Maher Arar: Civil Liberties & National Security

On Wednesday, May and I attended a lecture by Maher Arar at the Winspear Centre sponsored by the University of Alberta Political Science Department. I know it’s a formality at such events to have people of high academic ranking precede the main speaker to, in a sense, soften up the topical ground with grand introductions of the subject at hand, but to me it unnecessarily lengthens the event.

Julian Faulker, Mr. Arar’s counsel during his civil suit against the Canadian government, provided his insight into what needs to change in the system in order for rights to be fully protected, not simply paid lip service to.

Mr. Arar followed, and essentially recounted the highlights of his experience, both the good and the bad. In all honesty, I had scanned the headlines and articles earlier this year when he had received his $2 million dollar settlement from the government, but I didn’t know all of the details surrounding his deportation, torture, and subsequent return to Canada in 2003. He told of a time in Syria as a boy when a Canadian recognized the maple leaf on his shirt; this friendly recognition was the moment he decided he wanted to immigrate to Canada. Hearing him speak of his ordeal really personified it, and was much more powerful than reading the account in the papers. Still, I found it interesting that Mr. Arar chose to repeat the fact that he was found to be innocent three times. I’m sure some in the audience may have been suspicious of his alleged involvement, but the aural reminder almost worked against his rhetoric of ultimate exoneration. That said, I would like to echo Dr. Trimble’s comment that Mr. Arar was very brave in his quest to educate the public by retelling his painful story.

(A brief aside – the Department of Political Science indicated that it wanted to make the event accessible to everyone, so had sign language interpreters as well as a screen transcribing what was being said set up on stage. I’m not sure if it was just me, but these fixtures actually made it difficult for me to focus on the speeches. I think I need to learn how to block out what’s visually unnecessary and irrelevant.)

On my way home, it wasn’t an epiphany per se, but the enveloping thought that the problems in the world are so vast that disillusionment really becomes the easy way out. On the heels of attending speaking engagements by Stephen Lewis and Maher Arar tonight, and my current reading of Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil, I’m feeling overwhelmed, even though the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the obstruction of civil liberties, and genocide are only three of the many multi-lateral issues plaguing society today. I know a general awareness of these challenges is vital, and I’m doing what I can to learn more, but most days, it doesn’t seem like enough. At the same time, where does one start, besides the civilian duty of “rocking the vote?” There is no easy answer, but this will be something I will be grappling with as I continue to educate myself as a global citizen.

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