29 January 2011

The Test of Our Own Democracy

It has been fascinating to watch people in several countries in North Africa and the Middle East take to the streets to demand change, including change in their governments. It always makes me wonder just what it would take to shake our own society out of its torpor — what level of excess or corruption might make us take to the streets without being restrained by our notions of economic stability and our attachment to the status quo. I don’t exempt myself from that characterization.

The test I want to write about today, though, is much more immediate. The brother-in-law of the deposed leader of Tunisia has for some time had permanent resident status in Canada and is currently on the territory of the country, “holed up” (media terminology) in the Château Vaudreuil, a roadside hotel in the suburbs to the west of the island of Montréal. Our government has publicly stated that he is not welcome here, and has moved to revoke his permanent resident status, based on a non-respect of the requirement that permanent residents spend at least six months plus a day each year inside the territory. There are rumours that he might apply for refugee status, still more that his arrest and return to Tunisia has been requested by the new government there.

So what will our government do? If this man and his family claim refugee status here, they will have certain rights to have their case heard which might take several years. We have also had a principle, not particularly loved by our current government, that we do not send people back to a country where they may face the death penalty for whatever they have done at the conclusion of a fair trial ending with a guilty verdict. The usual practice is to get a diplomatic assurance that in the particular case the prosecution will not seek the death penalty.

What it looks like at this time: the Canadian government, which usually takes pains to abstain from commenting on any matter before the courts, has been vocal in rejecting these relatives of the former president of Tunisia. They have, however, said all the right things about our refugee process and about respecting the rule of law in Canada. We really need journalists to take up that approach, focusing less on the “outrage” that this man should be in Canada and more on the fact that we have rules and we follow them, and no person good or bad is exempt from them. If there is a case against this man, bring out the facts and let’s hear them in front of a judge.

I would never seek to protect an exploiter of people who has enriched himself at the expense of others, but neither would I be willing to throw away our principles of democracy and justice to punish his misdeeds.

It would be too easy to cut corners in a case that is so public and so blatant. It would be easy, too, for our government to ride a wave of outrage to gut our current refugee process. I’ for one, will not sit for that. It might be the thing that gets me out into the street.

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