News media in Canada and around the world quickly trumpeted the story. Terrorism in Canada! The police had a "van load" of evidence, confiscated from the accused men's premises. The men would surely be found guilty. The evidence was solid, we were told.
I was dismayed. Was this really happening in my beloved country? Apparently so, as much as I wanted to deny it. So I reluctantly resigned myself to the fact that we appeared to be entering a scary new era.
But unlike some of my friends, coworkers, and acquaintances, I was not ready to simply condemn the accused. My parents were victimized during WWII, when rampant, government- and media-sanctioned wartime racism led to the unjust imprisonment of the entire Japanese-Canadian community. The one thing my parents have taught me is not to discriminate on the basis of race, or appearance. So - guilty these men might be, but first I wanted to see the irrefutable evidence.
And irrefutable the evidence appeared to be - especially post 9-11:
1) The accused had "airplane schematics".
2) Some had photos of "strategic landmarks".
3) One had a photo of himself at an "Al-Qaeda training camp".
4) One was taking flying lessons, and had filed flight plans taking his plane over the Pickering Nuclear facility just outside Toronto.
5) One man was spotted "scouting out" a nuclear facility.
Put this all together, and it sounds frightening indeed. It certainly seems undeniable. On this basis, many Canadians likely formed opinions about the men's guilt.
Less than a week later, the above evidence and the accompanying "van load" had fallen apart:
1) The "airplane schematics" were actually promotional posters of airplanes. A father of one of the accused worked for Lufthansa, and gave his son the posters for his walls. Most of the men - students, remember - did not have much money, and certainly not for luxuries such as artwork for their apartment walls.
2) The photos of "strategic landmarks" were souvenir posters of the CN Tower.
3) The photo of one man at an "Al-Qaeda training camp" was actually a vacation photo of the man on a hunting trip.
4) One man had come to Canada to fulfill his dream of becoming a pilot. Student pilots are only allowed to fly single-engine aircraft, and single-engine aircraft are not allowed to fly over water. Thus, flight plans for student pilots routinely follow the shoreline. Guess what? If you follow the shoreline of Lake Ontario from Toronto, it takes you over the Pickering Nuclear plant. This is a common flight plan for students and the information is not a secret.
5) The man who was supposedly spotted "scouting out" a nuclear facility was later determined to be in Pakistan at the time he was allegedy spotted.
A week after the arrests, a spokesperson for the RCMP admitted that there was no reason to suspect that any of the accused was in any way involved in terrorism. A happy ending?
Not at all, unfortunately. Despite evidence and conclusions by the police that there was no case here, the men continued to be held in prison for weeks or months. They were terrified, and were mistreated by guards and other prisoners. These men were imprisoned indefinitely, without charges (an exact parallel with the Japanese-Canadians during WWII). And Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) sought to deport all of them, as a result of their enrollment in the Ottawa Business School.
What was the crime here? The men were seeking to improve their education and better their chances at employment. One already had an MBA, but was taking a computer course because he had been advised that the IT field was burgeoning and would help his job search. But after they had enrolled, the Ottawa Business College stopped holding classes. It was taking tuition money and handing out diplomas. It was engaged in fraud. For this reason, CIC set out to deport the men. That's right: these men were victims of fraud, and they were being deported specifically because of it.
Evidence of discrimination? Leading up to the arrests, the police had obtained the Ottawa Business School's records. Of 400 people enrolled in the school, the only students investigated were Muslims with the name "Mohamed". No other students were investigated, nor was the owner of the business school, despite orchestrating the fraud. During the initial arrests, as the men were pushed to the floor and had guns held to their heads, they were asked, "Are you Pakistani? Are you Muslim?"
The police and the media had both played into post 9-11 Islamophobia, and for the most part, the public bought it. The terrorism accusations were front-page news. Yet a week later when the accusations were abandoned and the terrorism cases became simple immigration cases, there was little discussion in the media. The damage had been done, and little attempt was made to undo it.
What happened in the Project Threadbare case is despicable, and casts doubt on the reputation Canada has for welcoming immigrants and being a place of multi-culturalism. It should make us all question how committed we are to diversity and tolerance. And given the blatant violations of human rights, it should be clear that we need to take action to prevent this from happening again. Unfortunately, it has already happened again, and there is no sign it is about to stop. (More coming in Part 2.)
For more information on Project Thread, and the campaign which sought justice for its victims, Project Threadbare, don't miss this film, coming up this week:
Thursday, June 19th, 2008
7:00 - 9:00 PM
Mississauga Library, Noel Ryan auditorium
(Mississauga City Centre)