Sunday, November 22, 2015

Mohawk Chief: “All I Can Do is Pray Things Change for My People”

(An edited version of this story appears in this week's NOW Magazine)

The Trudeau government has said it will consult with First Nations, but will it respect the duty to receive "free, prior, and informed consent" from indigenous communities?

Mohawk Chief Clinton Phillips in front of the St. Lawrence Seaway (credit: Mohawk Council of Kahnawake)

By Matthew Behrens
As the city of Montreal prepared to open the floodgates on 8-billion litres of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River, Kahnawake Mohawk Chief Clinton Phillips received a phone call from the person who ultimately approved the massive dump.
            It was newly minted Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, about to board a plane for the Paris climate conference pre-talk sessions. She spent 30 minutes discussing a scientific report that recommended a controlled sewage release as the least damaging of numerous lose-lose options.
            “She has invited me to participate in what is dubbed a post-mortem committee — their language, not mine – to ensure this doesn't happen again,” Phillips says, noting he appreciated that McKenna’s rock-and-a-hard-place decision was the predetermined product of years of municipal, provincial, and federal failure to fix what was identified two decades ago as a serious infrastructure challenge, one facing many other urban centres (including Toronto).
Phillips, who has served in office for over six years, was nonetheless taken aback to hear her voice. “I don't recall ever hearing at our table that a [federal] minister had called any one of us,” he says. “Even the former Minister of Indian Affairs never called us.”

Nation to Nation Relationship
Although not widely publicized, McKenna’s call could be a small but important symbol of how the Trudeau government will live up to one of its biggest commitments as it strains to be all things to all people. That challenge – the duty to meaningfully consult with Indigenous peoples – was outlined last week in the ministerial mandate letter received by Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett, the new Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs.
            “No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous peoples,” wrote Trudeau. “It is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples, based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership.”
            If Bennett requires a template of how not to begin such a relationship, she need look no further than the mishandling of the St. Lawrence sewage crisis. 

 Zero Consultation
Indeed, the Mohawk community of Kahnawake lies just across the river from Montreal. “From my reserve to downtown Montreal, without traffic, will take me seven minutes to drive,” Phillips says, yet civic officials aware of such proximity did not think to involve his people in any discussions about the impending flush of sewage into a waterway that “is like blood that flows through our veins. Quebec is fully aware that there is a duty to consult First Nations. To learn about this at the 11th hour,” he says, and through the media no less, was insulting. “Temporary measures were put in place in 1997. So, we're in 2015. How bloody long do they think temporary means? So much time had gone by that different viable options that would have been achievable were not being discussed.”
             While members of the community protested, from launching a flotilla to blocking the Mercier Bridge, Kahnawake leaders who hadn’t been consulted all those years were finally able to attend two Montreal meetings held mere days before the dump. “As a First Nations leader, it’s unacceptable that the government is saying a couple of two-hour meetings constitutes meaningful consultation,” says a frustrated Phillips. “Meantime, I was being inundated with calls and emails from citizens of Montreal begging with me, pleading, ‘don't let this happen, block a bridge, do this, do that.’ But I’m thinking, ‘it’s your government, why don't you do something? You don't need us to always put our people on the line and then be hit by C-51 charges.’”
            For members of the Kahnawake community, the dump, which began November 11, was just the latest in a lengthy series of blows the Mohawk people have been subjected to for centuries. “My people have still not recovered since the Seaway system was put right through the heart of our reserve, denying us access from what we call our river,” Phillips says.  “This hurts like you wouldn't believe. Kahnawake means by the rapids, and we're not by the rapids anymore because there’s a sewer system that goes right through the heart of our reserve called the St. Lawrence Seaway.”

Threats to Indigenous People and Lands
            In addition to dealing with the post-dump environmental impacts, the community is also facing challenges in the form of Enbridge and TransCanada pipeline projects. In this respect, the Mohawks are not unlike many indigenous communities across the country dealing with threats to their lands and water posed by lax pollution standards that may be exacerbated with passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, mining, deforestation, fracking, and ongoing tarsands development.

           It is here that Carolyn Bennett will face her biggest challenge, for while her mandate includes ensuring enhanced “consultation, engagement and participatory capacity of Indigenous groups in reviewing and monitoring major resource development projects,” how much power will that ultimately leave First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities whose livelihood and beliefs may prove incompatible with the bottom lines of multinational corporations? Notably, Bennett’s mandate carefully avoids one of the most critical phrases in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the “free, prior and informed consent” that is required of state parties “before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.” While Trudeau seeks to implement the Declaration, the Harper government refused to support it, fearing this phrase could be used to justify the veto of major energy projects.

            McKenna’s phone call may be viewed as a small but hopeful first step in the right direction. But will a government that is friendly to the resource extraction and oil industries go beyond symbolic lip service to fully respect a consultative process that mandates “free, prior and informed consent”?

 “First Nations across this country and the US have been promised every single thing under the sun, and unfortunately, it has never happened,” Phillips sighs. “You look at any infrastructure in this country, it always goes right through the heart of indigenous territory. Is that just another way to annoy us or assimilate us or just get rid of us — genocide? It certainly doesn't make life easier for us.
 “Whether it be Mulcair, Harper or Trudeau in power, at the end of the day it's still the Government of Canada and they still follow the Indian Act. For us, it's the same monster, just different people, and based on history, all I can do is pray that things change for our people.”

Monday, November 9, 2015

A Question of Torture for Canada’s New War Minister

An edited version of this story appears in NOW Magazine's Nov. 12 issue
By Matthew Behrens
            Rideau Hall’s glorious fall foliage produced the perfect backdrop for a series of memorable photo-ops during the Trudeau government’s swearing-in ceremony, from the most diverse cabinet in Canadian history to the large crowds who waited patiently for selfies with the photogenic PM.

            Yet one of the most posted photos of the day did not come from the colourful festivities marking what seemed a refreshing changeover to a government marked by openness and transparency. Rather, it was an old handout of a camouflaged Sikh man packing serious heat in Afghanistan, Harjit Sajjan, who had just been named Canada’s new Minister of National Defence. 

            While the social media universe immediately featured a disturbing round of racist comments – including the conclusion that the bearded man could not be trusted because he must be a Muslim – most press coverage was far more salutary, from Foreign Policy’s gushing “Canada’s New Defense Minister Made His Own Gas Mask to Work With His Beard” to the National Observer’s “You don't know how badass Trudeau’s Defence Minister really is”. 

An Intelligence Asset Complicit in Torture?
Sajjan, in stark contrast to such milquetoast predecessors as Jason Kenney and Peter McKay, was hailed as “some kind of next-level Spy vs Spy war hero” who’d done three tours in Afghanistan and was praised by his superiors as “the best single Canadian intelligence asset in [the Afghan war] theater.” 

            Despite all the puff pieces, Sajjan’s presence in his new job may open a can of worms that former PM Harper thought was pretty much sealed shut when he prorogued Parliament in 2009 to avoid stinging questions about Canadian complicity in the torture of Afghan detainees. Sajjan’s tours as a key Canadian asset and liaison with torture-tainted Afghan authorities dovetailed with an era when significant human rights concerns had been quietly raised by Canada’s foreign affairs representatives, including a 2005 Canadian report that noted Afghanistan’s “military, intelligence and police forces have been involved in arbitrary arrests, kidnapping, extortion, torture and extrajudicial killing of criminal suspects.”

In 2006, as Harper’s Conservatives took over direction of a war begun by the Liberals, Graeme Smith’s remarkable Globe and Mail investigative reporting and the courage of Canadian whistleblower diplomat Richard Colvin brought to light a side of the Afghanistan occupation that most Canadians could not square with their traditional perceptions of the military. Terms like “war crimes” were openly used to describe Canadian transfers of detainees to the torture-stained Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS), and the Harper government faced potential contempt of Parliament proceedings over its refusal to release thousands of documents related to the scandal.

            Colvin, who had served 17 months on the ground in Afghanistan, testified seven years ago this month that Afghans transferred from Canadian Forces to the NDS commonly faced “beating, whipping with power cables, and the use of electricity. Also common was sleep deprivation, use of temperature extremes, use of knives and open flames, and sexual abuse—that is, rape. Torture might be limited to the first days or it could go on for months. According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured. For interrogators in Kandahar, it was standard operating procedure.  

"We handed over for torture a lot of innocent people"
            Colvin pointed out that many detainees had nothing to do with the Taliban: “many were just local people: farmers, truck drivers, tailors, peasants, random human beings in the wrong place at the wrong time, young men in their fields and villages who were completely innocent but were nevertheless rounded up. In other words, we detained and handed over for severe torture a lot of innocent people.”

            Colvin’s words were echoed by Canadian translator Ahmadshah Malgarai, a cultural and language advisor who, with secret clearance and commendations to his name, bravely told the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan in April, 2010: “There was no one in the Canadian military with a uniform who was involved in any way, at any level, with the detainee transfers who did not know what was going on and what the NDS does to their detainees.”

            While ongoing inquiries into the detainee scandal and the role of key Canadian decision makers were effectively shut down with the 2011 election of a Harper majority, the issue was raised again last week when the Military Police Complaints Commission announced it would investigate a new case in which Canadian soldiers allegedly abused and “terrorized” Afghan detainees at their Kandahar base. This inquiry follows on the little-publicized release of a new report authored by researcher Omar Sabry for the Rideau Institute and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which called for a “transparent and impartial judicial Commission of Inquiry into the actions of Canadian officials, including Ministers of the Crown, relating to Afghan detainees.” 

Strong Need for Public Inquiry
            Peggy Mason, a former Canadian Disarmament Ambassador to the UN and now head of the Rideau Institute, feels strongly that the transfer to torture issue is “unfinished business of the most serious kind – accountability of Canadian officials for alleged serious breaches of international and national law – the only appropriate remedy for which is a public inquiry.  What better way is there for this government to demonstrate its commitment to transparency and accountability than to call such an inquiry?”

            But considering whether to hold such an inquiry is a decision from which Sajjan may have to recuse himself. Indeed, Sajjan could very well be compelled to answer some very difficult questions. As a high-level intelligence officer who appears to have taken an active role in combat operations, it seems implausible that Sajjan was not familiar with the torture rampant throughout Afghan detention system. Indeed, as Canadian Press reported last week, in 2006, Sajjan became the Canadian “intelligence liaison” to Kandahar governor Asadullah Khalid. According to Colvin’s Parliamentary testimony, Khalid “was known to us very early on, in May and June 2006, as an unusually bad actor on human rights issues. He was known to have had a dungeon in Ghazni, his previous province, where he used to detain people for money, and some of them disappeared. He was known to be running a narcotics operation. He had a criminal gang. He had people killed who got in his way. And then in Kandahar we found out that he had indeed set up a similar dungeon under his guest house. He acknowledged this. When asked, he had sort of justifications for it, but he was known to personally torture people in that dungeon.” (Khalid went on to become Afghanistan’s national intelligence chief). 

Sajjan is also credited with the intelligence gathered for operations that led to the “kill or capture” of some 1,500 alleged Taliban members, a military claim that must be measured against the commonplace reference to any detainees as potential Taliban, as opposed to the broader categories of detainees translator Malgarai referenced in his testimony: “They went from 10 years old to 90 years old. With all due respect, I would ask retired General Hillier to tell me and explain to me how a 90-year-old man.... He was a 90-year-old man. He couldn't even walk without help. His hands were tied. His foot was shackled. He was blindfolded. Sometimes, when he couldn't walk fast enough, they pushed him. He fell many times, and he had injuries on his body. Could he please explain to me how this 90-year-old man, who couldn't even walk, who needed help when you tried to pick him up, could be a fighter?” 

Big Questions
When NOW attempted to reach Sajjan for comment, DND media relations explained that he was being briefed on files and was very busy. When informed that the questions for Minister Sajjan did not involve new files but, rather, spoke to his own experience in Afghanistan, the media office requested a set of emailed questions. At press time, NOW still had not heard responses to a number of queries arising from a reasonable set of assumptions about his role on the ground and connections to key players. Among them: given the widespread and well-known use of torture by the NDS in Afghanistan by the time of Major Sajjan's first tour of duty in 2006, did he undertake precautionary measures to ensure that he was not passing on to his superiors information gleaned from torture (especially given his liaison role with Governor Khalid); alternatively, was such information caveated to the effect that its source may have been the fruits of torture?

            In addition, as someone identified as Canada's top intelligence asset in Afghanistan, was Minister Sajjan aware of the transfers of detainees to the NDS and the documentation of torture then publicly available? If so, how did this colour his relationship with Khalid and the NDS? Equally compelling, in the small, circular world of intelligence operations, was information gleaned from NDS torture of detainees used in the Canadian round-up individuals who, upon detention, were transferred to the hands of NDS torturers? Ultimately, given his likely awareness of torture in Afghanistan, did Sajjan refuse to take part in any operational activity that may have led to the transfer of detainees to torture?

            When the Harper government closed the case in 2011, Liberal MP Stéphane Dion (now Trudeau’s Foreign Affairs Minister) told the CBC “the likelihood is very high” that Afghan detainees were abused while in the custody, adding, "I don't think Canadians will accept that it's over.”

With Liberal promises of transparency and accountability, one of the most celebrated of Trudeau’s ministerial announcements may soon be facing a real test of public accountability.