In September 2002, Maher Arar was on a flight returning to Canada when he was detained in the United States, interrogated, and then deported to Syria where he was incarcerated and subject to torture for nearly a year. Last week, the Canadian government finally issued a formal apology and $12.5 million in compensation for its role in the Arar ordeal (background here).
But now critics are raising new questions about the compensation offered to Arar. Some complain that the money is too much, or that it isn’t necessary. Others suggest political opportunism on the part of Arar.
Certainly this is the largest sum offered to any single individual in Canada. But the amount is based on the Canadian government’s assessment of what Arar would likely have won in a lawsuit. Moreover, this isn’t simply a payout intended to appease Arar. It is compensation based on Canada’s recognition of its commitment to the rule of law. When wrongs are committed, justice is pursued even if it means holding government officials accountable; in Arar’s case, restitution came in the form of financial compensation.
Arar’s account of the ordeal is terrifying. For months, he was confined to a grave-like cell and subject to repeated interrogation combined with physical and psychological torture. When he was finally returned to Canada � a broken man � he bore the burden of being considered a suspected terrorist, so much so that he found to his surprise that even members of the Muslim community were fearful of the social and political repercussions of being associated with him. In fact, there remain sceptics who believe Arar is somewhat guilty despite the public inquiry that cleared his name after finding no evidence he was ever linked to extremist groups or was a threat to Canada’s national security.
Shades of racism also darken some of the criticisms or Arar. There are those who insist that Arar wasn’t a real Canadian anyway; that he should have sued Syria instead of Canada (Arar did file a lawsuit against the government of Syria, but it was dismissed). And while it is true that Arar has dual citizenship from both Canada and Syria, it is near impossible to renounce one’s Syrian citizenship. In any case, Canada recognizes dual citizenship, so Arar needn’t have renounced anything to be granted the same sort of protection as any other Canadian citizen.
Ultimately, the apology and compensation offered to Arar is in recognition of Canada’s role in the decision by American officials to deport him to a third country to be tortured in potential violation of US law and international conventions against torture. As the first publicly documented case of the controversial practice of extraordinary rendition, the Arar debacle serves as a reminder to Canadians of the negative repercussions of the global war on terrorism and the work that remains to be done to protect the rights of vulnerable citizens. Though Canada is far from perfect � its detainment of individuals on security certificates has led to characterizations of a ‘Guantanamo North’ � the settlement of Arar’s case brings back into the public consciousness the recognition of how far Canada has strayed from both its commitment to fairness and due process and its traditional reputation as a leader in the realm of human rights.
Interestingly, while Canada-US relations have been strengthened with the election of a Conservative government in Canada (and a renewed commitment to the war on terror), the public outcry in Maher Arar’s case has spurred Prime Minister Harper to stand up to the US government for its refusal to remove Arar from its security watch list. The US government claims to have information that is different from that which was provided by the RCMP, though this was later found unsubstantiated by a Canadian judicial inquiry. Canadian officials have since expressed public scepticism about the affair, raising the ire of the US ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins, who insists Canada has no right to dabble in the affairs of another country. Given that Canada’s new policy of sharing security information with the United States � in the spirit of partnership and cooperation � created this debacle, it is hardly fair to claim Canada should now go back to minding its own business.
Safiyyah Ally, a first-year Ph.D student in Political Science at the University of Toronto, is the host of “Let the Quran Speak,” a television show that airs Saturdays at 4:00 pm on VISION-TV.