The Maher Arar Affair
—or more like
by a Journalist who Got Involved
On January 28, the woman a friend of mine
insists of referring to as
the Minister for the Police State, Anne McLellan (less polemically
known as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Safety and
Emergency Preparedness) announced that the new Martin government was
yielding to widespread public pressure and establishing a public
inquiry into the Maher Arar affair.
Arar, most readers will recall, is the Syrian born Canadian citizen and
engineer seized by US cops while he was changing planes in America and
shipped off, apparently with the collusion of Canadian officials, to
Syria, where he was held and tortured for nearly a year. All this
because Canadian spies thought he had suspicious guilt by association
connections with possible terrorist figures they had under surveillance.
Was the creation of the inquiry, under the leadership of Mr. Justice
Dennis R. O'Connor, the Ontario jurist who conducted the Walkerton
Water Inquiry, a triumph for practical solidarity, a victory for all
the groups and individuals who had been working over the winter to
support Mr. Arar's demand for a public investigation into what role the
Canadian security apparatus played in his nightmare?
Or was it a cynical ploy by the Martinites to distract public attention
from recent embarrassing revelations about just how deeply the PM's
family firm had profited from government largesse while he was in
power? Was it a clever move that will allow Liberal candidates in the
upcoming federal election to refuse to discuss the case because it is
Or was the inquiry established to pacify the nation's media, which had
been stung into born-again enthusiasm for the cause of civil liberties
by police raids on the home and office of an Ottawa reporter who had
published allegations against Arar leaked by government insiders last
Most likely, it was all these things, and more. The Arar affair is a
tangled tale of espionage, betrayal, government duplicity and human
hope, a game of smoke and shadows that would make a wonderful premise
for the next John LeCarre' thriller. Call it The Torturers'
Here are a few of the strands from this tangled tale.
September 26, 2002, USA: American authorities arrested changing planes
in New York after a family holiday, Arar, a Canadian citizen. During
his tenure in American custody, Arar was confronted with a lease
agreement from his Ottawa home that had been provided to American
spymasters by their Canadian colleagues. (The lease had been co-signed
by someone the Mounties had under suspicion.)
He was told that the Canadian government didn't want him sent home--a
position implying Canadian collusion in the Americans' preferred
scenario--which would see Arar shipped off to the less than tender
mercies of Syrian government torturers who would act as outsource
labour for the US.
In the end, this is exactly what happened, and Arar spent nearly a year
in a Syrian jail, where he was savagely tortured and, not surprisingly,
signed every confession the Syrians put before him. It is worth noting
that, despite these confessions (and perhaps this is no surprise, given
the way they were extracted under torture) no criminal charges of any
sort have been laid against Arar in Canada, the US or Syria.
Fall, 2003: Finally released and back in Canada, Maher Arar and his
family began campaigning for a public inquiry into what role Canada's
espionage establishment played in denying him the passport protections
he had every right to expect as a Canadian citizen. Who, they wanted to
know, had helped in setting him up for a year in the Syrian torture
The call for an inquiry was widely echoed by prominent Canadian
individuals and a broad array of civil society groups. The list of
endorsers included Lloyd Axworthy and Flora McDonald, both former
Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Marion Dewar, former Mayor of Ottawa,
Reid Morden, former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence
Service, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, Amnesty
International Canada, the BC Civil Liberties Association (which
placed its own open letter to the Prime Minister in a paid ad in the
Globe), the Canadian Bar Association, the Kairos Ecumenical Justice
Initiative and the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture, as well as
editorials in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Calgary Sun,
the Brockville Recorder and Times and the Halifax Herald.
The Liberal government, first under the ancient regime of Jean Chretien
and then under new management by Paul Martin, responded to all this
public pressure by at first denying Canadian involvement and then by
stonewalling demands for an inquiry.
Soon enough, they came up with another tactic. In early November,
government sources leaked serious allegations against Arar (claims that
appear to have been based on the "confessions" he had signed under
torture) to Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O'Neill. These allegations,
attributed to an anonymous "security source" had Arar admitting that he
had trained in terrorist camps in Afghanistan, a story he denied once
he was safe at home and out of the hands of the torturers.
Over the last waning days of the old year and the dreary opening
moments of 2004, the pattern repeated. More and more voices across
Canada were raised to call for a public inquiry. The government
continued to stonewall on this question, even making repeated claims
that the issue would be dealt with by an investigation by RCMP Public
Complaints Commission head Shirley Heafey, a claim recently denied by
It seems that the Public Complaints Commission inquiry, described by
the Prime Minister and other senior ministers as ongoing over the
winter, was not even in existence during that period. Whoops.
Jan.17, 2004, Vancouver:
“First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I
wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t
speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by
that time there was no one left to speak up for me.”
This famous cautionary note about the costs of
silence in the face of injustice, credited to Nazi-era Lutheran pastor
Martin Niemoller, could have served as the theme statement for a rally
held on the Art Gallery steps in downtown Vancouver January 17.
More than two hundred Lower Mainland residents, obviously unwilling to
remain silent while horrors are committed in their names, gathered to
protest Canadian government complicity in the deportation and torture
of Maher Arar in 2002-2003. They also endorsed a call by the BC Civil
Liberties Association (the sponsors of the rally) for a public inquiry
into the Arar case and a more general review of human rights and civil
liberties abuses that have occurred under Canada's "security"
legislation since 9/11.
Rally attendees lined up enthusiastically to sign a petition and write
personal letters to the Prime Minister. Both the petition and the
letters echoed the BCCLA call for an Arar inquiry. (Full
disclosure: As part of my contract employment with the BC Civil
Liberties Association, I played a role in organizing this rally, so I
cannot be confused with a neutral observer in this matter.)
January 21, 2004, Ottawa:
Ten grim faced RCMP officers raided Juliet O'Neill's home, seizing
notes and computer files, while other cops searched her office at the
Ottawa Citizen. The raids, conducted under the authority of the
Security of Information Act, were part of an attempt to identify the
source within government who had leaked incriminating claims against
Arar to O'Neill for her November story. Cynics asked why no raids were
conducted at RCMP and CSIS headquarters, but hey, everyone's a critic,
eh? The national media was outraged at this incursion into its
own territory, and the country resounded to denunciations of "police
January 28, 2004, Ottawa: Minister McLellan calls for the public
inquiry that Arar and other Canadian citizens have been demanding for
months. It remains to be seen exactly how the terms of reference will
be drawn for this exercise, and whether it will provide the public with
the full accounting that has been so widely demanded. It remains to be
seen whether the process will clear Maher Arar's name and let him and
his family begin the painful process of putting their lives back
together. So it is far too early for unreserved celebration.
However, many of us have spent decades demonstrating and petitioning in
support of demands that never got met. At least this time, we have a
partial victory to record, and fascinating new questions to consider.
We might have to wait for the LeCarre' novel for full plot resolution,
but the creation of the public inquiry seems an occasion, in the words
of another grumpy Englishman, for at least two cheers for democracy.
The many folks across the country who rallied to support the demand for
an Arar inquiry won a real victory this year for justice, transparency
and due process. The final outcome of the inquiry will reveal how large
that victory was. In the meantime, one can only hope that this partial
victory can provide a little comfort to Maher Arar and his family, and
a little political optimism for those of us who went into the streets
to support them.