Every drama needs a villain, someone who can personify the wicked forces at play in the broader narrative. In Canada's war on terror, that role has been played to perfection by Omar Khadr. Born in Toronto to an Egyptian father and a Palestinian mother, Khadr was arrested as a 15-year-old in 2002 in Afghanistan for allegedly killing an American soldier in battle. He then languished in Guantanamo Bay for a decade before finally being transferred to a Canadian prison.
The Khadr family has long been the bête noire of the Canadian government and much of the public. Many see them as the ultimate “Canadians of convenience” for waging war on us while demanding the perks of citizenship, from free health care to Ottawa's diplomatic protection. As a result, in 2011 the Conservative Party's national convention considered what some dubbed the “Khadr Resolution,” which proposed stripping Canadians of their citizenship if they took up arms against Canada or its allies. The resolution was defeated but doubtless it reflected a strong sentiment among the conservative base: People like the Khadrs are not “real” Canadians. They don't deserve to hold our passport and should be given one-way tickets out of town. Observers at the time wrote that even had it been adopted, the resolution could not be implemented given its serious shortcomings under constitutional, human rights and international law.
Three years later, those difficulties seem to have been resolved, because the government has introduced Bill C-24: the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act. Among other things, the legislation would give the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration the power to strip Canadians of their citizenship if they are convicted of certain offences relating to terrorism or national security. The law would only apply to dual citizens, since Canada's international obligations prevent it from rendering a person stateless.
Normally, an article in Le Québécois Libre about such a proposal would use moral and empirical arguments to explain why it's a bad idea. And it is a terrible idea, for all sorts of reasons. But my motivation for writing this piece is not a high-minded commitment to liberty or a belief in justice for all. This article is instead selfish and personal in nature, for one good reason: My legal status in this country is identical to that of Omar Khadr, and the thought that there could exist a process for stripping me of the right to live in my home terrifies me.
Like Khadr, I was born in Canada but acquired Egyptian citizenship at birth by descent. I grew up, studied and now work in this country. I've never held an Egyptian passport, identity card or any other document issued in that country. Still, I have the nationality and, as far as I can tell, it would take a presidential decree to renounce it. My dual citizenship is no less indelible a mark than the blood on Lady Macbeth's hands. And so once this legislation passes, which under a Conservative majority it surely will, there will forever be hanging over me the threat that one day, the government could drag me onto a plane and exile me to a place where I would have no life and no future, where I would barely be able to so much as communicate with the locals.
Come on, you're thinking. A threat? Yeah, if you go to Afghanistan to kill American soldiers. Or set off a bomb at a hockey game or try to blow up a bus. Just keep your nose clean and you'll be fine. Well, maybe. But maybe not.
First, the legislation goes a lot further than the “Khadr resolution”—it's not just treason that would open the door to revoking my citizenship, but also a criminal conviction for any “terrorism offence” along with a five-year prison sentence. And some such offences cast too wide a net for comfort. Take, for example, section 83.02 of the Criminal Code, which covers “mak[ing] available property … knowing that, in whole or part, they will be used by or will benefit a terrorist group.” What if I made a donation to, say, a charity that works with the Ministry of Health in Gaza? That ministry has been run by Hamas, a designated terrorist group under Canadian law, since 2006. A zealous prosecutor could easily argue that by making such a donation, I am benefiting a terrorist group by improving its standing among Gazans. This problem is far from hypothetical in the United States, where hyper-scrutiny of Islamic charities encourages potential donors to steer clear of any organization working in the Muslim world.
Second, a terrorism-related conviction abroad would imperil my citizenship no less than one in Canada. And, unfortunately, there are countries that have very broad conceptions of what constitutes terrorism. South of the border, Glenn Greenwald has written that the definition of terrorism under American law is so broad that in practice, it is “he who effectively opposes the will of the U.S. and its allies.” As for the UK, Greenwald's partner was recently detained while in transit at Heathrow Airport on the suspicion that he was acting as a courier between Greenwald and American whistleblower Edward Snowdon. Under British law, that supposedly would constitute terrorism. And, of course, there are other places where the law explicitly defines terrorism as opposing the rulers and where there is no pretence of cherishing the rule of law or providing a fair trial. Granted, the bill requires that I commit an offence that “if committed in Canada, would constitute a terrorism offence,” so not just any conviction will do. But the Minister alone decides whether that test is met—not to mention whether the conviction is the proper result of due process. In other words, my fate would be entirely up to one man, acting alone.
Third, the definition of terrorism is not a static thing, and the past decade suggests that it is only going to grow broader over time. In the decade that followed the 9/11 attacks, an average of 3,500 people a year were convicted of terror-related offences, with nearly 120,000 arrested. By comparison, before that date, annual terrorism convictions worldwide ran into the hundreds. Of course, it is not the world that suddenly became 10 times more dangerous, but rather the laws that became 10 times more ambitious. And while I don't think that there is much chance of my being convicted of terrorism as it now exists in the Criminal Code, anyone who's confident that the legal definition of terrorism 20 years hence will be narrow and reasonable should consider whether that optimism is based on reason and evidence or simple blind faith.
Fourth, the government is very far from perfect. Anyone who wants to know more about just how far from perfection it is should speak to Maher Arar, whom the US government, believing he was a terrorist based in part on information provided by the Canadian authorities, sent to be tortured in Syria for almost a year. In time, it became clear that he was wholly innocent and he received a $10.5 million settlement from Ottawa. His story is not the only sobering one: Other men such as Abdullah Almalki, Muayyed Nureddin, Arwad al-Boushi and Ahmad El-Maati have had similar experiences. El-Maati's ordeal, for example, began when US border guards found in his truck a “suspicious” map that identified nuclear facilities and viral labs. It turned out that it was a site map printed by the federal government as a guide for an area west of Ottawa that houses government buildings. Not to mention that it was out of date and didn't even belong to him. And yet, that map started a chain of events that resulted in El-Maati spending more than two years in Egyptian and Syrian dungeons.
Fifth, and most crucially, this legislation is the thin end of the wedge. While I am generally wary of slippery slope arguments, once the principle has been established that it is legitimate to punish wrongdoing by revoking the perpetrator's citizenship, why stop at terrorism? What reasonable basis could there be for not extending it to other serious crimes such as homicide and aggravated sexual assault? And why apply it only to acts committed for ideological purposes? Does it matter whether you crash a hospital's servers to protest government policy or just for kicks? Just as I don't trust the government to maintain a sensible definition of terrorism, nor do I trust it to restrain itself from adding other kinds of offences to the list of acts that could endanger my citizenship. After all, the current government seems to think that no punishment ever completely fits the crime.
I realize that the chances that any of this will ever happen to me are fairly remote. But the point isn't that I'm joining the ranks of the great oppressed masses of the world; it's that the possibility of the Canadian government sending me into the living death of exile should not just be very low. It should be nil. It shouldn't just be on par with remote dangers like getting attacked by a shark or hit by lightning. It should be on par with ridiculous phobias like being abducted by aliens or hit by a falling anvil. Civilized countries have done away with exile as a punishment and it is specifically prohibited under Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And yet here we are, in 2014, with a federal government that thinks that it is “strengthening” Canadian citizenship by putting all of us who have another nationality—whether or not by choice—on notice that we are here only by permission, to be withdrawn on conditions to be determined (and changed) by the state at its discretion.
So why can I not bring myself to put my real name on this piece? If the answer isn't already obvious, it is because I have no faith whatsoever that the risk of losing my Canadian citizenship will never become real. It is because my experience and my learning tell me that someday, I may very much regret it, were I to put in writing that I hold another nationality and am therefore fair game to be banished from this country. It's not as if the circumstances of my birth are a secret. But in a nightmare scenario, my only remaining argument may be that somehow I am not an Egyptian citizen and, therefore, whatever else the government might do to me, it cannot dump me in the Sahara to rot, thousands of kilometers away from the only life I know. As someone born and raised in Canada, it kills me that such thoughts would ever cross my mind. Yet I would be a fool were they not to do so.
* Eric Blair is not the author's real name. For reasons explained in this article, he does not want to be identified.