By Kevin Ma
Abid Jan says he came to Canada to find peace and security. Instead, he found only fear and loathing. He blames Canada’s intelligence services.
Jan is a Pakistani journalist who fled his homeland in 2002 because of death threats from local intelligence agents. He was granted refugee status in Canada, and now works as a community development officer at the South-East Ottawa Centre for a Healthy Community.
He says that on April 20, 2004, when he went to the immigration department for what he thought was a routine meeting, he was instead interviewed by a man from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service — his third interview with the agency since his arrival in Canada.
“The truth is,” Jan says of his experience with CSIS, “we suffered as much here as we did in Pakistan. We face the same fear here.”
Community groups say some Muslim immigrants live in fear because of anti-terrorism investigations conducted by CSIS.
For its part, CSIS says there’s no need for worry. CSIS does security checks on all immigrants and refugees. Nicole Currier, a CSIS spokesperson, says only a small percentage of these checks lead to interviews.
Evidence collected by CSIS has lead to the arrest of five men under the security certificate program, including Mohamed Harkat, a local Algerian refugee.
Jan says he agreed to be interviewed by CSIS because he believed that refusing to do so would make the agency suspicious of him.
Currier says that was not the case.
“Refusing an interview doesn’t make you more suspicious or a target at all,” she says. All such interviews are voluntary and conducted in a non-threateningway, she adds.
Jan says some of the agents who interviewed him were friendly, and even gave him advice. But he says he was extremely intimidated by his April 20 interview, as an agent appeared to turn every one of his words against him.
“For instance, the agent asked me, ‘What was your first degree?’ I said ‘Chemistry.’ And he said ‘Hmm! Chemistry!’” The agent then asked Jan if his sisters worked. “I said, ‘No, because my father does not like them to work.’ And he said, ‘Oh, so your father is a fundamentalist!’”
According to Statistics Canada, 42,000 Muslims live in the Ottawa-Hull region, 28,000 of them immigrants. Mumtaz Aktar, chair of the Muslim Community Council of Ottawa-Gatineau, says many new immigrants “find it very difficult to believe that the police are safe.”
Sometimes, says Aktar, CSIS will contact the friends and relatives of people they interview. This can create a chill between amicable members of a community, Jan adds. When Jan asked a friend to take copies of his book, The End of Democracy, to his family in Pakistan, he says the friend refused. Carrying a book with that kind of title would make him look suspicious.
“They will stop corresponding with you, they will stop relating with you because they will think, well, this guy must have done something wrong. Socially, it destroys you,” Jan says.
Jan says he’s also concerned about how CSIS uses paid informants in the Muslim community.
“No one really trusts one another. I mean, who knows who’s working with the agencies?”
This mistrust extends beyond the Muslim community, says Aktar. A survey conducted by his organization found that 78 per cent of Ottawa’s Muslims felt they were being viewed with suspicion and hostility by non-Muslims.
Jan says that while he was walking with his son down Rideau Street, “an old man approached me and said, ‘They are so cute when they are young.’” Before he could thank the man, the man added, “But they become little terrorists when they grow up,” and walked away.
“That’s the situation,” Jan says. “That’s our daily experience.”
CSIS needs to regain the trust of the Muslim community if it wants its investigations to succeed, Jan says.
“Instead of getting help from paid informants, if they take the community as a whole in trust . . . anyone will go to them if there is something wrong.
“Trust is a basic element of any society,” he says. “When you lose trust, you lose everything.”