TORONTO, Canada — Nothing quite captures a bittersweet sense of despair in Canada as the end of summer. The long dark winter looms.
To make matters worse, falling temperatures have been marked in recent years by a corresponding rise in election fever. This end of summer, to the regret of many, is no different.
The season’s political tone was set two weeks ago by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, the former Harvard University professor with close ties to the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.
He served notice that his party would no longer prop up the minority government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. That sets the stage for a possible federal election this fall, which would be the fourth in five and a half years.
In justifying why Canadians might head to the polls again only a year after the last federal election, Ignatieff dished out the usual charge of economic mismanagement. More original was his allegation that the Harper government is abandoning Canadian citizens in distress abroad.
“Being a Canadian must mean the Canadian government will stand up for you — no matter where, no matter when,” Ignatieff told a party congress. “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”
Suaad Hagi Mohamud isn’t so sure. Mohamud, 31, is a Canadian citizen of Somali origin. On May 21, after visiting her mother in Kenya, she was prevented from boarding a flight home. A Nairobi airport official claimed her lips and eyeglasses didn’t match those in her four-year-old passport photo. Mohamud, a single mother, was accused of being an imposter. Later, she tried to establish her identity by showing Canadian diplomats in Nairobi her Ontario driver’s licence, her government-issued health insurance card, her citizenship certificate, her social insurance card, a credit card, bank cards, a hospital card, a Shoppers Drug Mart card, a note from her Toronto employer and a Toronto dry cleaning receipt.
Diplomats also branded her an imposter, without explanation. Kenyan authorities jailed her for eight days before granting her bail.
With the help of Canadian-Somalis, she launched a court action in Canada to press her return, filed affidavits, offered fingerprints and lobbied for a DNA test. Still, Canada’s foreign minister, Lawrence Cannon, insisted Mohamud had not done enough to prove her identity.
Canadian officials agreed to DNA tests after mounting public pressure, led by the Toronto Star, Canada’s biggest circulation daily. Her DNA matched that of her 12-year-old son in Toronto. She was allowed back into Canada Aug. 15 — three months after being detained at Kenya’s airport.
Mohamud is now suing the government for $2.4 million in damages and demanding an independent inquiry.
Suspicions that the government viewed some citizens as second-class Canadians first emerged during the 2006 Lebanon war. Within months of winning his first minority government, Harper had shifted Canada’s Middle East policy sharply in favor of Israel. He called the Jewish’s state’s heavy bombing of Lebanon a “measured” response to Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers.
He stuck to his assessment even after Israeli bombs wiped out seven members of a Canadian family, including four children, who were visiting relatives in south Lebanon.
The prime minister was then widely criticized for being slow to evacuate 15,000 Canadian Lebanese caught in the war. Months later, noting the $63 million price tag for the evacuation, his government launched a review of dual citizenship rules, suggesting it allowed these Canadians to bilk taxpayers. Then came the Kafkaesque case of Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Canadian citizen blocked from returning to Canada for more than five years. He was visiting his mother in Sudan when local authorities arrested him in 2003 on the request of Canada’s spy agency, known as CSIS. He was jailed, tortured and eventually set free without charge by the Sudanese. It has since emerged that U.S. officials suspected him of ties with Al Qaeda.
CSIS cleared Abdelrazik of any wrongdoing. But the Harper government wouldn’t let him back in the country. Bizarrely, however, it let him live at the Canadian Embassy in Khartoum. He was only allowed back into Canada in June, after a Canadian court ordered the government to issue him travel documents.
Two Canadian courts have also ordered the government to demand the return of Canadian Omar Khadr, the last westerner languishing in America’s notorious Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. Harper has refused. Last week, his government appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada to have the court orders quashed.
Khadr was a 15-year-old “child soldier” in Afghanistan when arrested and accused of killing a U.S. soldier. Under international conventions, signed by Canada, child soldiers are considered victims to be rehabilitated rather than prosecuted.
The Harper government has also been accused of inaction and indifference in several other cases, including Bashir Makhtal, sentenced to life imprisonment in Ethiopia on dubious charges, and Abdihakim Mohamed, stuck in Kenya for years while his mother in Toronto tried to prove his identity.
By contrast, when Brenda Martin, a white Canadian, was convicted of money laundering in Mexico last March, the Canadian government negotiated her return, sending a government-chartered jet to whisk her back.
In Harper’s Canada, many wonder if citizenship has more to do with skin color than place of birth and oath of allegiance. The next election could demonstrate whether enough Canadians care.