Ottawa can’t dodge the issue of Canadian ISIL detainees any longer

As Justin Trudeau once said, ‘a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian’

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It’s been nearly four years since the federal government embarked upon a strategy of elaborate excuse-making and transparently bogus alibis to dodge the implications of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s high-drama 2015 election proclamation that “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” but at long last: time’s up.

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It probably isn’t the last time Ottawa will attempt a deft sideways move in the matter of the captured Canadians whose care and feeding was conveniently offloaded onto the Kurdish resistance fighters who led the bloody drawn-out battle in 2019 that crushed the last key redoubt of the terror warlord Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s al-Qaida offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a.k.a. the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

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But Ottawa gave it another shot last week in the case before the federal court’s Justice Henry S. Brown, and it didn’t work. It was a fairly slam-dunk case to the effect that the federal government was bound by law to secure the repatriation of 23 Canadian detainees trapped in the camps run by the Kurdish resistance in the rebel-held Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).

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On Thursday, Ottawa announced that repatriation arrangements would be made for 19 of them — six women and 13 children. But in a Friday ruling, Judge Brown told Ottawa: not so fast. The four men are entitled to the same consideration. The Kurds don’t want them, it’s not the Kurds’ job to be looking after wayward Canadians, they’re more than happy to turn over the Canadian detainees and the men have the same rights as the women and children. They’re entitled to passports or emergency travel documents delivered by an official Canadian representative.

In other words, the law is the law, the prime minister isn’t above it, and Canada can’t just wish away the constitutional rights of the Canadians trapped in Kurdish-held Syria since the siege of Baghuz Fawqani. The federal government says it’s reviewing the court decision.

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Canada can’t just wish away the constitutional rights of Canadians

There are all sorts of fascinating debates to be had about national security and de-radicalization and encumbrances the Crown may face in securing terrorism convictions in cases with evidence obscured by the fog of war. But the principle remains: “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.” That’s the slogan Trudeau aimed at the Conservatives’ Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, which empowered the government to strip dual citizens of their Canadian citizenship upon conviction for spying, treason or terrorism offences.

“I’ll give you the quote so that you guys can jot it down and put it in an attack ad somewhere,” Trudeau said at a town hall in Winnipeg, “that the Liberal party believes that terrorists should get to keep their Canadian citizenship. Because I do. And I’m willing to take on anyone who disagrees with that.” It was all very stirring, and the Conservative citizenship law was eventually overturned.

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But that hasn’t helped the Canadians among the “ISIL families” in Syria, even though none has been lawfully convicted of any terrorism offences, and even though most of them are kids. Avoiding the embarrassment of having to live up to its high-minded citizenship principle has been the Trudeau government’s entire strategy in these cases.

The first test involved the five-year-old orphan Amira, whose parents and siblings had been killed during the siege of Baghuz Fawqani. Amira made it home in October 2020, but only because she’d become an embarrassment to the government. Amira’s relatives in Toronto had waged a public campaign that pulled at the heartstrings, and she was the named plaintiff in a looming court case that threatened to crumple what Human Rights Watch called the Trudeau government’s unearned “warm and fuzzy” reputation as a champion of international law.

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A few months later another child made it to Canada. The four-year-old girl was privately rescued with the help of the crusading former American diplomat Peter Galbraith, who managed to get her across the border into Iraq from al Roj, a Kurdish-run detention camp housing nearly 800 of the “ISIL families” in Syria’s Tigris River Valley. A few months after that, Galbraith delivered the child’s Canadian mother to authorities at the Canadian consulate in Erbil, in Northern Iraq, so Canada had no choice but to take her.

All along, the Trudeau government’s excuse has been that Canada has no embassy in Syria, and it would be too dangerous to send diplomats to al Roj, the camp where most of the remaining Canadian citizens are being held. But Al Roj is a 20-minute trip by minibus from the Iraqi border on the Tigris River. Aid workers make the trip routinely.

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Things began to change last year when two Canadian women were formally and quietly repatriated.

The American-Canadian Kimberly Polman, a Mennonite-raised mother of three adult children who travelled to Syria to marry a Trinidadian ISIL pen pal, was released on her own recognizance in British Columbia on a peace bond that requires her to wear an ankle monitor and comply with a variety of restrictions.

Oumaima Chouay and her two children were repatriated simultaneously, but Chouay was charged with several terrorism offences — leaving Canada to participate in terrorist activity, participation in the activities of a terrorist group, providing services for terrorist purposes, and conspiracy. Three weeks ago Chouay was granted bail with conditions similar to Polman’s.

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Chouay was charged with several terrorism offences

Among the four men is “Jihadi Jack” Letts, a dual British-Canadian whose parents say is an “idealistic” and “compassionate” Muslim convert and sufferer of obsessive-compulsive disorder who despises ISIL.

Letts’ family was represented by counsel Barbara Jackman in the federal court case. The other men, not named, are represented by human rights lawyer Lawrence Greenspon.

It is not known whether Mississauga’s Mohammad Ali, an ISIL sniper, is among them. Ali is believed to be the same “Ali” that the Public Prosecution Service of Canada has already prepared terrorism charges against. The men clearly do not include the Saudi-born Canadian Mohammed Khalifa, from Toronto, who was turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigations and sentenced to life in prison last year by a judge in Virginia after pleading guilty to terrorism charges. Khalifa was especially notorious for narrating a video depicting the beheading of American journalist James Foley.

So by all means, let’s have a jolly good debate about what to do with these “foreign fighters” and their children. But let’s not pretend that it isn’t Canada’s responsibility to get them sorted.

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