In the spring of 1991, Suleyman Goven, an Alevi Kurd from eastern Turkey, arrived at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport with $90 in his pocket, and in his heart the dream of becoming a citizen in a country where he would be free from persecution. Instead, he would be forced to endure a dark side of Canada where refugees who have fled terror and persecution are terrorized and persecuted all over again.
Goven’s story, compellingly told in Mary Jo Leddy’s important new book, Our Friendly Local Terrorist, is disturbingly familiar. The book joins what is sadly becoming a new genre of Canadian non-fiction: stories about immigrants or refugees who have left oppressive regimes for Canada, only to be targeted here by a system in which, Leddy writes, “enormous power rests in the hands of people who are not accountable.”
Canadians are familiar with some of the more recent stories about how that power has been abused with impunity. The best known is that of Maher Arar, a Syrian Canadian labelled a terrorist by Canadian law enforcement and intelligence agencies without any justification, then, as a consequence, sent to torture in Syria. Less well known are the cases of Ahmad El Maati, Abdullah Almalki and Muayyed Nureddin, three other Canadian citizens unjustly labelled terrorists by the same investigation and, as a result, detained and tortured abroad.
And there are others. In the middle of the night on August 14, 2003, the RCMP burst into the Toronto apartments of 22 Pakistani refugees, dragging them out of bed at gunpoint. Canadians were told this was a roundup of terrorists, but once their lives had been destroyed (ten were quietly deported back to their homeland where they were still treated as threats), the RCMP was forced to admit that the multi-million dollar investigation had come up empty—none of the accused were found to be in any way linked to terrorist activities.
The difference with Suleyman Goven’s story is that it begins long before the so-called “war on terror,” and demonstrates that abuse of power on the part of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP and other agencies engaged in national security investigations is a long-standing, systemic problem.
The story of why Goven came to Canada, like those of so many people who seek refuge here, warrants a book of its own. He had had no choice but to flee Turkey. As a Kurd and a trade union activist, he had been targeted by Turkish police and jailed and tortured more than once. A new threat surfaced in 1990 with the murder of his father by leftist extremists. His own life in danger, Goven fled Turkey for continental Europe, then Ireland and finally Canada.
Another book could be written about how Goven survived his first lonely year in Canada—hungry, homeless and finding no support from those in Toronto’s Kurdish community because they, too, were busy just trying to survive. It was only by accident that Goven found the first people in Canada to welcome him warmly. Walking by a church in downtown Toronto one evening, he was beckoned inside and offered coffee. For the first time in Canada, Goven was treated in a way that left him feeling like a good person. He returned each week for more than a month before realizing these were Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
It was that first hard year in Canada that inspired Goven to work with friends to establish the Toronto Kurdish Community Centre, a place where Kurds new to Toronto could find the support he had not. Helping others gave him the courage to be hopeful about his future. So did the outcome of his refugee hearing: after just two hours of questioning, the Refugee Board granted him status as a convention refugee in March 1993, two years after his arrival in Canada.
This, writes Leddy, gave Goven faith in Canadian democracy. “It was a clear and positive experience of justice within the Canadian system … He believed that this was a place where his human rights would be respected, that it was a place where he could fight for the human rights of others. He had been treated fairly and with respect and he resolved to become a good citizen, to treat others with fairness and respect.”
If only the story had ended there.
Leddy was with Goven when everything changed. He had met her seeking help for others in his community. A long-time refugee advocate, she worked with the Ontario Sanctuary Coalition, helping those threatened with deportation back to countries where they faced torture, detention or death. When Goven asked if she would accompany him to his security interview, a step toward landed immigrant status, Leddy agreed. Goven had been accepted at McGill. He wanted a degree in engineering. All he needed was his status.
But on October 13, 1994, what was supposed to be a short interview turned into a daylong interrogation by two CSIS agents. As an engineer, did Goven know how to build bombs? Did he belong to a terrorist group? Did he belong to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK)? And then, the proposition: “Can you give us the names of PKK members who are in the Kurdish community here? Remember that we will base our recommendation for landing on your replies.”
Spy on your community and we will give you your status.
It was at that interrogation that everything changed for Goven, and for Leddy too, whose life became inextricably entangled in his struggle for justice. What followed was Kafkaesque and is riveting to read. Many other Kurdish refugees were asked to spy on their community, and on Goven, in exchange for their landed immigrant status. Some did. They were desperate and, as Leddy writes, terrified into submission by tactics they had seen used by the Turkish state. CSIS denied all.
And as Goven started to fight for justice, filing a complaint with CSIS’s watchdog, the Security and Intelligence Review Committee, the intimidation and harassment of those around him intensified. A cover-up ensued. Secret hearings were held to hear evidence from unnamed sources. A briefcase containing a key document was stolen the day before a SIRC hearing. That document showed up again, but altered. The cover-up was exposed. The SIRC report was a good one. Goven is not a terrorist, it said, and should be given his status.
But the report was ignored. It would take many more years—until 2006—until Goven would finally receive his landed immigrant status, and be able to get on with his life. “The watchdog,” Leddy concludes, “had no teeth.”
And the watchdog still has no teeth. Justice Dennis O’Connor and his team at the inquiry that examined Maher Arar’s case spent years investigating options for strengthening the checks and balances in place for CSIS, the RCMP and other agencies engaged in national security work. His recommendations, released more than four years ago in December 2006, have been ignored, despite ever-increasing budgets and powers being granted for national security investigations. There is less oversight in place now than there was in 2001.
Leddy says that she wrote this book reluctantly. Part of that reluctance, she admits, was about fear for herself, and doubt about what could be accomplished: “There are moments when I doubt that the pen is mightier than the sword of secrecy.”
But this incredibly moving book is a testament to the mighty power of the pen. As she writes, “refugees live within a virtual apartheid system in the country, under a different set of laws, with almost no protection against the nameless, faceless security apparatus.” It is only through informed storytelling like Leddy’s that more of us can fully begin to understand that dark side of Canada, and be motivated to force it to change.