Livermore, Welsh and Party: Ottawa shirking duty to help Canadians stuck abroad

The rhetoric versus the reality of consular assistance:

There is little that is more predictable than the soothing words spoken by Canadian governments when citizens are in difficulty in foreign countries. “We are fully aware;” “we are working to help;” and “we are doing everything to see them back safely in Canada” are among the familiar refrains.

For many Canadians in serious difficulty, the reality is different. Serious problems are not resolved quickly, communications and transportation are often difficult, legal problems are complex and even longer than in Canada to resolve, and frequently foreign governments do not see the problems of Canadians as warranting urgent action.

There are daily stories and reminders of such experiences and as recent ones demonstrate they are often matters of life and death. Since the 2015 election of the Trudeau government, there have been three deadly and tragic stories. In each, the actions—or lack thereof—by the government have contributed to the problems.

In 2016 two Canadians, John Ridsdel and Robert Hall, were executed in the southern Philippines when the government refused to initiate appropriate and available action to obtain their release from kidnappers. Two other Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, between 2018 and 2021, spent more than 1,000 days in the prisons of China. Ottawa, once again, refused to initiate appropriate and legal action to see them freed and returned home. It was the action of the United States that led to their release.

Today, nearly 50 Canadian children, women, and men have spent over two years in “filthy, deeply degrading, life-threatening, and often inhuman conditions” in detention centres in northern Iraq and Syria, in the words of Human Rights Watch 2021 annual report. Again, the Canadian government has refused to take action to have these Canadians returned to Canada.

This, despite the willingness of the authorities administering the detainees to have the Canadians returned. As well, other governments, including the United States and allies in Europe and elsewhere, have made arrangements for the repatriation of their citizens from the same areas. The United Nations and the House Foreign Affairs Committee have urged Canada to “pursue all options possible” to repatriate its citizens with the UN placing Canada on a “list of shame” for its lack of action.

So far only a four-year-old child has returned to Canada, initially without her mother, but in the face of court action, the mother was issued a passport and returned home. Who made the arrangements for this child? Not Canadian authorities but a former American diplomat who went to the region and made the arrangements.

Some of these Canadians have now filed an application with the Federal Court seeking relief from the lack of action by the Canadian government. The case is yet to be heard but it is hoped the court will force the government to take the necessary action to have these Canadians returned home using the mobility and legal rights guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The government argues it is too dangerous for Canadian officials to go to the region to make the arrangements for the repatriations. This is fallacious—other governments go to the region; international humanitarian organizations operate in the area daily; and the authorities administering the regions are willing and able to assist. But the government maintains Canadian officials are without the ability to do so.

The government’s reasons for not helping are specious and are meant to disguise its complete unwillingness to help this specific group of Canadians. They are the reminders of the thousands of foreigners who rushed to the region in support of the early success of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IS/Daesh) in 2014. Countering military action by local governments supported by the United States and Russia put an end to IS in the region.

Thousands of the intervening foreign nationals were killed and thousands of other, and women and children, especially, were detained. For the most part, only the Canadians have been refused help by their government. In doing so, Ottawa conveniently ignores these persons are Canadians and are legally entitled to the support and assistance.

The government’s position finds some measure of public support and, importantly, both the RCMP and CSIS oppose the return of these detainees to Canada citing the impact on their responsibilities. Both organizations have a long history of opposing support for Canadians who have travelled to countries in conflict, some for legitimate reasons and others, like the detainees in Iraq and Syria, for misconstrued or illegal reasons. The RCMP and CSIS ignore the scope within our criminal justice systems for possible punishment in Canada.

Investigations by commissions of inquiry and various court applications provided ample examples of this opposition by the RCMP and CSIS. But tens of millions of dollars have been paid to the victims of this opposition and more is pending. For the small group of Canadians in Iraq and Syria it is now time for the government to accept its obligations and make the arrangements for their return to Canada.

Discretion must not be a cover for discrimination.

Dan Livermore is the former director general for security and intelligence. Michael Welsh and Gar Pardy are former directors general for consular services.  All three have served as ambassadors or high commissioners.   

Source: Ottawa shirking duty to help Canadians stuck abroad