Tuesday, January 22, 2013

In the Spirit of Dr. King, A Call for Refugee Sanctuary

In the Spirit of Dr. King, A Call for Refugee Sanctuary
By Matthew Behrens
            The annual mid-January Martin Luther King Day celebrations are generally a frustrating example of how the legacy of a difficult and troubled revolutionary can be co-opted into the image of an acceptable, bland hero who has freeways and monuments named after him. 

            Outside of a few small circles, King gets boiled down to a facile “he wanted us to be nice to each other” memory that fails to take into account the lovingly subversive message of his life and campaigns to radically transform the established order. Few have heard him name the American government the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, much less his call for a true revolution of values to transform the evils of militarism, racism, and capitalism.

            In remembering Dr. King this year, one might ask how he and the countless, courageous, often unknown workers in the civil rights movement would view the way Canada’s federal government tars whole classes of people as  “enemy,” from Indigenous rights activists and folks who don’t like oil spills to, in the case of this column, refugees. King was clear on this point: “We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers [and sisters].”

            In the past year, numerous documents produced from the hands of the Harper government have demonized refugees as “bad-faith travellers,” spongers off the federal health system, and security threats, among other iterations of “the enemy”. One could be forgiven if, after reading this country’s fear-mongering refugee and immigrant legislation, you conclude it’s actually designed to protect against toxic waste or small pox rather than to welcome those fleeing rape, war, and torture.

            The overkill on refugees has prompted protest from unusual corners, such as the medical profession, as well as those who’ve traditionally spoken up, especially in faith communities. But despite the protests, the ramped up efforts to detain and deport thousands of so-called “failed” refugee claimants – at a cost of over $100 million a year – is condemning a growing number to a future of fear, intense hardship, torture and, in numerous documented cases, death (for example, see http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/article/714781--mexican-woman-deported-to-her-death). (The United States is notably playing the same game: in 2012, according to the Migration Policy Institute, they spent more on “immigration enforcement” than all other federal law agencies combined.)
The Option of Sanctuary
            As life and death decisions are made within the narrow confines of a thoroughly biased system, thousands of rejected refugees face a desperate choice: get on the plane and face intense hardship and torture back home, go underground and risk getting caught, detained, and forcibly placed on that one-way flight, or seek church sanctuary.

            While sanctuary is a centuries-old practice in which those who have run afoul of the state find protection within church walls, it is not often used in Canada. While dozens of individual congregations who have risen to the challenge, it’s clearly not been enough to meet the needs of those in peril. Indeed, for those who have knocked on many a church door seeking safety for an individual or family, only to be rejected, it often feels like many have forgotten the longstanding call to welcome the stranger, the oppressed, the persecuted, the wrongly defamed. Yet the tradition is firmly rooted in some cultures. Novelist Victor Hugo’s classic works Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame both feature church sanctuary as central parts of the stories (the latter opening with a Roma woman seeking sanctuary in the famous cathedral). 

            Despite the obstacles faced by those seeking sanctuary, there are some faith communities who have come together to provide what has become life-saving support and a de facto appeal process that creates an opening for reconsideration of a case. Canada passed legislation in 2001 mandating a refugee appeal process but has yet to implement one worthy of the name.

            According to an academic study of sanctuary in Canada (Randy Lippert’s Sanctuary, Sovereignty, Sacrifice), between 1983 and 2003 there were approximately 36 incidents of sanctuary, beginning with the case of a Guatemalan woman in Montreal’s St. Andrew’s United Church in December 1983. Five weeks after entering sanctuary, a press conference was held to announce what was happening, and hours later a temporary halt of deportations to Guatemala was announced. During the period of study, there were 261 people in sanctuary, but based on five cases, temporary blanket stays of removal for whole communities were made (Guatemala, Turkey, Chile, Zimbabwe and Algeria). This affected more than 2,000 individuals slated for deportation.

            In the end result, 70% of those who sought sanctuary received legal status. In some cases individuals left and reported for deportation or went underground. But the figures point to an important conclusion: sanctuary provided the space to gather information, correct errors, and save lives.

            Since the publication of that study, there have been almost two dozen additional known cases (not counting the thousands of “informal sanctuary” arrangements with communities and friends), the majority of which have proven successful as errors and misinterpretations are corrected, proper evidence is found, and individuals get a new lease on life. But the cost has been high: what was during the course of Lippert’s study an average church stay of 150 days is now pushing, in some cases, beyond three years, an incredible punishment of individuals who are suffering because of the failures of the Canadian refugee system.

Historic Juncture
            What will churches, synagogues, temples and mosques do at this historic juncture? The United, Anglican, Evangelical Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches have all produced guides on provision of sanctuary, and the Unitarians have passed a resolution in support of the practice. The United Church of Canada’s 34th General Council upheld “the moral right and responsibility of congregations to provide sanctuary to legitimate refugee claimants who have been denied refugee status.”

            The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops declared in 2005 that “Each Christian community, after an in-depth study of refugee policies and prayerful discernment, in consultation with diocesan authorities, is called to act in a spirit of hospitality as the Gospel demands.

            “According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2242, ‘The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel.’ As an Episcopal Conference, the CCCB acknowledges the importance of the recourse to sanctuary in order to protect asylum seekers whose safety may be placed in jeopardy. Even though it may not be officially recognized in law, we call upon Canadian authorities to respect the sanctity of sanctuaries.”

            To date, with one exception, authorities have been loathe to invade sanctuary churches (and in that instance, the individual taken out had a criminal arrest warrant. After years of effort, he is now, however, a Canadian citizen.). No church body has had its charitable status threatened, no church board member has been arrested, no one has been charged, no one has been fined, no one has gone to jail. The government perhaps knows that invading sacred space would alienate its core constituency.

A Civil Initiative
            Churches hosting refugees often find the act of providing hospitality becomes a community-building moment where congregations can rally around someone in a manner that helps them live out their core beliefs in a meaningful way. And while some call sanctuary civil disobedience, it is, in many ways, a civil initiative that seeks to act in accordance with higher laws (what some call God’s law) as well as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and a slew of international human rights treaties binding on Canada. It is reminiscent of the Nuremberg obligation: to act in positive, life-affirming ways that run counter to a government practice that is in violation of the law.

            Canada’s own refugee legislation is written with the very clear preamble that it must comply with the international human rights instruments to which it is a party. That the government fails to do so creates the vacuum in which sanctuary-seeking refugees now find themselves.

            Which leads us to a question: what would Martin Luther King do?

            King answered in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” (which was, significantly, addressed to his fellow clergy): “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”

            “Any law that degrades human personality is unjust,” King wrote, adding, “Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But they went on with the conviction that they were a ‘colony of heaven,’ and had to obey God rather than man….Things are different now. The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound….Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.” 

            King concluded that if the modern church did not “recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”

            While Canadian churches have a long and conflicted history – being the taproot of a significant pacifist wave in the 1930s at the same time they were running residential schools with illegally kidnapped Indigenous children, for example – they now have a unique opportunity to provide sanctuary and thereby live out King’s call for relevance, witness, and that “colony of heaven” approach that leads toward a beloved community. It’s also an approach that will save lives. 

            While some may still be guided by fear, King reminds us, “Fear is mastered through faith. Fear is mastered through love.”

            Faith communities willing to consider a discussion of sanctuary are urged to contact the Anne Frank Sanctuary Committee (tasc@web.ca, 613-267-3998) and the Canadian Sanctuary Network sanctuaryincanada@gmail.com, www.sanctuarycanada.ca

(this article originally appeared in rabble.ca, at http://rabble.ca/columnists/2013/01/spirit-dr-king-call-refugee-sanctuary

Monday, January 14, 2013

Urgent Action on Refugee Health Care

 (Please respond even if you do not live in Ontario, as this is a national issue.)

Dear health providers, social service providers and community members of Ontario:

In response to drastic cuts to the Interim Federal Health (IFH) program in Canada, 2012 was marked by historic mobilizations where health care workers and allies took to the streets, occupied Conservative MP offices, rallied outside Citizenship and Immigration Offices, launched a Non-Cooperation Campaign in response to drastic cuts to refugee health care coverage in Canada. These cuts mean a man in Saskatchewan was denied chemotherapy for his cancer treatment, pregnant women have been denied coverage for their deliveries, countless refugees and claimants have been cut off from access to medications and now, those seeking refuge from countries Jason Kenney has designated as ‘safe’ will not be able to get care even for a heart attack. These cuts are in line with ongoing regressive immigration policies introduced by this government including Bill C-31.

In the wake of these cuts, Quebec has stepped up to fill the gap by providing health care coverage for refugees. Manitoba has said they will do the same and send the Feds the bill. Saskatchewan has called for a review of the cuts and provided chemotherapy for a dying man. Yet, we have seen no action from Ontario and it’s time we escalate our demands.  As a New Year’s resolution, we are asking you to JOIN US in calling on the province to step up, FILL THE IFH GAP, and provide healthcare coverage for all those seeking refuge in Ontario. Help us make this an issue in the Ontario Liberal Leadership race by participating in our three upcoming Wednesdays of Action leading up to the Leadership Convention!

1. The next three Wednesdays in January (Jan 9th, 16th, 23rd) leading to the convention, we need your help to:
Flood the communication lines asking Ontario Liberal Leadership candidates to make public statements agreeing to fill the IFH gap if they are chosen. Scroll down for contact information for all candidates.

A. Phone the candidates.   
B. Email the candidates individually or click here for an easy online form that will email all candidates for you.
C. Tweet the candidates. Use the hashtag #FillTheIFHGap as well as using the #olpldr and #onpoli hashtags. Scroll down for automatic tweet links.
D. Have your organization write a letter to the candidates.

2. On Wednesday, January 23rd, JOIN US in a public rally to deliver a petition with over 627 signatures of health professionals, social service providers and community members to the Ministry of Health. 

When: Wednesday, January 23rd, 11:30am
Where: Ministry of Health and Long Term Care office (900 Bay Street), Toronto.
Why: Because it’s time for the Ontario government to step up and fill the IFH gap.
Who: We are mobilizing the 627 signatories and calling on everyone else to join us!

See the petition here: http://health4all.ca/PetitionToMinisterMatthews

3. On the weekend of the actual convention, January 26th and 27th, we want you to help us TAKE OVER the #olpldr and #onpoli hashtags demanding that the candidates promise to #FillTheIFHGap.

Contact Information for Ontario Liberal Leadership Candidates:
Eric Hoskins

Gerard Kennedy
Glen Murray

Sandra Pupatello
Charles Sousa
Harinder Takhar
Kathleen Wynne



Don’t know what to tweet? How about:
@DrEricHoskins As a doctor who has worked with refugees, do you agree to #FillTheIFHGap if you become #olpldr? #onpoli #refugeehealth Click to tweet this.
@GKennedyOLP Quebec & Manitoba have stepped up to #FillTheIFHGap from #refugeehealth cuts. Will you do the same in Ontario? #onpoli #olpldr Click to tweet this.
@Glen4ONT Ontario has a responsibility to the migrants who live here. Will you #FillTheIFHGap left by #refugeehealth cuts? #onpoli #olpldr Click to tweet this.
@SandraPupatello 627 frontline workers and community members want you to #FillTheIFHGap. Will you commit to this? #olpldr #onpoli Click to tweet this.
@SousaCharles As a frontline worker, I want you to commit to #FillTheIFHGap. Ontario must provide #refugeehealth. #olpldr #onpoli Click to tweet this.
@HarinderTakhar Will you let refugees die in Ontario? Commit to #FillTheIFHGap and provide healthcare for refugees. #olpldr #onpoli Click to tweet this.
@Kathleen_Wynne Frontline workers will deliver a petition to @Deb_Matthews to #FillTheIFHGap for #refugees. Will you support? #olpldr onpoli Click to tweet this.

Please forward this widely to your contacts, and share the link for the callout here: http://health4all.ca/FillTheIFHGap and the facebook event here: https://www.facebook.com/events/455851527807727/?notif_t=plan_user_joined. If you are interested in helping organize logistics for this action or would like any further information, please contact us at healthforalltoronto@gmail.com!

In Solidarity,
Health for All

Thursday, January 10, 2013

NS Case Leaves Unresolved Rights of Niqab-Wearing Women

(from January, 2013 MuslimLink)
By Matthew Behrens
            The recent Supreme Court of Canada judgment in the NS case – deciding whether a woman who brought charges of childhood sexual abuse against male relatives could wear her niqab while providing testimony – sparked much discussion that reflected the ongoing tension of a Canadian society where misperceptions and mistrust of anything associated with Islam remain a constant.
            Part of those tensions reflect an Islamophobic lens that, as University Of Ottawa professor Natasha Bakht points out, positions the niqab as a symbol that is “experienced by non-wearers as a form of confrontation or criticism against national ways of living and dressing.” In another respect, Canadian society in general and courts in particular continue to have much catching up to do in the respectful treatment of sexual assault survivors such as NS who, while still a child, reported alleged abuse to a teacher. However, her father convinced police not to lay charges. Charges were eventually laid when NS was an adult.
            In the NS case, the accused, a male cousin and an uncle, allege that an inability to see the full face of NS while she testifies denies them the right to a fair trial because they need to observe her facial demeanour as a means of assessing credibility. NS’s lawyers, among others, argued that this is a red herring, since demeanour is at best an inexact, subjective science that, even if relied upon, can be measured in innumerable other ways in ultimately making a determination about truthfulness.

            In the end result, the majority of the Supreme Court sent the issue back to the original judge hearing the case, concluding that decisions about the niqab could be made on a case-by-case basis. While some appeared satisfied with the result – including the complainant’s lawyer – the decision failed to resolve a number of significant issues. Chief among them is whether the defendants’ demand for a removal of the niqab – which NS had already said would make her very uncomfortable – is another form of continuing abuse, what intervening group  Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) called an attempt to “whack the complainant,” a common defence tactic.  In other words, as LEAF argues, “the removal of the niqab in this context is best understood as an attempt to humiliate, degrade and intimidate the complainant.  Such intimidation can force a complainant to withdraw from participating at trial, likely putting an end to the prosecution.”
            Indeed, that issue remains a live one in the NS case, as she still does not know whether a judge will order her to remove her niqab. While the Supreme Court majority found that requiring “witnesses to park their religion at the courtroom door is inconsistent with the jurisprudence and Canadian tradition,” if such uncertainty is to become the standard, this will likely create a barrier that keeps a specific group of women from accessing the justice system when they have been wronged.
            Ironically, the male defendants in the NS case did not appear to object at the original preliminary inquiry when NS was questioned about her strongly held beliefs by the judge. That judge  listened to her responses while she was wearing her niqab and did not say that her niqab prevented him from assessing her testimony. During that questioning (one she undertook without the benefit of prior legal advice), NS said she had worn niqab for five years, declared she would look defence counsel squarely in the eyes, and said that she would feel “a lot more comfortable” if she did not have to remove it. The judge, however, concluded her religious belief was “not that strong,” and so began the process leading to the Supreme Court challenge. (The Supreme Court, notably, said the judge failed to undertake a proper inquiry into the sincerity of her belief. Equally notable, the Supreme Court has ruled in the past that “a court is in no position to question the validity of a religious belief.” )

            While two dissenting Supreme Court justices insisted on a complete ban on the niqab in all criminal proceedings, Justice Rosalie Abella, in her singular dissenting opinion, declared that unless “the witness’s face is directly relevant to the case, such as where her identity is an issue, she should not be required to remove her niqab.”
            Abella’s findings, which appear more sympathetic to NS’s view, may still nonetheless be exploited to “whack the complainant,” while perhaps inadvertently buying into the notion that a woman might wear niqab to hide behind false charges. It is difficult to imagine that, even under the narrow circumstances described by Justice Abella, a defence lawyer will be shy about pushing the identity envelope. Meanwhile, Natasha Bakht notes that a similar vein of inferring the potential for misrepresentation via niqab is one that has arisen in Pakistani courts for niqab-wearing lawyers, remarking: “That veiled advocates are suspected of misrepresenting themselves when lawyers have codes of conduct that they are required to abide by, indicates that even those most educated in justice do injustice by resorting to biased beliefs about a marginalized group of women.”
            Thus, assaulted women who wear niqab will still question whether it is safe to go to court, since an ironclad guarantee is not in place. This is ironic, since within the Supreme Court’s decision are found numerous examples of why the main argument – the need to see NS’s face – is not necessarily determinative of the strength of her testimony.

            “Courts regularly accept the testimony of witnesses whose demeanour can only be partially observed and there are many examples of courts accepting witnesses who are unable to testify under ideal circumstances because of visual, oral, or aural impediments,” Abella wrote, noting that a demeanour assessment of NS could include gestures, eyes, body language, tone and inflection of the voice, cadence of her speech, and, ultimately, the substance of her verbal answers, which would be subject, no doubt, to vigorous cross examination.
            In a scholarly article “Objection, Your Honour! Accommodating Niqab-Wearing Women in Courtrooms,” Bakdt quotes a study finding “that with rare exception, ‘no one can do better than chance at spotting liars by their demeanour.’ It is amazing to many people when they learn that all of the other professional groups concerned with lying – judges, trial attorneys, police, polygraphers who work for the CIA, FBI or NSA (National Security Agency), the military services, and psychiatrists who do forensic work – did no better than chance. Equally astonishing, most of them didn’t know they could not detect deceit from demeanour.”
            Notably, while members of the Supreme Court insisted on the right of the accused to face an accuser, there remain instances, largely affecting Muslims in Canada, where this is simply not allowed. In security certificate cases, most of which are heard in secret, an individual never sees, much less hears, or even reads transcripts of, the allegations being made against them. In addition, in the limited public hearings, witnesses from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service often insist on testifying behind screens or video videolink from secure bunkers, invoking vague claims of national security.
            Similarly, individuals sought under extradition are generally not allowed to call as witnesses the individuals who piece together the paperwork that forms the basis of the extradition request.
            Ultimately, while the Court majority noted “The need to accommodate and balance sincerely held religious beliefs against other interests is deeply entrenched in Canadian law,” Abella’s dissent starkly reveals that, while accommodations will be sought, individuals like NS still face being “forced to choose between laying a complaint and wearing a niqab, which may be no meaningful choice at all.”