In the foreword of Canadian historian Afua Cooper’s book The Hanging of Angélique, George Elliott Clarke wrote that “Canadians prefer to understand themselves” as “a nation of good, Nordic, ‘pure’, mainly White folks, as opposed to the lawless, hot-tempered, impure, mongrel Americans, with their messy history of slavery, […] segregation, assassinations [and] lynching”.
Besides being a “flattering self-portrait”, this comparison is also a “public lying, falsified history, and self-destructive blindness” (Clarke). The case of Maher Arar represents an appalling repetition of our nation’s History that breaks the myth of our supposed tolerance and moral superiority. In fact, that case can certainly be compared to the ordeal endured by Canadians of Japanese and Italian heritage during the Second World War.
Maher Arar is a Canadian citizen who got deported to Syria and tortured by this Arabic country’s authorities. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) sent truncated information to the American government about a Canadian citizen visiting the USA who happened to be Maher Arar. Moreover, Arar was identified as an extremist Muslim working for the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda.
As for the Canadians of Japanese and Italian heritage, they endured an ordeal in the turmoil of the Second World War that differs slightly to that of Maher Arar. They were unfairly imprisoned, because the government (that was led by liberal Prime minister Mackenzie King) feared the eventuality of a coup d’État operated by a “home-grown” fascist ideology coming from the Italian and Japanese community in Canada.
The imprisonment of Canadians of Japanese and Italian heritage was done without the help of the American government. In what we can certainly call the Maher Arar Affair, both the RCMP and the Canadian government got completely sullied by the way they handled this affair. On the other hand, during the Second World War, the government kept associating Canadian of Japanese and Italian heritage with fascism.
Nevertheless, agents of the RCMP clearly upheld in a very detailed report that Canadians of Japanese and Italian heritage don’t represent any threat at all. According to the report, people from these two ethnic communities were law-abiding and their loyalty to Canada was not to be questioned. Unfortunately, Mackenzie King went on to order the national military police to imprison many of these people because of his racism.
Despite the relative difference in the historical background, these two events are linked together by the intention pursued by the Canadian government notwithstanding the historical context that we want to describe.
During the beginning of the Second World War (1939-1945), Canada decided to stand up for democracy and freedom. On the European front, Canada was struggling alongside with Great Britain and the USA to fight against the rise of fascism embodied by German chancellor Adolf Hitler and Italian president Benito Mussolini. However, Canada’s Prime minister Mackenzie King believed that it was part of the nation’s interest to extent that fight against fascism on Canadian soil.
While fighting fascism, the Canadian government also curbed civil freedoms. While many Canadians of Italian heritage got send quite quickly into a military prison in Petawawa (Ontario), those of Japanese heritage saw their properties and goods being sold at a public auction (because they were Asians) before they got sent behind bars. In that time, Canada asserted its Western identity and tried to defend the values of democracy not just in Europe, but also on its own soil.
Replace a few words in the previous paragraph and you’ll notice that the Maher Arar Affair shares a few similarities with what happened during the Second World War. For example, while Canada is striving to eradicate the roots of Islamic terrorism in Southern Afghanistan alongside with the USA and other Western nations, our country, with the efforts of the Liberals led by Jean Chrétien and then Paul Martin, has also extended its “war on terrorism” (George W. Bush) on its soil, through the Immigration Ministry’s “security certificate” for instance. These “security certificates” are aiming certain “suspicious” citizens who happen to be 1) Muslims and 2) of Oriental heritage. In short, in that “war on terrorism”, Canada not only fears for its own national security, but also that of the USA.
The imprisonment of Canadian of Japanese and Italian heritage during the Second World War and the Maher Arar Affair was the result of the Liberals’ fertile imagination. As strange as it might look, it has always been the Conservative Party, in both cases, that offered “apologies” to the victims. In 1988, conservative Prime minister Brian Mulroney’s expressed his recognition of Canada’s past mistakes to the Italian and Japanese communities without using the word “apologies” in a press communiqués.
Mulroney feared that the word “apologies” would force the Canadian government to make financial compensations for what happened during the Second World War. Today, the Prime minister of Canada Stephen Harper, the leader of the Conservative Party, offered his apologies on the behalf of the Canadian government and a cheque of $10.5 million to Maher Arar. While you’re reading this historical analysis, Maher Arar is still on the USA’s “watch-list”, which means that he doesn’t have the right to visit our Southern neighbours.
It’s strange to see that most Canadians don’t even know that History almost repeated itself during the past four years through the Maher Arar Affair. While History keeps being written day after day, Canada, as a supposedly glorious nation, probably doesn’t know where it is heading because many citizens tend to forget that History is not only our collective memory, but also our guide to evolution.