As Canadian citizens, we all have rights that are guaranteed to us by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While this may be true when we are in our city, province and country…it’s a different story while traveling abroad. Many have the understanding that if for any reason we are “stranded” in a foreign country, as citizens, our government must come to the rescue. This understanding has been brought to question in light of recent events surrounding numerous Canadians that have been “stranded”.
On May 21 2009, Suaad Hagi Mohamud (a Canadian citizen and Toronto resident) was denied entry back to Canada while in Nairobi, Kenya when Kenyan immigration officials prevented her from boarding a Toronto-bound flight. They claimed that her facial features did not match the one in her passport. She was eventually left “stranded” in Kenya, stripped of her passport by Canadian officials in Kenya and detained for identify theft by Kenyan police (as per instructions by the Canadian High Commission). While Suaad Hagi Mohamud may not be the only Canadian citizen to have gone through this (in the past and ongoing: Abousfian Abdelrazik, Omar Khadr, Maher Arar…among others), she has been the catalyst for the now heated discussion over the role the Federal Government plays if Canadian citizens are in need of their assistance while overseas.
Some argue that the actions (or rather, inaction) conducted by the Federal Government were reckless and appalling. They state that every Canadian citizen, no matter if your citizenship was of birth-right or if you had gone through the naturalization process in Canada, has the absolute right to be protected by the government at all times, no matter where you are in the world. Yet, others argue that while Suaad Hagi Mohamud’s ordeal was inconvenient, our government cannot be expected to protect us while in a foreign country; where they have their own laws that we are to follow and abide by. They state that it is the responsibility of every Canadian citizen when traveling abroad, to ensure that our identifications are kept up-to-date…including the passport photo.
What do you think about our citizenship while traveling abroad? As Canadian citizens, is it a right to have our government intervene and aide us if we are in a foreign country? Or is it our responsibility to ensure that our identifications are kept up-to-date and not to expect that our government will come to our aide everytime we are in distress in a foreign country?
May 21: Suaad Hagi Mohamud tries to leave Kenya for Canada after traveling there on a two-week visit to see her ailing mother. But Kenyan immigration officials in Nairobi stop her from boarding her flight, claiming her facial features did not match her four-year old Canadian passport photo. A document from Kenyan authorities specifies that officials believe her lips look different than those of the person in the passport photo. Mohamud later alleges she was being pushed to offer bribe money to be allowed to get on the plane to return home and she refused to pay. She is detained in Kenya.
May 22: The High Commission of Canada in Nairobi confiscates and voids her passport, despite Mohamud producing her Canadian driver’s licence, fingerprints and other documents.
May 28: After spending eight days in a Kenyan jail, Mohamud is released on bail. Liliane Khadour, the Canadian High Commission’s first secretary, tells Kenyan government officials a thorough investigation has determined Mohamud is an impostor and recommends that she be prosecuted.
Kenyan officials charge her with identity fraud. Mohamud would spend parts of the next 2½ months living in Nairobi slum hotels.
July 22: The Canadian government, after negotiating a settlement to a Federal Court motion filed by Mohamud’s lawyer, Raoul Boulakia, agrees to ask Kenyan authorities to delay her trial until a DNA test can be conducted to confirm her identity.
July 29: Mohamud’s former husband, Hussein Asbscir, and her son, Mohamed Hussein, 12, submit to DNA testing in order to help resolve her case.
Aug. 10: The results of a DNA test conducted on Mohamud are released and confirm her identity. The test results show there’s a 99.99% chance that she is the mother of her son in Toronto.
Aug. 11: A day after the DNA test results emerge, the Canadian Border Services Agency says it is working on issuing Mohamud emergency travel documents so she can return to Canada.
Aug. 12: The Canadian government has asked Kenyan authorities to drop the charges against Mohamud.
Aug. 14: Kenyan Justice Stella Muketi agrees to drop charges against Mohamud and orders her bail money returned.
Aug. 15: Suaad Hagi Mohamud returns to Toronto via a flight booked by the Federal Government.
Time line via CBC News
“The individual has to be straightforward, has to let us know whether or not she is a Canadian citizen. She’s saying so, but there is no tangible proof to the effect. All Canadians who hold passports generally have a picture that is identical in their passport to what they claim to be.” Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon
“Something is fundamentally wrong when we can’t count on the Canadian government to stand up for Canadians. I’m not sure I can put it any more directly than that…One of those (expectations) is when we find ourselves in distress that our government will stand up for us.” Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty
“Mobility of citizens:
6. (1) Every citizen of Canada has the right to enter, remain in and leave Canada.” Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
As Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty put it, there is something fundamentally wrong when our own government cannot come to our aide, wherever we are in the world, when as citizens of this nation, we are guaranteed that protection. It is enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms; in it, we have the absolute right to “enter, remain in and leave Canada”. And in the case of entering back into Canada, that is the bedrock rights of any nation. When KLM officials and the Canadian High Commission in Kenya voided Suaad Hagi Mohamud’s Canadian passport, it not only stripped away her citizenship (and rendered her a stateless individual in a foreign country), but more importantly, they violated her rights as a Canadian citizen. It makes no difference whether you were born in Canada or gained citizenship through immigrating here, there is only one type of citizenship (and not different hierarchies)…Canadian. Now, I dare say that if she were Anglo-Saxon, there wouldn’t be an issue in the first place. What happened to Suaad Hagi Mohamud in Kenya constitutes her as a Canadian traveler in distress. This should have been swiftly resolved by Canadian embassy officials as she was guaranteed protection from the government. That expectation is assured in our Canadian passports: “in the name of Her Majesty the Queen, all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.” But in the wake of Mohamud’s soul-searing experience, these venerable words, presented in elegant calligraphic script on the inside cover of every Canadian passport, begin to seem less a source of genuine reassurance than just another empty, bureaucratic exercise in gutless bafflegab.
As a nation founded on democracy and equality, the mere idea that a government refuses to aide one of their citizens is inconceivable. “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof.” The inaction of the Canadian government to assist its own citizen is a constitutional violation of any citizen, as it leaves any individual in peril and at the mercy of a foreign government. What is the point of having citizenship from a nation when we cannot be insured the right of assistance from the government, and more importantly, be stripped away of that same citizenship and be denied entry back into the nation without cause. That is not democracy, that is dictatorship.
Passport Canada says its regulations allow for the summary revocation of a passport in cases that don’t involve national security, as long as “reliable information is available and can readily be verified.” Such action, it says, is typically taken in cases involving people who are incarcerated, on parole, or subject to a Canada-wide arrest warrant, but in the case of Suaad Hagi Mohamud, none of which applied. So I beg the question, what right did the officials have to essentially, by way of stamping her passport VOID, render Suaad Hagi Mohamud stateless? It is a frightening thought to fathom as with just a swift stamp (and without due process), one is left without belonging to a nation and on their own in a foreign country.
There are some who argue that the government cannot be expected to save every Canadian in distress. But what they don’t realize is, these are excuses for failures of justice and humanity in our bureaucracy and at the highest levels of our government. As citizens of Canada, we have the right to expect that our government will afford us “such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”
What if Suaad Hagi Mohamud really had been an impostor? Instead of being the Somali-born, Toronto mom she claimed to be, what if she had been a terrorist? Suppose she had boarded a Canada-bound flight from Nairobi, Kenya and instead of disembarking at the other end with gifts for her 12-year-old son, she had blown up the plane. We would all now be criticizing as too lax those officials who revoked her passport when she attempted to leave Africa in May. When it comes to security post-9/11, it’s best to err on the side of caution.
But this broad principle cannot serve as a blanket excuse for all forms of behaviour by our diplomats, security officials and bureaucrats. Had Ms. Mohamud been detained for a few days and then released after her identity was proven, that would be one thing. But she has endured a two-and-a-half-month nightmare. And so my sympathies lie with her.
But we all need to remember: being Canadian is not a “get out of jail free” card for travelers, as some apparently expect it to be. Suaad Hagi Mohamud’s side when her passport photo did not resemble her. The actions of government officials in this case were necessary in preventing stolen identity from occuring. As of August 12 2009, there were 25,759 active cases of Canadian citizens in distress. The Federal Government cannot possibly assist each and every one of those individuals, especially in instances where the individuals were at fault for being in distress. To expect our government to aide those individuals, is an abuse of the Canadian passport and all that it stands for.