Is freedom just another word?

The Washington Post reported in mid-February that the U.S. National Registry of Exonerations had recorded 1733 cases since 1989 where wrongfully convicted people were cleared of the charges that put them in prison, and had been freed as a result.

A record number of 149 people in the United States were exonerated in 2015, up from 139 the year before.  This included 58 who had been convicted of homicide, and 5 among those had been sentenced to death.  The numbers also show there was an increase year over year in the freeing of people who had pleaded guilty or falsely confessed.

These 149 innocent people had spent an average of 14.5 years in prison.

Justice may be blind, but it can also be blinded.


Canada complicit with torture? Really?

Following a judicial inquiry, the government of Stephen Harper apologized to Maher Arar in January of 2007, and paid him $10.5 million in compensation plus $1 million in legal fees to settle his civil lawsuit for its role in Arar’s rendition to a Syrian military prison where he was tortured in 2002/2003. While the Conservative government of the day could have been more aggressive in protecting a Canadian citizen, it was the shameful behaviour of our public servants at CSIS and the RCMP that left Mr. Arar traumatized, and cost Canadian taxpayers unnecessarily.

This infrequent mid-week post links with our March 20 “Human rights issues… Canada?”, and a February 7 Toronto Star Ottawa bureau’s Tonda MacCharles’ article, “Liberals back CSIS in torture lawsuit”.

Ahmad El Maati, Muayyed Nureddin, and Abdullah Almaiki were arrested upon arrival in Syria at about the same time Maher Arar was transferred there from the United States and all were tortured in the same prison. El Maati was later moved from Syria to Egypt where he was also tortured. A second Canadian judicial inquiry headed by former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Frank Iacobucci confirmed El Maati, Nureddin, and Almaiki were tortured in Syria, and Canadian officials played a role. The three men in turn filed claims against our government.

The Liberals have picked up the Harper government’s legal fight against an apology and compensation, even though they voted in favour while in opposition. What’s more, the Liberals are going further than their predecessors to protect CSIS sources. According to the Star story, the legal team representing El Maati, Nureddin and Alaiki are “stunned” by the Trudeau government’s position.

We had written Ralph Goodale on this early in February (copy below). Considering Justin Trudeau’s recent New York trip, we sent off a note to him, too:

February 9, 2016

The Honourable Ralph Goodale,
Minister of Public Safety,
House of Commons,
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6

Re: Liberals back CSIS in torture lawsuit
Toronto Star, Sunday, February 7, 2016

Dear Minister Goodale:

To understate this, what a shame!

The last government was prepared to be unreasonable, unfair and obstinate in dealing with these three men. We would have expected that from it, but to have the government of which you are a part go even further is a disappointment. Guess this is at least one black mark on your record.

What was all this about accountability for national security agencies anyway?

Yours truly,

Charles H. Klassen

March 23, 2016

The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau,
Prime Minister of Canada,
House of Commons,
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6

Re: Human rights in Canada

Dear Prime Minister:

Your remarks during your recent and successful New York trip included a reference to Canada as a leader in human rights.

The record says otherwise. Consider the attached postings, “Human rights issues….in Canada?” and “Canada complicit with torture? Really?”

You promised better than this.

Yours truly,

Charles H. Klassen

Human rights issues… Canada?

We’re all aware of the impending sale of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, and the questions and criticisms over how this might be used by the Saudis, given their human rights record. Recently, the Saudi embassy in Ottawa suggested that the Kingdom could have purchased what was needed elsewhere, and in so many words, said we should mind our own business.

They have a point.

Canada is a long way removed from conditions in many countries, but we are not a paradigm of human rights’ virtues either, in spite of what the prime minister said last week in New York. Amnesty International’s secretary-general Alex Neve, and Indigenous Bar Association and University of Manitoba associate professor Brenda Gunn’s perspective of a United Nations’ committee’s findings was published on February 26 in Toronto’s Globe and Mail.

The UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights had just carried out the first review of Canada since the Liberals formed a new government last fall. With Ottawa’s fresh air at their backs, about 40 indigenous leaders and activists, and human rights and equality advocates from across the country traveled to Geneva the last week in February. They were anticipating a positive outcome, given the federal government’s renewed relationship with the UN, and the welcome developments under way in Canada.

Unfortunately, and in spite of the upcoming inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women, the restoration of health care cuts for refugees, and a proposed national poverty strategy, Canada remains at loggerheads with the UN committee over our shortcomings in complying with human rights. In the face of international law, our country continues to insist that economic, social and cultural rights aren’t fully protected by the Charter, and do not need to be.

Individuals and communities who believe their rights are disregarded have no remedy. Until federal and provincial governments come together to guarantee human rights in more effective ways, and until their approach promotes economic and social rights, Canada remains a country in a rights limbo.

Just as an aside, has any country’s government ever confessed a lousy human rights record to the world?

Confidence and trust.

It wasn’t until Jim Rankin’s Toronto Star “How a police stop of four black youth shook a community” was published on August 7, 2012 that the details of a November 21, 2011 incident in Lawrence Heights came to wide public attention. Four young black men – three 15 year-olds and a 16 year old – were walking in the common area of their Neptune Drive housing complex on the way to an after-dinner Pathways to Education mentoring session in a nearby building. They had been stopped and questioned many times before by police, but they’d also recently attended a program where they learned about their rights.

An unmarked van pulled up, and two Toronto police officers with TAVIS (Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy) got out, stopped the teenagers and began questioning them. They tried to assert their rights and walk away, but security video footage shows one officer punching one of the four in the stomach, pushing him as he drops to the ground, and as two others walk toward their friend, that same officer draws his gun and points. Backup is called, five cruisers arrive, upset residents and families are seen gathering, and the teens are charged with assaulting police and other offences, all of which are eventually dropped or pieced off.

Parents and supporters went to 32 Division station that night following the arrests, were treated rudely according to Roderick Brereton, one of two youth workers who also arrived at the station to offer support, and were told to leave. “This encounter never should have happened. My client was stopped leaving his home and investigated for trespassing. This was perverse”, said Craig Bottomley, a lawyer for one of the youth.

We met Roderick Brereton (urban rez solutions/take back you world) over lunch at the end of November in 2012. We couldn’t talk about this specific 2011 event or the young people involved of course, but we spoke of our life experiences in Toronto, and the work he and his business partner do in at-risk communities. Roderick is black, and our stories reflected the differences race makes, day to day.

Later, in December of 2013, another Jim Rankin Toronto Star entry told us the teenagers were suing police. Two of the five officers named in the suit were also charged under the Police Act, the same two officers who had originally stopped the four youth.

Now, after all this time, Jim Rankin and Wendy Gillis’s “Rights board wants in on cop hearing” from the March 3 Toronto Star this year, tells us that the Ontario Human Rights Commission wants standing at the disciplinary hearing for the two charged officers.

That hearing is scheduled to begin in October. THAT IS, OCTOBER OF 2016! We had to write:

March 10, 2016

Mark Saunders, Chief,
Toronto Police Service,
40 College Street,
Toronto, ON M5G 2J3

Dear Chief Saunders:

Recent comments from you, your office, and others reference building and restoring public confidence and trust in our police service.

As an example of the challenges this presents, I point to November 21, 2011, on Neptune Drive. Four black teenagers were assaulted and wrongfully arrested by Toronto police when they attempted to assert their rights as innocent citizens going about their business. Video coverage gave this incident due media attention, the latest from the Thursday, March 3 Toronto Star, “Rights board wants in on cop hearing”.

Confidence and trust? Your predecessor in the chief’s office summarily dismisses Adam Lourenco and Scharnil Pais once the file of this interaction and the security tape crosses his desk, and reprimands other officers subsequently involved. At the same time, the City of Toronto initiates discussions with the victims for a financial remedy. This is accomplished and settled no later than the spring of 2012. That’s how it’s done. Why are we still hearing about this more than four years later?

Confidence and trust? I don’t doubt you mean well, but Chief Saunders, please don’t piss on my shoes and tell me it’s raining!

Yours truly,

Charles H. Klassen


John Tory, Mayor,
Office of the Mayor,
City Hall, 2nd Floor,
100 Queen Street West,
Toronto, ON M5H 2N2

William Blair, MP,
House of Commons,
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6

Mike McCormack, President,
Toronto Police Association,
200 – 2075 Kennedy Road,
Toronto, ON M1T 3V3

Renu Mandhane, Chief Commissioner,
Ontario Human Rights Commission,
180 Dundas Street West, Suite 900,
Toronto, ON M7A 2R9

John Sewell,
Toronto Police Accountability Coalition,
206 – 401 Richmond Street West,
Toronto, ON M5V 3A8

Jim Rankin,
The Toronto Star,
One Yonge Street,
Toronto, ON M5E 1E6

Wendy Gillis,
The Toronto Star,
One Yonge Street,
Toronto, ON M5E 1E6

Desmond Cole,
The Toronto Star,
One Yonge Street,
Toronto, ON M5E 1E6

What to do when the iron is hot.

Two areas of recurring concern with Correctional Service of Canada’s operation of our federal prisons came up again in February.

The first is another push for prison needle programs, reported in the Toronto Star under Alex Ballingall’s byline on February 3 (“Prison needle programs touted to reduce HIV and Hap C risk”), and Kristy Kirkup’s column on February 13 (“Health study recommends prison syringe programs”).

“No drugs in prison is an aspirational goal that isn’t really achievable,” concluded Prisoners with HIV/AIDS Support Action Network’s Seth Clarke (PASAN), published in a report released early in February. Toronto researchers, including Ryerson University’s Emily van der Meulen as lead author, PASAN, and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network hosted a conference on the subject, and later conducted interviews with health workers, inmates, and prison workers.

There are 60 existing programs in other countries, some like Switzerland’s have been running for more than 20 years, and there have been no reports of needles used as weapons. Even a 1999 Correctional Service of Canada study found needle programs “effective and well proven”.

Why should you care? Infection rates for HIV among inmates can be 10 times higher than in the general population, and Hep C can be as much as 30 times higher. At the moment, for inmates who are able to access treatment (and that can be a challenge), HIV drugs can run up to $30,000 a year, and new Hep C drugs that will cure the infection are about $60,000. This comes from your tax dollars! To boot, most inmates will return to the community where there are transmission risks, and additional drug costs; not to mention the human rights element, where prison inmates are entitled in theory to the same level of health care available to the rest of us.

Adding his voice, Howard Sapers, Canada’s Correctional Investigator, has argued that CSC should explore all harm reduction options when confronting the reality of ballooning health care costs.

There is an ongoing legal challenge against the government on this issue, launched in 2012 by an inmate in western Canada, along with community stakeholders. Government spokespersons are unable to comment openly as a result. However, the previous federal government (you remember it?) provided CSC with $120 million to fight access to drugs in prison, and while that increased interventions, is also drove up institutional drug prices. What’s left of that money could be diverted to the more progressive recommendations.

In another development, Lisa Kerr, assistant professor, at Queen’s University Faculty of Law essayed in a mid-February Globe and Mail edition (“Fewer inmates in solitary makes for case for legal reforms”) that Correctional Service of Canada has been reducing the number of inmates in segregation.

There has been no change in the law that could explain the reduction. However, the Trudeau government made it clear that it intends to implement changes on the use of solitary confinement in the face of CSC opposition to interference with its operational policies. It could be argued that CSC management is responding to the level of scrutiny and criticism of the practice in hopes passing time will diminish government oversight, thus allowing it to continue as it always has.

In both cases, prison needle programs and the reduction/elimination of solitary confinement, leaving reforms to the prison bureaucracy will bear only sour fruit. We have a federal government that is pushing evidence based policies for the benefit of all. The time to strike for new legislation and impose best practices on CSC is while our iron is hot.

In other words, now!