From Saudi Arabia to Israel, Stéphane Dion is continuing Harper’s policies

In his short time as foreign minister, the former Liberal leader is building a legacy of disgrace

Published by Ricochet Media:

Editors’ note: Today the Globe and Mail reported, “Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion quietly granted Ottawa’s crucial approval for a controversial $15-billion shipment of armoured combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia in early April – even though the Liberals insisted they could not reverse a ‘done deal’ clinched under the Harper government.”

Stéphane Dion has been an easy figure to ridicule. He was once famous for handing a silly video to media networks during the political crisis after the 2008 election. After Dion’s departure, Canadians wondered if a Liberal could possibly do worse than Dion, and it took Empire Lite Michael Ignatieff in 2011 to prove that, indeed, one could. Dion’s 2008 candidacy was probably sabotaged from within the Liberal Party. Back then, I thought it was unfair that the media were treating him as some kind of buffoon.

But that was then. Dion, as Trudeau’s appointed foreign minister, has racked up quite a few new zingers. Recently, he’s defended a $15-billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Cancelling the deal, he has said, “would not have an effect on human rights in Saudi Arabia.”

“Riyadh does not care if the equipment comes from a factory in Lima, Ohio or Sterling Heights, Mich., rather than one in London, Ont.,” he said. He didn’t specify whether he thought there might be an impact on human rights in Yemen, where the Saudi kingdom is busy slaughtering civilians and devastating infrastructure with weapons like the ones Canada’s selling. But Dion’s point came through: Saudi Arabia is indifferent to human rights. Canada’s only choice is whether to profit from the kingdom’s desire for weapons.

But the Saudi achievement is only one of Dion’s disgraceful acts in his short time as foreign minister.

Israel vs United Nations

The United Nations Human Rights Commission recently appointed a Canadian professor, Michael Lynk, to be Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the (Israeli-)Occupied Palestinian Territories. Lynk will be in eminent company. Previous special rapporteurs include John Dugard from South Africa and Richard Falk of the United States.

Reports by previous rapporteurs documented the rise of systematic malnutrition in Gaza under Israel’s siege, Israel’s practices of jailing Palestinians without legal proceedings (“administrative detention”), the killing of Palestinians without legal proceedings (“targeted killings”), the Wall that Israel has built deep in Palestinian territory and between Palestinian communities, and Israel’s periodic massacres in Gaza (2008-09, 2012, 2014). The report on the 2008-09 massacre in Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) stated that “the Palestinian right of resistance within the limits of international humanitarian law and Israeli security policy will inevitably clash, giving rise to ever new cycles of violence”.

A major theme of the reports, especially since the 2008-09 massacre, has been Israel’s refusal to allow the rapporteurs access to occupied Palestine. Phrases such as “owing to the failure of Israel to provide full and free access to the Occupied Palestinian Territory” and “once again it is necessary to highlight the failure of the Government of Israel to cooperate in the implementation of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, even to the extent of allowing him to enter occupied Palestine” abound.

The rapporteur that Lynk will be replacing, Makarim Wibisono, resigned because the lack of access caused his mission to fail. “Unfortunately, my efforts to help improve the lives of Palestinian victims of violations under the Israeli occupation have been frustrated every step of the way,” he wrote. The Palestinian side complied fully. Israel didn’t even bother to reply to his requests.

Israel is no fan of the United Nations. It famously targeted and killed five UN peacekeepers in Lebanon in 2006. In 2014, it targeted United Nations Relief and Works Agency schools that had been used as civilian shelters, targeting and killing children and families who had fled to UN facilities, thinking foolishly that the UN could keep them safe. Having been bombed, UNRWA then had to answer Israeli (false, invented) accusations that UNRWA had allowed its civilian shelters to be used by the people Israel was trying to kill: Hamas.

Israel bombs civilians, including children, hiding in UN shelters, and the UN finds that it has explaining to do. Such is the logic of this conflict. The UN does its best to placate the power that kills its personnel and bombs its schools.

But for Israel and its advocates, it’s never enough. In addition to the right to kill civilians and UN personnel at will, in addition to the right to prevent UN rapporteurs from even getting into the territories it occupies, Israel also wants the right to veto and malign these rapporteurs. Israel hated Dugard and Falk, and as Michael Harris reported in iPolitics, Israel advocates also “knocked” Penny Green, a law professor and reknown critic of Israeli human rights violations, “out of the running” before going after Michael Lynk.

Real change missing on foreign policy

Israel’s methods are standard and probably written in a manual somewhere: find instances of criticism against Israel, highlight them, and accuse the rapporteur of bias against Israel.

Since Israel is the more powerful party and since Israel has been on an increasingly genocidal path towards the Palestinians, anyone who reports honestly about what Israel is doing will find plenty of violations of international law and human rights to describe. If they are legal advocates, they then typically make recommendations about how to hold powers like Israel to account. Such reports and recommendations, to advocates of Israel, are evidence of intolerable bias.

Of course, the only people that have not made such reports and recommendations are either unqualified for the position of special rapporteur, since they have no experience with the conflict, or they are advocates of Israel who ignore Israeli crimes and show interest only in the crimes committed by the occupied, not the occupier, in the conflict.

For Israel and its advocates, the only acceptable rapporteur would be one who went on a guided tour of Israel, accepted a complete denial of access to the Occupied Territories, ignored Israel’s crimes, and repeated whatever Israeli officials said about the Palestinians.

Perhaps they felt that Michael Lynk would not be such a rapporteur. Luckily for them, they found an ally in Dion, who promptly fired up his Twitter account and tweeted at the UNHRC to reconsider Lynk because of his bias. In so doing, he managed to insult Lynk, malign the UN, and embarrass Canada, sending a message to the world that in foreign policy, changes of government from Conservative to Liberal matter very little indeed. Perhaps in so doing he made Israel advocates happy. But, like the UN, he should know that it will never be enough.

The message from Israel advocates to Lynk was clear enough: Israel can get the Canadian government to denounce you, before you’ve written a word in your capacity as rapporteur. Lynk was forced to respond by emphasizing how balanced he is, even describing his willingness to expand the rapporteur’s mandate to look more closely at crimes by Palestinians under occupation. Lynk told the press that he had never said Israel was an apartheid state and never compared Israel to Nazi Germany — a comparison he said he finds “odious.”

Odious? Saying things the Nazis said is odious. Doing things the Nazis did is odious. But is comparing people, countries, or political movements to Nazis out of bounds now? I don’t think the Internet got the memo (see Godwin’s Law). Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, compares Iran to Nazi Germany frequently and has done so for many years. He has also invented outright fictions about the Holocaust, in order to incite violence against the Palestinians.

As for Lynk’s vehement assertion that he has never said that Israel is an apartheid state, would that be such a strange thing to do, following Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, and several Palestinian and Israeli writers who have done so? Since apartheid is a crime under international law, and the UN is one of the only spaces where states can be held accountable, that the UN rapporteur was forced to distance himself from any mention of Israel’s policies before starting his job does not bode well. Surely whether Israel is committing the crime of apartheid is a matter for investigation.

Lynk, in other words, had to try to prove himself to Israel and its advocates in the public arena. By qualifying himself to fanatical supporters of Israel, he is forced to declare reasonable and well-evidenced positions out of bounds. The bullied have to explain themselves to the bully.

Condemning BDS

Dion’s disgraceful speech and action on this issue doesn’t start and end with Twitter. He came up with another zinger when the Canadian Parliament voted to condemn a nonviolent, largely campus-based movement based on international law: the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

The demands of the BDS movement are equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the dismantling of the Wall and an end to the occupation, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. All these rights are enshrined in international law and UN resolutions. The BDS movement’s methods are entirely nonviolent and largely based on trying to spark debate and discussion of the issue.

Opponents of BDS use methods that are largely based on trying to shut down debate and discussion, regardless of Charter rights, constitutional rights, or academic freedom — for example, having Parliaments and legislatures condemn the BDS movement. After the Liberals voted with the Conservatives to condemn little groups of activists for Palestinian human rights, Dion came up with this brilliant comment: “The attempt of the Conservatives to divide this House on this issue failed yesterday, and it will always fail as long as we have this government.” This is typically convoluted, but translates more or less to “Liberals and Conservatives stand together forever for Israel’s right to do whatever it wants to the Palestinians.”

Israel/Palestine has offered, and will continue to offer, many opportunities for Canadian politicians to disgrace themselves and support bullies. Ignatieff and Bob Rae had a public row while fighting for the Liberal leadership, because Ignatieff referred to some Israeli war crimes as war crimes (then said he wouldn’t lose sleep over them). Harper spent a decade proving he was more pro-Israel than Israel. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair declared himself an “ardent supporter of Israel in all situations and circumstances” and purged the party of pro-Palestine candidates (although credit goes to the NDP for not voting with the Liberals and Conservatives on the condemnation of BDS, and credit goes to Elizabeth May for this sensible and minimalist petition).

And of course it isn’t just Canadian politicians. Everybody kisses the rings. Supposed maverick Donald Trump got standing ovations at AIPAC for channeling Netanyahu (take a look at Rania Khalek’s interesting social experiment on the similarities between Trump and Netanyahu’s inciteful rhetoric), and Hillary Clinton has been talking about taking the U.S.-Israel relationship to the next level. It’s hard to imagine the dizzying heights.

Scrolling backwards from late March on Dion’s Twitter feed, there’s a tweet about Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic’s conviction for genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Dion commented that the conviction proves that the reach of justice is long. Karadzic, a political leader, was found guilty for a massacre committed by military forces. In the Bosnian Civil War, Karadzic’s Serb forces faced Muslim forces that had a much better military balance than the Palestinians have compared to Israel. The Serb forces at Srebrenica in 1995 separated and targeted males for massacre — unlike Israel, which kills children and families indiscriminately in its aerial and artillery massacres.

By the logic of International Criminal Tribunal, Israeli political and military leaders could be tried and sentenced for the Gaza massacres of 2008-09, 2012, and 2014. For the time being, that is a very remote prospect: first, because international criminal courts are not for all war criminals, just those who lose wars, and second, because the world’s foreign ministries are populated by people like Dion.

Linda McQuaig wrote a book about Canadian foreign policy, published in 2007, called Holding the Bully’s Coat. Dion has only just started, but his foreign policy legacy is setting up to turn the country into a coat rack, with hooks for the United States, the Saudi kingdom, and Israel. Can you picture Dion, in a grainy video, standing in front with his hand out, waiting for the next coat to hang?

NDP purge of pro-Palestine candidates plays into Harper’s hands

The Conservative Party is on the hunt, and with the help of the NDP and Liberals, they are cleansing Canadian politics of anyone who might think of Palestinians as human beings.

In the first weeks of the election campaign, two NDP politicians have had to distance themselves from statements about facts that are utterly obvious to anyone who knows Israel/Palestine, one nominated candidate has had to resign, and many more NDP members have been blocked by the party from seeking nominations to run for office.

Quebec NDP candidate Hans Marotte expressed past support for the first Palestinian intifada, a mass movement against Israel’s occupation to which Israel responded with the “broken bones” policy of violent repression. When the Conservatives dug up his comments, Marotte said it was proof they couldn’t find anything more recent. He didn’t recant, but he was effectively silenced.

Ontario NDP candidate Matthew Rowlinson had to issue a statement apologizing for signing an “incendiary and inaccurate” letter that included the documented and provable claim that ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is ongoing in Jerusalem. The “inaccurate” part of the letter said that Israel seeks a Jerusalem free of Palestinians. As for “incendiary,” we would do better to look at some of the weapons Israel deploys against Palestinians — more on that to come.

Then there are those who have been dumped by the party. Nova Scotia NDP candidate Morgan Wheeldon had to resign for calling Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza, which killed more than 2,200 people including more than 500 children, a war crime. NDP member Syed Hyder Ali, who had wanted to run in Edmonton, was told to withdraw his name — because he also said that Israel was guilty of war crimes. Jerry Natanine of Nunavut, the mayor of Clyde River, was tossed because, in his words, “I often side with the Palestinians because of all the hardship they are facing and because nothing is being re-built over there.”
Out of date, out of touch

Those who wrote to the party about Morgan Wheeldon’s forced resignation were treated to an incredibly out-of-date, out-of-touch email response, in which Wheeldon was accused of “minimiz[ing] the horror of violence targeting civilians,” which is “unacceptable and contrary to NDP policy, which condemns terrorism.” The party reply also repeats that the NDP supports “a two-state solution that would see Palestinians and Israelis living side by side in independent states.”

The tortured language of this reply to disgruntled supporters is a consequence of muddled thinking. In 2014, it was very clear that the monstrously outmatched Palestinian fighters were focused on military targets. Of 72 Israeli casualties, 66 were soldiers. The “horror of violence targeting civilians” was experienced mainly by Palestinians. Is the NDP saying that what Israel is doing to Palestinian civilians can be justified by “terrorism,” which presumably refers to the use of rockets by Palestinians (and not the use of heavy artillery and bombs by Israel)?

NDP policy is at least a decade out of date. No one in Israel is interested in a two-state solution or a peace process. Israel took a decision just over a decade ago to “freeze” the peace process. Since then, Israel’s war against the Palestinians has continuously expanded, with attacks on Gaza’s trapped, defenceless population in 2006, 2008-2009, 2012, and 2014.

To be fair, Wheeldon’s Facebook posts, which mentioned the bombings of buses by Hamas, were also a decade out of date. The last bus bombing by Hamas was around 2005, and in the ten years since, the organization — labeled “terrorist” by all parties in Canada — has focused increasingly on confronting the vastly more powerful Israeli military, while that military has focused its incredible firepower on Palestinian civilians. It may also be worth mentioning that Hamas has been fighting against ISIS in Gaza, and has lost lives doing so, while there is de facto collaboration between Israel and al-Qaeda in Syria, as Asa Winstanley and others have reported.

The NDP’s response reveals that it does not understand Israel/Palestine today. How might the NDP go about gaining such an understanding?

There is Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture’s Gaza Platform, which has data on every bomb and shell that Israel launched into Gaza in its 2014 attack. It reveals a pattern of attack that is hard to explain in any way except as the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure. It was built as an accountability tool, in the hopes that justice will eventually be done, and that those responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians, the destruction of thousands of homes, and the deliberate targeting of hospitals, schools, medical personnel, and UN facilities will face some kind of legal consequences.

There are statistics, like the fact that infant mortality in Gaza has risen for the first time in 50 years, thanks to Israel’s siege on the territory it has attacked three times in the past six years. Or the fact that life expectancy for Palestinians is 10 years shorter than for Israelis. Or the fact that Israel decided almost a decade ago, explicitly, to limit the number of calories available to people in Gaza — to “put them on a diet.”

There is Mads Gilbert’s new book, Night in Gaza, in which the Norwegian doctor who has spent many years visiting Gaza describes the 2014 attack as the worst he’s seen. The book shows pictures of the heroic medics and doctors who try to save lives and treat injuries as Israel tests new kinds of shrapnel on Gaza’s children. Gilbert describes what he saw as “infanticide.” He notes that, with a median age of 18, more than half of Gaza’s 1.5 million people are children. Those children are not allowed to leave — they are sealed in behind a wall on three sides and a navy patrolling the sea on the other. Israel has imprisoned them. Gaza, notes Gilbert, is not just a prison, but a child prison.

When Mulcair says, as he did in 2008, that he is “an ardent supporter of Israel in all situations and circumstances,” he should be clear that these circumstances include the high-tech slaughter of children, the imprisonment of children, the imposition of of caloric intake formulas for children, and increased infant mortality and reduced life expectancy. By a matter of simple logic, these are all things that Thomas Mulcair supports.

There is Max Blumenthal’s book, The 51 Day War, with its harrowing tales of Palestinians people herded by Israeli soldiers at gunpoint into a house and forced to stay there in the house at gunpoint until the house is bombed and dozens of people are killed.

There is also Harvard economist Sara Roy’s article, which includes a quote summarizing Israel’s approach to Gaza: “No development, no prosperity, no humanitarian crisis.”

Then there is the Israeli side, for which the required reading is Breaking the Silence’s report, “This is How We Fought in Gaza.” It includes testimonies from Israeli soldiers about what they did in Gaza last year. Every single one of them — and there are 111 — is shocking in some way. Choose a few at random. Maybe read about the soldiers’ songs, like “Palestinians only sing the chorus as they have no verses (houses) left” (testimony 1). Or read about the targeting protocols, about how decisions to fire on buildings were made (testimony 51):

“Throughout the entire operation there was a sort of building far away near the coastline… it wasn’t a threat to us, it had nothing to do with anybody, it wasn’t part of the operation… but that building was painted orange, and that orange drove my eyes crazy the entire time. I’m the tank gunner, I control all the weapons systems … So I told my platoon commander ‘I want to fire at that orange house’, and he told me: ‘Cool, whatever you feel like’, and we fired.”

After a few testimonies, readers can take a break and watch a video of Israeli protesters chanting another song outside the hospital of a Palestinian hunger striker: “Why is there no studying in Gaza? Because they have no children left!” Spend some time looking at some terrifying tweets from last year by teenagers taking selfies with captions including “Death to the Arabs.”

Remember that Israeli newspapers are running columns with headlines like “When Genocide is Permissible,” and Israeli politicians call Palestinian children “little snakes.” And anyone thinking that indifference to civilian lives or hateful, racist, and genocidal beliefs are common to both sides might remember that only one side, the Israeli side, controls every detail of every Palestinian life in Gaza and the West Bank, from where they can and can’t go to their very caloric intake.
Playing the right’s game

Israel is heading in an ever-more genocidal direction towards the Palestinians. Support for this move is only possible for those who give up any pretence of anti-racism, universal human rights, anti-militarism, and democracy. It is only possible, in other words, on the right side of the political spectrum.

On the other side of the spectrum, the pro-Palestine movement and Palestinian civil society are working on a rights-based, not a solutions-based, framework, and are working towards boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). Many Canadian politicians have heard of the BDS movement, at least for long enough to denounce it. Mulcair, for example, has said that he finds BDS “grossly unacceptable,” as one might expect of someone who ardently supports Israel in every situation and circumstance.

If the progressive position supporting BDS is grossly unacceptable, perhaps Mulcair might find more acceptable Hamas’s conditions for a 10-year truce with Israel: an end to the siege of Gaza and the opening of a seaport, an airport, and the land crossing into Egypt. This is actually far short of the NDP’s quaint espousal of a two-state solution, since the occupation would continue. But all the same, for the NDP to call for the opening of Gaza and the freeing of 750,000 children from prison in today’s context would be politically significant indeed. It won’t happen for exactly that reason.

These may be the evil political calculations that have to be made in order to succeed electorally. But here is something to consider. If the NDP purges the progressive, pro-Palestine voices from its party out of fear of supporters of Israel’s ever-escalating violence against the Palestinians, it is playing the right’s game, which it can’t win. Israel’s national politics, which has drifted so far to the right that to call someone a leftist is an insult (and “punch a lefty, save the homeland” and “good night, left side” are slogans chanted at pro-war demonstrations), could teach the NDP something about how this works. There, too, left and liberal parties spent the past few elections trying to pander to centre-right sentiment, and have basically disappeared as a political force.

The NDP’s purge of pro-Palestine candidates can only help Stephen Harper, who doesn’t talk nonsense about a two-state solution but simply and openly supports whatever Israel wants and is doing. Those who want that will vote for Harper, not the NDP.

Meanwhile, if voters want to cast their ballot this October for a major Canadian party that believes that Palestinians are human beings too, they can’t.

First published on Ricochet – for full version with links visit

Canada and the Palestine Question, by Dan Freeman-Maloy

Dan Freeman-Maloy, whose blog is, has collected several significant pieces of research on Canada and the Palestine Question and published them as a single PDF (Aaron Swartz would be proud). He has also done a major talk on the same issue, that elucidates some of the main points in the PDF. For those interested in Canadian foreign policy, for those interested in the Israel/Palestine conflict and the west’s role in it, Dan’s work is indispensable.

Continue reading “Canada and the Palestine Question, by Dan Freeman-Maloy”

Defend the Border: Why CBC’s new show can only help “the bad guys”

Published on ZNet Jan 5/08

The phrase “defend the border” wasn’t always a metaphor. And it isn’t just a metaphor in many parts of the world, even today: some states do have to worry about overland military invasions.

Canada is not such a state. To the degree that it is, the only conceivable invader is, of course, the United States. Those in Canada who talk about “defending the border” are distinctly unconcerned about such a possibility. They are, instead, making an analogy for a set of power institutions designed to keep “them” out and “us” safe.

Some argue that the threat of terrorism to Canada is so great that it outweighs any mushy, politically correct concerns. The historian J.L. Granatstein, in his book, “Whose War Is It?” makes such claims (1). So, with its new show, does the CBC, a point to which I’ll return below. Stripped down to basics, his argument is that Canada, to be safe, needs to subordinate its foreign policy to the US and join its War on Terror wholeheartedly, instead of half-heartedly. The most incredible aspect of his book, however, is that Granatstein relies on fiction – literally, entirely fictional scenarios about Muslim terrorists releasing poison gas in a Toronto subway at the same time as a natural disaster on the West Coast – to demonstrate how Canada needs to have better military preparedness. Granatstein can’t find real threats to justify his policy suggestions, so he makes them up. The detention of over a dozen young Muslim men in Toronto for over a year, accused of some sort of convoluted terrorist plot and possibly entrapped by the authorities, suggests that perhaps Canada’s police and intelligence agencies are also in the business of making up threats (2).

Besides making up threats, the policy suggestions of this school of thought are designed to bring such threats into existence. If certain kinds of terrorism are correlated with foreign occupation, as for example Robert Pape argued in his systematic study of suicide terrorism (“Dying to Win”), Canada’s participation in the occupation of Afghanistan, supported by these hawks, is increasing the threat to Canadians. So, too, is Canada’s support for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, its bombing of Lebanon, and the US occupation of Iraq.

This two-pronged approach, trying to create public fear and racism by contriving fictional threats on the one hand, and participating in occupations and human rights violations on the other, results in a toxic public conversation and a deadly foreign policy. All the same, it is embraced by historians like Granatstein, right-wing newspapers like the National Post, and, most recently, by the CBC.

The CBC’s new show, “The Border”, provides an expensive fictional apology for this two-pronged approach. Its heroes wrestle with moral dilemmas. According to the show’s publicity, “every week, a crack team of Canadian immigration and customs agents deal not only with the latest border-security crisis, but also with the consequences of their actions. Are they rushing to judgment? Are the bad guys really bad guys, or just victims of racial profiling?”

Wrestling with moral dilemmas of immigration and customs would of course be welcome, and Canadians can certainly use more such wrestling. But if the questions are those of an impoverished moral universe (“are the bad guys really bad guys?”) then the answers aren’t going to yield any riches. If we begin from the premise that there are these “bad guys” who threaten us because they are “bad guys”, and the job of customs agents is to use high-tech surveillance and psychological interrogation methods to ferret the “bad guys” out from the ordinary victims of racial profiling, we have already forfeited our moral and political sense. War and terrorism are political phenomena. They are done by political actors (including the US and Canada, if we are consistent in our definitions of war and of terrorism, as well as groups like al-Qaeda) pursuing political agendas with the means they have available. To stop war or terrorism requires first understanding these agendas and actors and seeking political solutions to the problems. This does not exclude the use of force or intelligence, but there is no way that fear, faked threats, celebrating the shredding of civil liberties, ignorance, or propaganda can help. The propaganda of “bad guys” and “evildoers” is itself a tool of war, and the CBC’s new show is such a tool.

I perused “The Border” website (, viewed the character profiles, and played the online game. The show does, indeed, look well-produced, well-acted, and well-written, which of course makes it worse. The main character, Mike Kessler, is a former JTF2 “counter-terrorism” officer who helped cover-up a massacre in Bosnia, and is tormented by his past. His goal, according to the website, is “to stop people like Mannering (a CSIS agent) from using fear to subvert democracy and take over the country.” This, too, sounds noble, as does his “struggle to hold a line of decency and integrity in a world gone mad.” But the very premise, Kessler’s fundamental moral dilemma – how do you keep your decency while fighting “evil” – is flawed, and from it one can never reach an understanding of what is really happening in these wars. The real question for such agents in the war on terror is simpler: how do you keep your decency while doing evil. And the answer is clear. You can’t.

Other characters with moral dilemmas include Layla Hourani, the “South Asian woman in a white man’s job, a Muslim agent who locks up Muslim bad guys” and finds herself drawn to her charming, roguish partner Gray Jackson, a “womanizer, gambler, and all-round cowboy, with an athlete’s body and an easy, amiable smile.”

Gray and Layla are the agents you face when you play the Border’s interactive game. They intimidate you and present you with fabricated evidence that you committed a border violation, threatening you with a 48-hour detention, using various psychological techniques like asking you why you are so nervous and telling you they already know you did something. When you pass the interrogation, Kessler comes in and says he admires your ability to keep your cool and would like to recruit you to work for ICS. When you accept, you are on to the next level and the next assignment, trying to locate an “evildoer” named Tariq Haddad. Tariq Haddad is an Afghan national whose languages are Arabic and English. This is itself interesting, since Arabic isn’t one of Afghanistan’s national languages and Haddad is an Arab surname – but perhaps the evildoer is a naturalized Afghan. In any case, your assignment is to locate Haddad using spy technology to find his cellphone, and then crack the code allowing you to read his hard drive. There, you find that Tariq Haddad is probably planning to blow up Toronto’s airport. The trailer for the show has Tariq Haddad in a hostage situation at the airport, with his gun at a woman’s head. Kessler coolly tells him this is nothing but suicide. And it’s hard to imagine how any of it can end well.

Casting immigration agents as action heroes fighting fictional threats covers up what they really do. They aren’t sexy action heroes keeping the country safe. They are bureaucrats who deport people who overstay their visas, pull children out of school to deport them and their parents, hand Canadian citizens off to other countries be tortured for ten months, and raid churches to deport people trying to claim sanctuary. They terrorize a whole class of people who live and work in the West without status, exploited and abused by employers, invisible and unable to participate because if they were to live openly they would be deported. The “good guys” profit from the labor of these people who are unable to claim their rights because they live in fear of immigration agents. The whole thing is all the more sordid because Canada’s international behavior, like other wealthy countries, helps create conditions in which people have to flee their homes and be exploited and live in fear. Once they are on this side of The Border, these people are illegal (or, if they are on some limited special work visa, partially legal), without rights, subject to arbitrary power. A documentary like Min Sook Lee’s “El Contrato” can show something of this reality, as can a feature film like Ken Loach’s “Bread and Roses” or Stephen Frears’s “Dirty Pretty Things” (3). But in such stories, immigration agents aren’t heroes. They are the first line of defense of a rotten system.

For all its seeming moral complexity, “The Border” thinks it knows who the bad guys are and thinks it knows that they aren’t us. But there is no way out of this war that doesn’t reject these very premises. “Bad guys” are those who kill and torture and bomb and starve to achieve their ends, regardless of what passports they carry or where they were born. The more powerful they are, the badder they can be. And on the other hand, the thousands of American victims of 9/11, the million Iraqi victims of the US war on Iraq and the uncounted tens of thousands of Afghan victims of the US/Canada/NATO war on Afghanistan all deserve to be counted, with dignity and proportion. Everything that works against that sense of proportion, the CBC’s new show included, is going to keep us fighting this senseless and yes, evil, war, longer.

1) See Jim Miles’s review of this book for ZNet:
2) Thomas Walkom’s reporting on this case has been the best, though he makes the important point that he and other reporters have been denied access to information needed to make a proper report.
3) For El Contrato, see the description and order it here: For “Bread and Roses”, here: For “Dirty Pretty Things”, here.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. He can be reached at

In whose interests are the “residents” rallies in Caledonia?

On May 22, 2006 – after holding a blockade of the Highway 6 at Caldeonia, Ontario for since February – the indigenous of Six Nations unblocked the highway. The dismantling of the blockade – initially erected by the indigenous to enforce their claim to a piece of land called the Douglas Creek Estates – was a gesture of goodwill on the part of Six Nations after they made headway in their negotiations with the provincial government. (for background see my previous article on the topic: The gesture was probably to help defuse the organized “angry residents”, who had been rallying at the blockade weekly to demand the road be opened.

But the “angry residents” responded by striking a blockade of their own, preventing native people from getting from the Six Nations reserve to the area they have reclaimed.

Six Nations responded by putting their own blockades back up, and on the afternoon of May 22, there was a tense standoff, with hundreds of “angry residents”, hundreds of indigenous people, and the Ontario police, all present. The standoff continued through May 23. With this action, the “angry residents” have become the most significant impediment to a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

The angry resident rallies

Three weeks ago, when I went to Caledonia to see the “angry residents” protest against the Six Nations blockade, I admittedly had a preconceived notion about what the Caledonian rally would be like. I had feared the presence of open white supremacist organizations like the KKK. Not only were there no KKK costumes or signs, but indeed the angry residents were angry at the very implication that they would allow KKK among them. Indeed, the angry residents suggested that the rumors of KKK presence were Six Nations disinformation.

The demonstration of angry residents that took place on May 5, 2006, however, was interesting to me in a number of ways.

First, the protesters did not have an adversarial relationship with the police, which is the norm at most protests. There were a few moments when angry residents yelled at police officers – but these were quickly calmed down by other residents who reminded them that the police were on the residents’ side. And the police were on the residents’ side, quite literally – in addition to the police on the line, there were police interspersed with the residents, conversing and mingling. At one point, an angry resident tried to lead others straight to the police line and past it towards the Six Nations blockade and force open the road. But he was stopped, not by the police, but by another angry resident who argued that a violent incident with the police would not be in the interests of the protesters.

Second, I was struck by the lack of proportion demonstrated by the angry residents. It is true that the Six Nations blockade disrupted traffic. The detour, however, allowed everyone to get to their destinations, despite taking longer. The indigenous were not preventing anyone from reaching their homes, even if they lived within the blockaded areas. Even the angriest residents had to admit this, and qualified their angry claims accordingly, saying: “We can’t get to the hospital – quickly,” and “People can’t get to their homes – without being questioned first.”

I traveled in the Occupied Palestinian territories in 2002, and I saw the effects of real checkpoints, Israeli checkpoints, on Palestinians’ lives. At the time, Palestinians were dying in ambulances because they are not allowed through Israeli checkpoints. Checkpoints turned what would be a 15-minute drive into day-long ordeals of waiting and humiliation. Palestinians really did lose access to their homes, and their families.

Of course, there are few inconveniences that do not seem insignificant when compared to the sufferings of the Palestinians. But even by Ontario standards, I found it difficult to understand the rage behind the residents’ cries to open the road. Yes, any delays in getting to the hospital are potentially very dangerous. But is there as much rage at the increasing wait times at the hospitals themselves, traceable to both federal and provincial government funding cuts, used to fund tax cuts? These cuts have been responsible for many unnecessary deaths over the years, in Ontario and throughout Canada.

Third, I was struck by the contradictory nature of the demands and the tactics of the residents. At that rally three weeks ago, a resident – who refused to give his full name – told news cameras of a plan the angry residents had to block the native people in. This was contradictory. If all of the anger had to do with opening the road, surely besieging the indigenous would not help matters?

I also heard residents complain about the ‘lawlessness’ of the indigenous. But the legal struggle was, and is, ongoing, and the law is favourable to the indigenous claim. The problem for the indigenous has been the ‘facts on the ground’, and the willingness of settlers (in the 19th century) and governments and corporations (today) to take a piece of indigenous land illegally, and have the laws changed in their favor later. That is the problem that forces indigenous people to blockades and direct action to protect their interests even though the law is often on their side. Now, here were the residents, threatening siege and extralegal action themselves, in the name of protesting native ‘lawlessness’. This, too, is contradictory.

A factor in negotiations?

The ‘angry residents’ have made themselves a factor in the negotiations between the various levels of government and the indigenous over the Douglas Creek Estates, the piece of land being reclaimed by Six Nations. Provincial negotiator David Peterson has talked numerous times to the press about how important it is to reduce “tensions in the community,” and the need to open the road to accomplish this. “All of us were praying and working hard to ensure that something ugly didn’t develop out of this,” he said to the CBC. The “angry residents” help Peterson’s negotiating posture by moving the “middle of the road” away from the indigenous and towards the government’s position.

While “praying and working”, Peterson was also able to present the very useful idea of “two warring sides” and “tensions in the community” to the public, equating two sides that are not at all equal. Indigenous peoples are not represented by Canadian governments. They have their own ideas and structures. The “angry residents”, by contrast, are represented by the governments they voted for and participate in. They are represented by the police who mingled with them at their rallies. To give them a seat at the negotiating table would be to give them double representation.

Despite this, the provincial government does have an interest in a peaceful resolution. It is headed by Liberals who want to distance themselves from the previous Conservative government of Mike Harris, which was responsible for “something ugly” in 1995 – the murder of indigenous man Dudley George by a police sniper at Ipperwash. The real estate developers have an interest in a resolution as well. The developers of the Douglas Creek Estates, Henco Industries, have repeatedly and publicly stated their desire to be bought out by the government. This points to a very simple potential resolution to this particular conflict: the government can compensate Henco and turn the land over to Six Nations. Progress towards such a resolution was expressed in a document called “Compendium of Commitments, Ontario and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Six Nations Council, May 10, 2006”.

With some success in the negotiations, the indigenous opened the road on May 22, removing the greatest grievance of the ‘angry residents’. But the ‘angry residents’ responded by creating a blockade of their own, preventing native people from crossing. Six Nations spokesperson Janie Jamieson described it to the CBC as “colonialism at its finest.”

If the provincial government and the developers both have an interest in a peaceful resolution, why did the “angry residents” act so irresponsibly to try to scuttle it? It cannot be because they want to see more suburban homes built – they have no reason to be more keen on home-building than the developers’ own corporation. Nor can they claim any longer to want freedom for the road – the minute they had it, they ruined it, for every resident, angry or otherwise.

So, in whose interests are these “angry residents” really acting? Perhaps the Conservative federal government. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s party is full of people who are contemptuous of indigenous rights and indigenous people. The same sorts were responsible for what happened at Ipperwash. Though Six Nations has expressed desire to talk to the federal government from the beginning, on a nation-to-nation basis, the federal government has said nothing publicly. Perhaps the “angry residents” really do represent the federal government? It is easy to speculate and difficult to prove. But Canadians who want to express that neither Harper’s people nor the “angry residents” represent them should speak, and move, now, before “something ugly” happens.

Justin Podur writes frequently for ZNet and can be reached at

‘Despicable murderers and scumbags’: Canada in Afghanistan

A Change of Tone

On July 11, 2005, Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff General Hillier discussed the forces arrayed against NATO forces in Afghanistan with great nuance and understanding: “These are detestable murderers and scumbags, I’ll tell you that right up front. They detest our freedoms, they detest our society, they detest our liberties.”

Continue reading “‘Despicable murderers and scumbags’: Canada in Afghanistan”

FLR: Quebec and the Canadian Elections

Quick note on the headlines today for your Canadian elections fear and loathing report. A reader complained about my not saying anything about Quebec. In Quebec, the race is not between the Conservatives and the Liberals. In fact, there’s hardly any race at all. Quebec is poised to give virtually every seat to the sovereigntists, the Bloc Quebecois. The Liberals might pick up a few seats in anglophone Montreal, but that’s about it.

[[For non-Canadian readers: Quebec is actually an amazing place with an amazing history. It is pretty clear to me that without Quebec Canada would long-since have been absorbed into the United States. The Quebecois have always sought self-determination and were historically oppressed by an anglophone elite. Much of this changed with the ‘Quiet Revolution’ in the 1950s and 1960s, a cultural and economic upsurge in Quebec. Since then, the central government has tried to meet Quebec’s aspirations for self-determination by decentralizing powers to all the provinces. For a long time, Quebec’s provincial government was ruled by the Parti Quebecois. These are sovereigntists with a fairly progressive social-democratic idea — to develop Quebec for Quebecois, with Quebecois resources. Recently, provincially, the Liberals took over, and have been slashing the public sector like one might expect. Quebec nationalism, like Canadian nationalism, doesn’t offer much to the indigenous, who have seen the Quebec government act no different towards them than any other settler government in the Americas. Still — and despite some very racist strains in the Quebec nationalist leadership (one leader said the problem in Quebec was that white women aren’t having enough babies; another in 1995 after a sovereignty referendum was lost blamed ‘money and the ethnic vote’), it is pretty clear that Quebec has been a civilizing influence on Canada. As has Saskatchewan, on which more in future FLR, perhaps]]

So on Quebec, CBC reports today that the leader of the Bloc Quebecois, Giles Duceppe, said he would bring down a Conservative minority government on the issue of abortion. Harper wants a ‘free vote’ on abortion (the Alliance platform used to include a ‘free vote’ on capital punishment as well… perhaps we could also get, after a few years, free votes on the use of the medieval rack, the guillotine, burnings… this party has no plans for a ‘free vote’ on genetically modified products though, or action on climate change, or…). He’s also said he’d break with Conservatives over Kyoto and Quebec’s aerospace (for the most part military) industries. So, once again, Quebec might possibly provide a civilizing influence (though asking for protection of military industries doesn’t exactly qualify as civilizing) on a Conservative minority government. Provided, of course, the Conservatives don’t win a majority.

The surreal world of campus activism, part III

On March 11, 2003, at Concordia University in Montreal, where a lot of ugly stuff has happened on campus over the Israel/Palestine conflict, some angry “tabling” (“tabling” is just sitting at a table that has leaflets and posters on it and giving them out to passersby) was going on. A member of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) was tabling next to a member of Hillel (see this note on Hillel). In the exchange, the SPHR member told the Hillel member: “I’ll be famous one day and you’ll be selling falafel.”

What happened next? A chain of events that led to an acquittal today.

Who was acquitted? For what? How could the rather banal exchange above lead to a criminal prosecution? See below, dear reader, for details…

Acquitted! Palestinian Concordia student Nidal Alalul cleared after bogus charges by Hillel members

MONTREAL, June 11, 2004 — This morning in Montreal’s Municipal Courthouse, Concordia student Nidal Alalul was acquitted of the charge of “uttering a death threat”. Judge Antonio Discepola, who is regarded as one of the most pro-prosecution judges in Montreal, nonetheless found Nidal not guilty with a terse four word statement: “The information is dismissed.” In his written judgement, Discepola found Nidal’s testimony very credible, while casting doubt on the accounts provided by the complainants, who were members of Hillel Concordia and Birthright.

On March 11, 2003 — several months after Benjamin Netanyahu was shut down by pro-Palestinian students at Concordia University — Nidal was arrested on campus and charged with “uttering a death threat”. Nidal, a member of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) had been in an argument with Schlomo Lifshitz, 47, of Birthright, which offers free trips to Israel to Jewish youth (in his judgement, Discepola describes Birthright as “a non-governmental organization funded by the Israeli government”). Schlomo was tabling with Hillel, and began to bait Nidal, who is a foreign student orginally from Nablus. When Schlomo said that Nidal had “a weak personality”, Nidal replied: “I’ll be famous in two years … a lawyer or a politician … and you’ll be selling falafel.”

Nidal’s comment was interpreted as a death threat, with Schlomo, members of Hillel, Concordia security, and eventually the Crown attorney assuming that Nidal meant that he wanted to be a suicide bomber. The overtly racist assumption throughout the trial was that the only way for a Palestinian youth to be famous is by becoming a suicide bomber. That racist assumption was backed by Concordia University, whose security guards detained Nidal, and did not attempt to get his side of the story. Moreover, Concordia University lawyers attended the trial, helping the Crown make her case, in a clear show of bias against Nidal. (Similarly, Concordia lawyers have been helping the Crown in cases against other pro-Palestinian students and their allies, in relation to the September 9, 2002 protests at Concordia University, with little success. In one case, a defendant has already been acquitted of five charges before even having to present a defence!)

Written complaints against Nidal were made by several members of Hillel, including Rachel Guy (who now sits on Concordia student council). Rachel testified against Nidal, but her credibility was severely weakened when she conveniently forgot to admit that she actually wrote Schlomo’s written statement to the police for him.

That Nidal was ever charged is another example of the biased treatment of Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students, and their allies, by Concordia University. Nonetheless, Nidal’s acquittal — as well as other recent acquittals and dropped charges — indicates that victories are possible in court, especially when the charges are so racist and bogus in the first place.

To stay in touch about ongoing court proceedings related to Concordia University, please e-mail