April 17 – No Cause for Celebration

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Today, April 17, 2002, marks the twentieth anniversary of the day that our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into effect.

Back in 1982, when Pierre Elliott Trudeau was still prime minister, April 17 was a sweet day for me. I was an optimistic young professional, born in Egypt, but my wife and I were raising our four young children as proud Canadians, teaching them that this country values all of its citizens. We wanted them to know that Canada is a land of opportunity for everyone — not only for the rich, powerful, and well-connected, or for those who have the “right” skin color, religion, race, influence, or gender.

I can remember even further back, to the 1960s, when many young pro-democaracy activists from developing countries — I was one of them — could quote whole sections of our Charter’s precursor, the world renowned Canadian Bill of Rights, by heart. Today, most Canadians cannot recite any of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or even generally describe the contents of this pivotal document. Their apathy distresses me, but there is an even sadder reason why today I am among those Canadians who have little cause to celebrate the Charter’s 20th birthday.

Our Charter is barely into adulthood, but we have already compromised its foundations, spirit and purpose with the passing last December of the infamous Anti-Terrorist Bill, C-36, which seriously undermines the civil liberties of all Canadians, but especially those of Muslim and Arab heritage.

As a result, Canada can no longer stand before the developing world as an authentic and ethical model of a country that adheres honourably to the spirit and letter of its own Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Sadly, Canadians have allowed narrow and misguided political interests to erode away our basic civil liberties, rights, and freedoms — the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from self-incrimination; the right to due process of law, the right to counsel, the right to personal privacy, the right to resist unreasonable search and seizure, the right to a fair trial, and the right to confront.

With the increasingly accepted practices of racial and religious profiling, and the differential punishments meted out to criminals claiming faith (rather than greed or revenge) as their motivation, you can certainly add religion to the casualty list of lost freedoms.

In the four months since bill C-36 became law, our government has made matters even worse by abdicating its responsibility to provide the necessary infrastructural and educational changes to avoid abuse and mis-application of the new legislation. There has been little or no special training of law-enforcement professionals, virtually no informational support or training for lawyers on the rights of their clients under C-36; and worst of all, no public awareness programs — despite repeated government promises to leaders of Canada’s faith and ethnic communities that a new guidebook on knowing our rights is forthcoming.

Consider the example of a Muslim couple and their two young children, aged three years and 18 months, whose home was raided recently by the RCMP and local police. The resulting search and interrogation involved about a dozen police personnel and lasted nearly six hours. The traumatized couple was told they were not suspects in any crime. Yet police confiscated a copy of the Holy Qur’an, as well as religious books and religious audio tapes of children’s songs. I wonder what our celebrated Charter of Rights and Freedoms means to this young couple now?

In another case of C-36 bureaucratic hysteria, police interrogating a young Canadian Muslim asked him, “Is your friend a Muslim fundamentalist?” The young man did not know how to answer. The police officer didn’t know what the term “Muslim fundamentalist” meant because he’d been given no sensitivity training in religious matters. He was assigned to the force’s anti-terrorist division because he was a former anti-drug squad member. Perhaps his superiors figured that prefix “anti” in his new and old jobs was enough to qualify him.

The government has also sullied our Charter by refusing to provide information about how many people are currently in detention under C-36. Who are they? Do they receive legal aid? Are their human rights being respected?

With no thanks to Bill C-36, Canadian Muslims and Arabs now find themselves at the forefront of defending Canadian civil liberties — a role historically taken by others.

A recent poll found that 70 per cent of Canadians were more likely to trust judges than politicians when it comes to protecting their Charter rights. Then why should we not seek the expert opinion of the top judges in this land to tell us if C-36 has contravened our Charter, either in letter or spirit?

Like a growing number of concerned Canadians, I work, hope, and pray for the day when Bill C-36 will be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada. Then I truly will have reason to celebrate, albeit late. But better late than never.

Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.

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