Reflections from the Freedom Caravan and Camp Hope
(This is an individual reflection from caravan participant Matthew Behrens. Other reflections will shortly appear on our website at www.homesnotbombs.ca)
(selected photos of the Freedom Caravan and Camp Hope are available at:
The Freedom Caravan and Camp Hope, two projects aimed at ending secret trials in Canada, had a unique sense of history of them. From the day the caravan left Toronto on June 3, amid a Biblical downpour and scare headlines about the Madison-Avenue- inspired "homegrown terror," through the final minutes of the Supreme Court hearings in Ottawa, it felt very much like one of those moments where people across this country were confronted with basic questions about the kind of nation we are and what we need to do about the abuses committed in our name.
Indefinite detention without charge or trial, impossible restrictions against bail, secret hearings, deportations to torture. After five years of effort by campaigners against secret trials (and many years more of litigation by a small group of committed lawyers), these issues were truly in the national spotlight.
Of course, it helped that the RCMP and CSIS, Canada's spy agencies, appeared to have jumped into the debate with their own contribution: the suspiciously timed arrests of 17 people in Toronto on June 3, the scare headlines, the substance-less news conferences that offered little but reminders that Canada is "under threat, under threat, under threat...." Many felt it was intended to scare the Supreme Court judges, prodding them to look at these issues through the lens of media hysteria, and not through the rule of law.
But that fear-inspiring project appears to have backfired. Perhaps most significantly, caravan members felt a surge of optimism on Friday, June 9, travelling a lonely stretch of road between Brockville and Smiths Falls. Members of the group pulled their cars over just after 3 pm and erupted in a spontaneous celebration, jumping up and down and hugging one another with the news that the Federal Court would not accede to a government request to keep secret trial detainee Mohamed Harkat in jail during the government's appeal of his being granted bail two weeks earlier. The judge had reminded the government that proof was needed -- and none had been offered -- that Mohamed's planned release on bail posed a threat. The fact that Abdulrahman Khadr also won his case against the federal government, which had earlier denied him a passport, showed that the fear was not working in the place where, if you were a CSIS agent, you would have hoped it would have the most effect -- in the courts.
But it didn't always feel that way. On June 3, about 15 people set out on the caravan, waking through parts of East Toronto, holding banners and flyering at major malls (which composed most of the landscape all the way to Oshawa!). The news was composed of two items, each of which held questionable value: the weather forecasters kept saying the showers would end shortly, but they only became more intense; and the repeated scare stories, often unsubstantiated, about supposed terror targets in Toronto excitedly passed on by reporters who offered congratulations to Canada's spy agencies during the 10 am press conference with the Mounties, the CSIS, and the Metro Police. (Interestingly, we noted that in both instances -- CSIS agents and weather forecasters -- neither had to get the facts right in order to keep their jobs!)
Neither dampened the spirits of caravan members, and as each of the often full 18-hour days of education and community building wore on, the group congealed as they cooked together, shared church or gym floors in sleeping bags, and experienced major weather extremes in handing out over 10,000 information flyers, speaking with thousands of high school students, meeting with representatives of MPs, holding well-attended public events, and confronting some basic fears and racism which drive the terror scares.
Among some of the strongest impressions from the caravan that remain with me:
Members of a girls soccer team in Ajax, also braving the rain for a fundraising raffle event outside a local mall, share a good dialogue with caravan members about discrimination (which, as an underfunded girls enterprise well knows, continues to plague sports not dominated by men!)
Spending our first night in a United Church in Ajax (one of the very few churches which was not afraid to take us in), a few kilometres down the road from where some of the Toronto 17 (arrested the previous night) had been kept. A small group from the caravan went over to investigate and ask if the men were still being held at the Durham regional police station in Ajax-Pickering. The response from police was to neither confirm nor deny, but rather, to "go home and listen to the radio."
The manner in which the media's scare headlines had captured the imagination of some people. On our second morning, a group of taxi drivers in Whitby asked about the "20 tonnes of fertilizer" (grown from the original three tonnes originally reported). But such comments were rare at the start and diminished as the caravan continued, with most members of the public we met with expressing a healthy skepticism of the claims made by spy agencies with a long reputation for exaggerating threats, getting their facts wrong, trading with torturers, etc.
Handing out flyers to young people inside the Oshawa Armoury. Local volunteers freaked out about our presence--after all, they exclaimed, these are just KIDS! That defence against having them receive an information flyer about secret trials seemed hollow, given the kids were simultaneously being exposed to a glorification of weaponry and the message of the institution that was hosting them: killing as a means of conflict resolution. Four squad cars later, the caravan moved on after providing police officers with a good teach-in on people being held without charge.
Parading through downtown Lindsay, and then holding a vigil at the Central East "Correctional Centre," where many refugees are often held indefinitely. This helpfully drew the presence of three squad cars, whose communications over their police radio about a disturbance brought out the media, who otherwise seemed to have lost our press release. Again, another fine opportunity for a police teach-in as well as a chance to meet distraught family members who were visiting loved ones inside the bleak institution.
A packed church hall in downtown Peterborough, where hundreds of people gathered to welcome to caravan with dinner and a terrific Inspector-Clousseau inspired skit about CSIS and racial profiling. Courtesy of Kawartha Ploughshares, the event was a huge morale booster for the caravan, and generated significant local media coverage.
Awaiting the arrival from their overnight billets of all caravan members for the continuation of the journey to Port Hope, a group of us are suddenly jolted by the sound of people screaming and police sirens. We turn to our right and see a huge bus followed by hundreds of runners participating in a charity run through town. Not ones to miss an opportunity, we immediately grab our banners, unfurl them, and turn the event into a major leafletting opportunity.
Meeting students at the high schools across the province. All seemed very engaged and shocked to hear the stories about secret trials in Canada, asking great questions, with some committing themselves to more research and action. At one school, a student saw us in the hallway carrying our symbolic jail bars and exclaimed, "Ohmygod! I never thought I would see the day! Real issues being discussed in my school!"
For one student we met, the message hit home very hard. Her father works for CSIS in a higher-up "counter-terrorism" position and did not believe that the agency engages in racial profiling. While she was terribly upset, we saluted her courage in challenging us and, in a dialogue that continued long after the assembly was over, thanked her for meeting with us and continuing the debate, since she was as close as we have ever come to a dialogue with CSIS after five years of sincere efforts to set up such a conversation. (Indeed, some of our group had been arrested trick-or-treating for secret evidence on Halloween at the Ottawa CSIS bunker while others had been arrested after seeking a meeting in Toronto and refusing to leave without one.) Needless to say, the principal of the school did receive a phone call from said CSIS employee urging the school to be more "responsible" with whom they invite in future.
We were blessed by all participants on this caravan who brought unique skills and humour to the effort. Among those taking part was Amparo Torres, a refugee from Colombia whom CSIS is trying to have deported to torture based on secret evidence. She represents the new direction for CSIS--secret evidence without detention to achieve the same ends. Amparo spoke with many students during the caravan, showing the ridiculous way in which CSIS creates an unfounded scare about someone without providing any public evidence to back up their claims.
An inspired walkthrough in downtown Port Hope and then in Cobourg, which culminated at the office of Tory MP Rick Norlock. There, Joyce Barrett of Peterborough provided an information packet and a terrific on-the-spot teach-in on the issue, with much local media on hand. (Given the practice of CSIS to monitor all media outlets and to try and contact individuals whose names appear in such media in relation to this issue, they must still be working overtime given the amount of ink and airtime that was devoted to secret trials during the caravan. Indeed, one of the caravan participants, hailing from London, was tracked down in May by CSIS PR rep Barbara Campion after he wrote an editorial in the Free Press, even though his contact information had not appeared with the piece).
The welcome we received from Trinity Anglican Church in Colborne was simply amazing. A wonderful dinner, a well-organized event with a substantial turnout relative to the town's population of 2,000. Following an overnight sleep on the carpeted floors of an empty rectory, we were joined by Jim Loney who, recently returned to Canada after a harrowing four months of captivity in Iraq, wanted to join the caravan. Jim had spoken out on the issue before, as he had for the rights of detainees in Iraq, but he also had a personal connection: while he was held, the three Toronto detainees wrote an open letter calling for his freedom, stating that his freedom meant more to them than their own. Jim led the caravan, now some two dozen people, in a spirited singalong and procession through downtown Colborne. A week later, his open letter to MPs calling for an end to secret trials in Canada, appeared in the Globe and Mail.
While walking into Brighton, with banners that simply read Stop Secret Trials in Canada and End Deportations to Torture, a car started driving up and down the main street, its participants yelling at us that we should "Burn all the mosques," "Kill all the Muslims," and "Jail all the Mohammeds." One participant noted how ironic it was that such a reaction would be directed against a group whose banners that day had nothing on them about Islam. Members of that small group got out of their car as we approached a local high school and started screaming epithets at us, offering us very vivid hand gestures about killing, with thumbs pointed down and hatred and fear in their faces. Members of the caravan individually and in small groups tried to speak with them, but they were difficult to reach. "They're trying to kill all of us!" one of them kept repeating. It was a disturbing scene, one which got a lot hotter as hundreds of students started streaming out of school for lunch. While we stood on the edge of the school property handing out leaflets (a great way to interact with students that we repeated throughout the caravan), the group full of fear and anger came up behind us and continued screaming.
Brighton high school students then got involved directly, some of them echoing the sentiments of the counter-demonstrators, but most of them seeming very interested in what was going on. It was heartening to see two of the youngest members of the caravan, Nico and Felipe Vicencio Heap, aged 14 and 11, directly confront the counter-demonstrators with a grounded, peaceful attempt at dialogue. (They had taken time off school to be part of the caravan). They were joined by other Brighton high schoolers who also asked great questions of the demonstrators -- did they know anything about Islam, had they ever met someone of the Muslim faith, what about Christians who drop bombs on Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan? School officials, perhaps concerned at the sudden outbreak of education, duly called police, and three squad cars arrived just as the caravan members were heading off to lunch in a local park. Excited grade school students came running up to a fence as we walked by, begging for flyers to share with their parents.
The scene looked and felt a bit like a photo montage from the U.S. civil rights era, right down to the body language of the counter-demonstrators. We were thus blessed to have with us Don Heap, aged 80, who had joined the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery (and the next day by Ed File, another minister who had joined that historic moment and who recognized that the struggle for human rights continues unabated).
As we sat in the Brighton park, our banners strung in the trees, some of the students who had witnessed the events in front of their school meandered over and engaged in dialogue, with some wanting information packets for end-of-year school projects.
What was also heartening was the nonviolent, loving way in this instance, and in others during the caravan, that participants greeted those whose anger or hatred was inspired by fear. By constantly seeking out a dialogue with those who, often through no fault of their own, simply did not have access to any information other than the sound bytes they heard on the radio or the inadequate reporting in their daily papers, we had countless opportunities to address the kind of questions that arise in such an orchestrated climate of scapegoating and fear-mongering.
Trenton, Ontario, we had been told constantly, would be a real test of our ability to face the fear, anger, and potential hostility, verbal and physical, of people who would not like to see us parading through their downtown. Home to a massive military base (to which bodies of casualties from Afghanistan are brought home), it might not have proven the most welcoming of towns. Nevertheless, as the group made its way through the downtown core in the mid afternoon heat, we received generally positive responses (apart from lone, individual expressions of hatred, such as "You people don't belong in this country!") But again, such expressions were the exception, not the norm, and people seemed genuinely interested in what we were talking about.
A hot, exhausted crew was warmly received at Bayside Secondary School just outside of Belleville for showers while Jim Loney met with a group of students to discuss what was happening with secret trials and detainees both in Iraq and in Canada. The group then made its way downtown to drop off their gear at St. Thomas Anglican Church and proceeded through the downtown core with another procession and hundreds of flyers. Following a wonderful dinner -- during which Ahmad Jaballah, eldest son of secret trial detainee Mahmoud Jaballah, arrived to join the caravan -- Bridge Street United Church, across the street, hosted a packed event that featured Ahmad, Jim, and assorted caravan members speaking to the issue. The following morning, Matthew Behrens, Jim Loney, and Ahmad Jaballah were on a two-hour call-in show on a much-listened-to area radio station. The response was quite positive, especially among those who stopped downtown to hear the show being blasted by caravan car radios while other members of the group held banners and continued their public outreach. The front page of the Belleville Intelligencer that morning had a huge picture of Jim over an article that was highly critical of security certificates.
Group members had a small bit of drama in Napanee, their lunch stop for the day where, following a morning session at the high school where students were leafletted upon leaving the grounds, one of the caravan members, Tracey, fell and broke a bone in her foot. While she was taken to hospital, the group, who had been hosted for lunch by a kind individual who offered to serve us up a barbecue, headed toward the tiny hamlet of Bath, a few kilometres down the road from Guantanamo Bay North, the new home of Canada's secret trial detainees at the Millhaven federal penitentiary.
Following a vigil at the four corners, the group caravanned to a small parkette near the entrance to the massive federal facility. Bolstered by the Limestone Raging Grannies, the group prepared to cross Loyalist Highway and hold a vigil of support for the detainees who, then as now, continued their hunger strike protesting conditions of detention. As the group of almost 50 people gathered their banners, an undercover policeman sat on a park bench taking down licence plate numbers, but this didn't seem to bother a group singing "We are not afraid" as they crossed the road and found, to their dismay, no safe spot to gather at the bottom of the hill leading to Millhaven.
Led by a singing Jim Loney and five people holding jail bars with the names of Canada's Secret Trial Five affixed to them, the group slowly edged its way up the hill. Alarm bells immediately went off at the institution and federal vehicles arrived ordering the group to turn back. One member of the group told the guards there was nothing to be afraid of, and that no one was here to hurt them. Their vehicles slowly crept up the hill in reverse as the group continued climbing the hill, at the top of which was a grassy area where they intended to continue their vigil. At each step of the way, the guards became more agitated, calling for backup and calling the OPP to come and remove the group.
Once at the top of the hill, the group could see the high barbed wire and watch towers of Millhaven, and there they stopped to hear singing from the Raging Grannies. Agitated officers demanded time and again that the group leave, but were told they group would leave in its own time, and that this was a much safer space for them to be than down near the highway. As one caravan member explained the issue of secret trials to the officers, Don Heap told the group about his own experiences as an MP and immigration critic when security certificates were beefed up in federal legislation some 15 years ago. Loney again recounted why he had joined the caravan, and singing continued until a group of folks from No One Is Illegal Kingston made their way up the hill to join the group. One speaker talked about the historical spectrum on which the caravan was sitting, part of a long civil rights struggle that would need to continue. But for today, it was noted, the group was planting seeds of hope on the grounds of Millhaven, seeds which would hopefully be harvested by free people returning to their families after years of indefinite detention without charge.
As a jubilant group headed back down the hill, one jail guard, no doubt peeved at our presence, sped her car down the hill, narrowly missing a couple of caravan members.
The welcome in Kingston was, again, a warm one, both with a terrific dinner (one caravan member often quipped that he had joined because he had heard the food would be so good) and a packed auditorium at Queens University for another public event. The following morning, the group marched downtown with Kingston No One Is Illegal members to immigration offices for another vigil and then headed on to Gananoque, where fears had been relayed to the local Curling Club, host of our lunch event, that terrorists were coming to town. Under greying skies, the group paraded through town as police cars warily watched the group and made periodic sweeps down the street where the curling club was located. Fear did not keep away Gananoque's mayor, who attended the lunch and brief presentation on secret trials, nor the local media, who did a terrific job covering the event. Gananoque's high school is conveniently located across the street, so again, another great educational opportunity arose as curious students, perhaps not used to seeing banner-toting individuals walking through their town, came out and asked what was going on.
The city of Brockville was a challenge for the caravan. No church would take us in. In the end, one determined couple, teachers Brian Carroll and Catherine Cavanagh, generously invited all members of the group into their home. They also joined a local vigil at MP Gordon Brown's office, where they were met by a lone counter-demonstrator, who carried a sign which read "Canada Must Protect Itself." One caravan member offered that the sign was missing two words: "From Fear." But the lone gentleman was greeted warmly by caravan members who introduced themselves and engaged him in dialogue for the full hour of the vigil. He seemed taken aback at first, but then seemed to enjoy our company. By the end of the vigil, he told us he still disagreed with us, but reluctantly, and was seen tearing up his sign and depositing it into the trash. While walking away we met an 83-year-old woman who had lived in Brockville all her life. When we explained what we are doing, she gave us a long, hard look, leaving us wondering what chord we may have struck, positive or negative. "Well, you can't always trust what those government people say about everything, now can you?" she asked and demanded at the same time. "I know, my son works for the government. The stories he tells..."
Caravan members spoke in Brockville high schools the following morning before making their way to Smiths Falls, a trip interrupted by the jubilant news that Harkat would not be kept in jail during the government's appeal of his bail. We were particularly impressed that the judge made his decision based in part on the fact that the government had offered no evidence (perhaps the government is getting lazy, since it is so used to getting way with this in secret trials that merely employing the word "threat" may be assumed enough to confound a judge!) The group was housed at a local school (again, courtesy of Brian Carroll) and had a chance to catch up on some sleep before their final day on the road.
The final day of the caravan was so cold that some members had to raid Liquidation World to get hats and gloves. They processed through Smiths Falls, Merrickville, Kemptville, and Manotick before finishing up at the Human Rights Monument in downtown Ottawa, where they were greeted by Alexandre Trudeau, members of Harkat's support committee, and a musical celebration at a local community centre.
Camp Hope began the moment we arrived in Ottawa, with a packed Sunday morning Unitarian service where the topic of dealing with fear was first and foremost, ending with a moving, hand-holding singout of We Shall Overcome. Group members subsequently met each night at a community centre for dinner and discussion, banner-making and next-day plans.
On Monday, the group, now joined by Mona Elfouli and her two children, Ibrahim and Yusuf (still missing their Dad, Mohammad Mahjoub, jailed six years as of June 26), gathers with Jim Loney, Monia Mazigh, and about 75 supporters at the entrance to the Prime Minister's office. The wall of media was the largest the group had ever seen, with much of the demonstration broadcast live on national networks. Despite two months of efforts to secure a meeting with someone from Harper's office, the response is a cold "no." The children face a line of RCMP along with their mom and Jim, who plead to meet for five minutes with a family that has tried in vain for years to get such an audience.
But rejection is part of this process, and Jean Chretien, Paul Martin, and now Stephen Harper are all part of a select group of prime ministers who have met the injustice of secret trials and deportation to torture with silence and complicity.
Undeterred, the group march through downtown Ottawa, briefly occupying the lobby to Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day's building, demanding a meeting there. The building goes on immediate lockdown as security pour into the lobby. Mona calmly explains her situation and ends up leaving a handwritten note requesting a meeting. That scene is repeated later at immigration HQ. In both instances, months of correspondence requesting meetings have met with no success. Putting a face on this human tragedy is too much for Stockwell Day and Monte Solberg who, like their previous counterparts, hide behind walls of security.
Tuesday morning at 8 am, there is already a long lineup to get into the court as Camp Hope participants begin laying out the scores of banners that have been sent from across the country calling for an end to secret trials. There are banners from communities in B.C., Alberta, Ontario, Quebec. People from places like Gibley, Midland, Limestone, and Kamloops are there in spirit. Barricades hastily erected across the full length of the lawn (rare at the Court) become useful for attaching placards and banners, and large images of three of the detainees are placed centrally so everyone going into and out of the court can put a face to the names being bandied about inside. Throughout the day the camp remains a base for the group and supporters in Ottawa, who attend portions of the hearing in two large rooms decked out with a big video screen while others head downtown with a banner or two and scads of flyers.
The Camp is a unique presence, and draws the attention of media and tourists, many of whom stop to find out more. A group of students from Chatham, Ontario, learns about the perils of secret trials from Ahmad Jaballah, whose father is detained under one of them. It is an example of living history for many other school groups and passersby as well.
Adil Charkaoui, on bail almost 16 months, is able to attend the hearings with his family, his electronic tracking device in hand. Dozens of lawyers are on hand for this historic moment. One member of the caravan, who had been part of a group banned for life from the grounds of Queen's Park, recognizes a lawyer who, in that case, had been prosecuting the group, but who is now acting as an intervenor for a civil liberties group. It's a small world.
Media interest in the story remains incredibly strong, as caravan members and family of the detainees are shuttled about from studio to studio, interview to interview. There are radio interviews and talk shows in Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Montreal, Halifax. What is remarkable is how few supporters of security certificates they can actually dredge up. A major piece on secret trials runs on The National, and coverage, like the issue itself, is international in scope. As detainees' lawyer Barb Jackman concludes before the Supreme Court, "This case is fundamental not just for Canada, but for the rest of the world. I just want to remind you that the context is crucial, and it is global."
Word from those inside is that the court at first seems skeptical, buying into some of the fear mongering with questions about "worst-case scenarios" and people intent on doing harm to Canada (even though no such evidence has ever been adduced against the secret trial detainees).
But by the second day, the government's "national security trumps all" approach meets stiff resistance from the judges. One judge reminds government lawyers that if all we have is national security, we are living in North Korea. There are smiles from those leaving the courthouse on day two--perhaps there will be some changes coming out of the court's decision, expected in perhaps six months.
As the huge laundry line that had been set up to hang banners stretching a city block in downtown Ottawa begins to come down, there is a weary sense of satisfaction that this issue has reached the national consciousness in a significant way, and that the "security" agencies are still scurrying for cover under the glare of national attention. Justice Louise Charron, on the second day of the proceedings, seems to sum up the problem in one choice sentence that is at the root of these secret hearings. "I've looked at the Harkat summary, and I don't really see any specific information Mr. Harkat can take home with him," she says of the sparse, bare-bones "evidence" that is presented publicly.
We leave Ottawa with a good feeling, that Canada's dirty little secret is decidedly out in the open, and the government approach in court--the best defence is an offensive--appears to have backfired, with nothing to fall back on. Now that judges of the country's highest court have seen the utterly flawed and unfair way in which these proceedings occur, it is hoped they will strike this nasty bit of business from the books.
In the meantime, there remains much to do. A hunger strike continues to threaten the lives of the three remaining detainees, all of whom now must fight for another chance at a bail which will almost certainly involve the kind of strict house arrest under which Mr. Harkat has been returned home. And should the issue go back to Parliament over the winter of 2006/07, we will need to be vigilant that they do not come up with something even worse than what we have now. The Tories seem keen on some pretty window dressing to save what remains of an unfair, discriminatory process.
Ultimately, the men subject to this process, their families, and closest supporters, would like to see people in this country treated equally, regardless of their status. Anything less creates a two-tiered justice system. We hope the court will get that, and act accordingly. We hope Canadians will get that as well, and act accordingly too.
1. There is still much to do. Donations are appreciated to help pay for the costs of our ongoing work. Cheques in support of the secret trials campaign can be made out to Homes not Bombs and mailed to PO Box 73620, 509 St. Clair Ave. West, Toronto, ON M6C 1C0. We also have a special fund to meet the considerable expenses of the secret trial families, who now have the added burden of having to travel to Kingston to visit their loved ones. To donate to that fund make a cheque out to Homes not Bombs and write "Esperanza" in the memo portion of your cheque.
2. We are now in the process of arranging fall speaking dates in schools, in places of worship, in community halls. If you are interested in hosting an event on secret trials, get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org or (416) 651-5800
3. We continue trying to get MPs to sign on to a statement calling for an end to secret trials. If you would like to pressure your MPs, we can send you an information package to present to them. Contact us at email@example.com or (416) 651-5800.
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