by Wael Afifi, Unifor Local 2025 Vice President, Human Rights
I wasn’t surprised when I started hearing some hostile reactions to the news about the Khadr settlement earlier this month. I have to admit that I immediately dismissed voices attacking the settlement as a small bunch of bigoted minds. Shortly after, similar statements from prominent Conservative leaders didn’t shock me either; after all, it is a party that has been highjacked by extremists who trace their roots back to the old Reform Party.
However, this was all abruptly replaced by a deep sense of disbelief and disappointment upon reading that an Angus-Reid poll revealed that 71 per cent of respondents thought that a cash settlement was “wrong” as they preferred to see the government fighting Khadr in court, where he was suing for $20 million for breaching his civil rights. Such alarmingly high percentage of opposition to the settlement meant that there are profound problems that extend beyond my perhaps simplistic dismissal “a small bunch of bigoted minds”.
At one level, part of the problem stems from a lack of understanding of the basic principle of “innocent till proven guilty” as well as a lack of awareness about previous Canadian court decisions with respect to this file. At another level, the poll is also indicative that a majority is willing to forget or even forgive that security apparatuses in our country have demonstrated an utter lack of respect for international treaties signed by successive Canadian governments against torture and against minors’ incarceration. This kept me wondering: even if the scandalous role of Canadian security officials in the Arar ordeal was forgotten, how could a majority amongst us quickly turn a blind eye on questionable practices that hurt other victims such as Abdullah Almalki, Muayyed Nureddin and Ahmad El Maati? These Canadians suffered as a result of security abuses and the ink on their settlements hasn’t dried yet.
Much has been written by rational and progressive voices about the merits and the justice of the Khadr settlement and I am not writing to simply echo or reiterate what has been eloquently articulated by a few to debunk some of the myths espoused by an opposing majority. Rather, I am wondering: is there a role for the trade union movement in what Paolo Freire termed “conscientization” or the act of empowering ourselves to expose and fight oppressive thoughts and ideas that have creeped into our mix and manifested themselves in this poll?
The answer should be a resounding yes! Yet, unfortunately, I haven’t seen so far, any concerted efforts either by the CLC -or any of its major affiliates- to engage in a public campaign to educate and raise awareness on why the settlement should be supported and why it helps in upholding our rights as Canadians.
There is an indication that when it comes to taking a progressive position about the Khadr settlement or mounting campaigns to educate and raise awareness about it, we aren’t starting from scratch. For example, the November 2015 OFL Convention engaged actively and gave a standing ovation to Khadr’s lawyer who outlined the various legal battles that they were continuing to face at the time.
As such, it is safe to say that the Trade Union movement stands shoulder to shoulder in the same camp as the other 29% or the minority that supported the deal. But my point is that there is ample room for more action towards to engage in public as well as internal union education campaigns to explain why we all have a steak in supporting the settlement and to try to reverse the sorry state of public opinion as manifested in this poll. I suspect that timing might have been an issue because news about the settlement coincided with summer holidays and as a result, we haven’t even seen the bare minimum in terms of the usual media releases.
We can’t rely on courts
Finally, our movement must realize that we can’t rely on courts to correct injustices in our society. We must engage our members and the public in general to vigorously defend our human rights and to uphold international treaties in order to prevent abuses and injustices before they occur instead of waiting and hoping for courts or even settlements to rectify things at a later stage. Perhaps as importantly, we in the Labour movement, also need to understand that when it comes to the union business of educating members and defending our rights, our work is also all year round – exactly as collective bargaining and labour arbitrations – because social justice matters don’t get to take a summer break!