What happened to my old friend Canada?


Saturday, September 3, 2005

Globe and Mail

Two weeks ago, I woke at 7 a.m. with more than my usual "Oh what is the point of it all, do tell me" torpor. I was preparing to arise and go to a courthouse on University Avenue in Toronto where one of five men imprisoned without trial by the Canadian government would beg a judge for a hearing seeking access to a bail hearing. The accused-of-something was Mahmoud Jaballah. Some of his six children were to be there. I was planning to offer moral support, the polite Canadian kind which translates as radiating thought waves at the judge: "This Canadian-born citizen opposes internment without trial and so should you."

The reason I was comatose was that I knew I was not going to go to that courtroom. My motives were selfish. I knew that if I went, I would fall out of love, sorry, like, with Canada. I knew Mr. Jaballah would basically get nowhere. I did not know that, as justice activist Matthew Behrens told me, the lawyers representing CSIS, Immigration and Justice could not even bring themselves to look into the eyes of Mr. Jaballah's playful, naive little kids, aged 7 to 11, one of whom looked at them and asked with genuine curiosity, "Are those the guys that are against us?"

Do I love Canada? No. Why would I? It's a country, not someone I'm sleeping with. I was born here, have lived all over the country and think it is a pleasant place populated with good, intelligent people. There are Canadian things I love: Edmonton skies, Scotty Bowman, Margaret Atwood, skiing on Lake Louise, the béchamel sauce crepes at Au Petit Coin Breton in Quebec City, the CBC (locked-out employees only). And it is a fact that Newfoundlanders are the best people in this country.

Put it this way. I like Canada.

But I knew that if I went into that courtroom and saw the face of one of the five Muslim men we have detained, often in solitary confinement, for a collective total of 219 months, I would begin to actively dislike it and this would have complicated my nice middle-class life. Living in a country you don't like is like sex with someone you're secretly planning to break up with. You want sex, but not with him. So you do it in the dark while pretending he's a passing Norwegian stranger. It's a sordid coitus.

That most British writer Stephen Fry once pondered what would make him emigrate from the nation that made him. Capital punishment would do it. Should it be reintroduced, he would abandon Britain. The idea that his taxes were paying for a rope to snap people's necks? "Simply too unthinkably shame-making. One just wouldn't know where to look when in the company of persons from civilized countries."

That's how I feel about the Secret Trial Five. Hassan Almrei, now in the 73rd day of his hunger strike, called me the other day via Mr. Behrens, just to say hello and thanks for helping at a fundraiser. I was frozen with shame and horror. This man was thanking me, a Canadian? But fear and loathing had already been building up in me. Canada is copying the Americans by compiling a no-fly list of people who won't be allowed on planes, reasons not provided, and, worse, they appear to be using the American list in the interim. You call it CSIS, I call it Stasi; either way, our civil liberties are going the way of the former East Germany.

In March, the parents of my four-year-old friend Tennyson Quance, will go under. That is, they'll run out of money to pay for the $5,000-a-month therapy that little Tenny, who is autistic, needs to be able to function at a fairly basic level throughout her life. They've run out of savings, cash from neighbourhood fundraisers and donations (including from the parents of little Christopher Stephenson, 11, murdered by a sex killer in 1988.) This early therapy is crucial; it was promised to her by Ontario Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty.

I like Canada. But I love Tenny. And as Canada transforms itself into a nation that discards civil liberties and leaves Muslim prisoners starving themselves to death despite pleas from people like Alexandre Trudeau and their own guards, a country that has the permission of the Supreme Court to treat autistic children as waste products and a country that may well force me to hitchhike to Alberta for a speech this fall, I am starting to dislike this place.

Agreed, unless you fear personal harm, it's best to stay in your own appalling country and battle for freedom from within. Mr. Fry admits that. But he writes that the return of the death penalty would load him with such weariness and revulsion that his will to fight would ebb away. I feel the same way. Out comes my husband's red EU passport. I write a column published in several nations including Argentina, Norway and Switzerland. Hey, I could be neutral. I could write restful-type columns. Would that win me points in Oslo or Bern? Canada's newfound cowardice exhausts me.

What can I achieve beyond asking readers to go to http://www.homesnotbombs.ca and write to three despicable politicians, Ontario's Monte Kwinter, minister of safety and jails, and the two MPs in charge of secret trials, Anne McLellan and Joe Volpe. Readers should call Mr. McGuinty's office and speak up for Tennyson Quance. As for the fact that any one of us might be under flight arrest thanks to the cowardice of the feds, all I can say is vote NDP everywhere every time.

I've been listening to Tommy Douglas's speeches, which call out "Courage!" But I have courage. My problem is I've lost an old friend named Canada. I am exhausted by my loss.