But rest assured, we continue on with the important work of nonviolence training, speaking in high schools, providing court support, and organizing public action.

Unfortunately, all of this does cost money, and we rely on the support of individuals like yourselves to help pay those bills for organizing both nationally and provincially.

We hope you can make a significant financial contribution to the work of Homes not Bombs (and perhaps share this with someone who is similarly able to do so).

You can do this three ways:

1. To receive a tax deductible contribution for donations over $100, contact us at and we can let you know the details.

2. If you do not need a tax receipt, simply write a cheque out to Homes not Bombs and mail it to PO Box 2020, 57 Foster Street, Perth, ON K7H 1R0.

Thanks so much for your support. If you have any questions please feel free to contact us at


Matthew Behrens
Homes not Bombs

Santa Claus Rejects NORAD Escort; May be Placed on No-Fly List

December 17, 2013
            In a little-noticed news release emanating from the North Pole, a jolly senior citizen has asked that his image not be co-opted this holiday season by the Canadian War Dept. and NORAD. In addition, the gentleman, who identified himself as Santa Claus, also refused the militarized escort that NORAD said would be tracking his annual flight around the world.
            "I don't want war planes on my tail, and I don't want children to think I am in any way associated with the type of organization that plans for things like nuclear war and space warfare," Claus said in an exclusive telephone interview with "Your War Dept. misrepresents me the same way the sales of war toys misrepresent me. I don't make machine guns and toy tanks, and I certainly do NOT want an escort from warplanes or to be tracked by an organization which is working to militarize the heavens."
            Claus was particularly concerned that NORAD uses this annual opportunity to glorify warplanes and drones which are used to drop bombs on and mutilate children in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, noting that last week, dozens of people in a Yemeni wedding party were massacred by a drone-fired  Hellfire missile.
            Santa says he is disturbed to again find himself the focus of the annual military public affairs operation, designed to normalize for children the idea that the military – as well as military alliances which plan and constantly threaten life on the planet with nuclear warfare, pre-emptive invasions, and environmental destruction – is a benign outfit.
            “I also don’t need to be tracked,” Claus says. “This is the era where we are learning that CSEC in Ottawa and the NSA are watching every move everybody makes, and it’s getting ridiculous. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has gotten ulcers out of concern that every time he sneaks into the bushes to do his business, it winds up on some database somewhere and could be used to embarrass him in front of his fellow creatures.”
            The NORAD Tracks Santa website (‎) is a paean to militarism, inviting young children to play at war and offering videos that are recruitment vehicles featuring martial music more akin to a 1980s Tom Cruise bomb-em-up flick than a period of peace and good will to all. Indeed, one four-minute video making the rounds of community newspaper websites around the globe opens with an image not of Santa but of bomber planes.
            “One of the videos says I did a test flight in cooperation with NORAD, which is a total lie,” Claus said, bemoaning the fact that the tracking site features numerous tributes to an organization that has the power, along with its other “northern command” partners, to commit the ultimate act of nuclear terrorism and obliterate the globe.
            One video features a small child (perhaps the son of US military personnel) stationed in Djibouti, one of over 700 U.S. bases occupying the globe and also the site of a command centre from which drones are launched in countries like Yemen and Somalia. (Djibouti troops do not, notably, maintain a military base protecting their own interests in Florida or Manitoba). While the child talks of going to the beach and riding his bike, it does not mention that one month ago, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights heard evidence on Djibouti’s role in the U.S.-led (and Canadian-supported) rendition to torture and secret detention program. (
            The NORAD tracking site also features holiday songs performed by – who else – the Air Force Academy Band.
            “In the same way the militaries of the world try to convince us that humanitarian aid cannot be delivered without sniper rifles or bombing the heck out of a village first, now they are trying to show that Christmas cannot happen without all of their firepower, and that Christmas carols cannot be sung unless by people who’ve been trained to kill,” Claus said. “Well, I have news for them. The trillions spent on war are what deprive most children of happy holidays, regardless of when they celebrate them.”
            Meanwhile, a heavily redacted Access to Information request appears to reveal why NORAD is tracking Santa, and early indicators are it has nothing to do with his protection nor his mission of delivering joy.
            According to the highly classified document from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), “The Service has reasonable grounds to believe that [name blacked out, but clearly a reference to Claus] is a member of an inadmissable class of persons to Canada based on a variety of associations, travel patterns, and other indicators which constitute a threat to the security of Canada.”
            Among those highly suspect findings, CSIS notes, is Santa’s long beard (“worn in the traditional Muslim fashion that could inspire some radicalized youth to follow bearded individuals such as Osama bin Laden”), his visitation to countries throughout the Middle East and refusal to demonize anyone (“a disturbing inclination towards supporting the human rights of Palestinians,”), his large donations of gifts (“he may be transporting illicit materials that could place him on the United Nations 1267 list, thereby barring him from travelling with goods that could fall into the wrong hands”), past associations (“[subject] did attend at Robben Island prison compound and provide material aid to Nelson Mandela and other members of African National Congress, which Service maintains was, is, or could be a terrorist organization”), has signed petitions urging the release of immigration detainees (including children detained in refugee jails across Canada) and in support of environmental protections (“Service notes subject supports same causes as eco-terrorists trying to block oil sands development”), and his failure to carry a passport.
            “Service also notes that Mr. Claus uses several aliases possibly as a means of avoiding detection, including Jolly St. Nick, Kris Kringle, and, in a special code with woman alleged to be Mrs. Claus, ‘tubby old sock,’ origin for which is still a mystery to Service but further investigation will reveal.” Claus also appears to be under surveillance for carrying of “suspicious” sacks, studious avoidance of customs, and his “religious head gear,” the last of particular concern to Quebec security services attempting to pre-emptively enforce their so-called Charter of Values.

            CSIS also notes with grave concern that at least two of Santa’s reindeer (Prancer and Vixen) have been reading the Koran and allegedly discussed conversion to Islam.
            It is not surprising that Claus would be the subject of concern to “security services,” whose main goals tend toward monitoring outbreaks of democracy and free-thinking inquiry while harassing specific targeted communities using the same vague profiling against, for example, members of this country’s Arab Muslim communities. Santa certainly does have a record of being involved in the same social justice causes that everyone from CSIS and the RCMP to the FBI and CIA have deemed threats to national security. For example, Santa was recently arrested with Walmart workers seeking a decent wage (, while the busiest resident of the North Pole also managed to take an anti-drones message of Peace to the Australian military ( Santa also performed a tripod action for 9 hours in Glasgow this week to protest immigration raids that break down doors and arrest and detain children simply because they are refugees (
            While Santa is proud of involving himself in social justice activities, he does get weary of his image being used to glorify war, especially given that he annually views the painful reality that is a result of relying on military might to enforce injustice and resolve conflicts. "We see all the children of the world, the ones who have lost legs and arms and eyes to landmines and cluster bombs, the ones who have watched parents murdered with Canadian bullets and machine guns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ones whose only wish for Christmas is peace on Earth, or the return of a parent or sibling killed by an aerial bombardment."
            Claus has joined Homes not Bombs members on many occasions through the years as an ambassador of peace through justice and goodwill. As such, he has been arrested by Loblaws for helping distribute food he took from their shelves (to help pay back the tens of millions of dollars in unpaid taxes owed by Loblaws), protesting sanctions against the people of Iraq which killed over 1 million Iraqis (this with the aid of the Canadian military whose warplanes are set to tail Santa), the use of secret trial security certificates, the production of war toys, L-3 Wescam’s production of drone technology in Burlington, Ontario, the Hamilton War Show, and many others.
            "There are so many causes for me to support, and I want to support them all, but half the time I'm busy trying to correct the false information about me and what I stand for that's presented by the military and the media," Claus said. "I barely have time to speak with you, much less all the other media outlets who request interviews."
  ’s interview with Claus was cut off when he received a call from one of Canada’s top immigration lawyers, Barb Jackman, to discuss his travel options given the increasingly tight Canadian borders for refugees and the possibility that he may be on Canada’s no-fly list. Indeed, it is unclear whether agents of the Canadian Border Services Agency – a federal department with absolutely no independent oversight– will allow Claus to enter Canada, and there are still many unresolved questions regarding its recent rejection of Jesus Christ, who was deemed a failed refugee claimant and a threat to national security.
            Lawyers at the time had asked for information about CSIS interviews with Christ, but because CSIS does not record interviews nor make verbatim notes, there was little to go on. "The Service noted that Christ appeared unusually calm when pressed about his possible association with prostitutes, beggars, and lepers," read a short half page of notes which were eventually declassified. “Christ also seemed hesitant when asked whether an individual named Joseph was his father, a sign that he was withholding the true nature of his character.” Christ’s anti-government activities also raised a red flag for Canadian border officials.
            Christ was also deemed to be a security threat because he allegedly uses a number of aliases, including Prince of Peace, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Son of God. He had travelled to Canada, like most refugees, on a false passport, because if he had used his real name on travel documents, Roman authorities may have picked him up before he could have fled the country. Christ was also deemed inadmissable to Canada because of his criminal record; he, like all refugees coming to this country, are considered not worthy of being accepted even if those convictions have occurred in countries where there is no due process or internationally recognized legal system. Worse, refugees who have been convicted of minor offences which would be deemed "summary" (or lesser) offences if convicted here in Canada have their record interpreted as indictable (or more severe) upon their arrival here, regardless of the circumstances.
            In another mark against Christ, CBSA points out one particular incident in which the refugee applicant was "particularly violent, overturning a table used by moneychangers in a temple frequented by Canadian money speculators." Canada's Criminal Code notes that a terrorist is anyone who "damages property outside of Canada because a person or entity with an interest in the property or occupying the property has a relationship with Canada or a province or is doing business with or on behalf of the Government of Canada or a province."
            While Christ remains in detention with hundreds of never-charged  immigration detainees in Lindsay (many of whom are again on hunger strike), Santa will no doubt be writing the phone number of his lawyer on his arm in the event he needs to make that call. If there’s nothing under your tree December 25, you may want to consider posting bail for the latest in a long line of wrongly imprisoned migrants and travellers caught up in the nightmare of Canada’s immigration regime.