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Canada does torture too: The awful things this country has done to Omar Khadr, Maher Arar, Abderrahmane Ghanem, Indigenous children, and more

I’m sure that this won’t be the last time that this happens but I have to apologize for something I wrote a while ago. It’s not a cancelling thing, it’s just that about six months ago I wrote a story about how Canada’s intelligence agencies suck doo doo and then I listed a bunch of reasons and it was pretty funny and everyone thought I was very clever and we all moved on with our lives. I’m realizing now though that I made a mistake in that article. The premise was sort of a “we might not be as bad as the Americans, but we’re still pretty bad” type vibe, and when I was setting it up, I said something like ‘at least our tax dollars didn’t go toward funding torture, right?’

It was a throwaway line and it really couldn’t matter less, but it does make me seem like kind of a dumb idiot given the subject of today’s story: torture in Canada. Actually, a more accurate working title would be torture because of Canada. Either way, I retract my previous assertion that the Canadian government doesn’t fund torture because it’s completely wrong. Not only does this country have an extensive history of compliance with institutions that use torture, we’ve also lent our resources to other (usually post-9/11) initiatives that involved torture, and have even had other countries torture our own citizens for us. 

I think the main factor that led to that blundering statement is that I was focused on torture in the context of the CIA’s post-9/11 counter-terrorism programs. But Canada’s legacy of torture began more than a hundred years before the Twin Towers fell, in “schools” designed to erase entire cultures and assimilate Indigenous people out of existence. We may never know the full extent of the violence that Indigenous children suffered at the hands of those involved with the administration of “Indian residential schools” and other similar institutions, but we know enough to say that a lot of them were straight up tortured. 

In one case from the 50s-60s, the staff of a residential school called St. Anne’s in Ontario built a homemade electric chair to shock the children with, apparently for amusement according to an Ontario Provincial Police report. Children at St. Anne’s were also reportedly forced to eat rancid meat and their own vomit. But this kind of torture as generational violence didn’t even stop with the closure of the last residential school in 1996. 

St. Anne's Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ontario

The torture of Indigenous people persists in Canadian prisons, if you count solitary confinement as torture which you should. By the way, I think now is a good time to mention that I’m not going to justify my definition of torture at any point, if you feel the urge to flex your devil’s advocate muscles, maybe ask yourself why or go give someone a hug. Anyway, if you’re familiar with how racism works, it should come as no surprise to you that Indigenous people are dramatically over-represented in Canadian prisons. Despite making up close to 4.5% of the general population according to the 2016 census, Indigenous folks made up around 25% of the prison population in 2018-19 according to data from Public Safety Canada. 

If Canada was applying for a job as ‘country that does torture,’ the relevant experience section of our CV would boast about how we swindled whole nations out of their land by imposing foreign legal norms, stole those people’s children and forced them to go to schools with electric chairs and rapists for teachers, covered it up when they died, and criminalized them when they got out so that we could continue to throw them into the only buildings in the country where torture is still legal even though we promised we’d make it illegal two years ago. I don’t know about you guys, but it looks like we’re a shoe-in for the position, whaddya think?

Oh, and the experience section doesn't just stop with the racist stuff. The Canadian government also provided funding to a man named Dr. Ewan Cameron, a psychiatrist working at the Allan Memorial Institute hospital in Montreal in the 60s. Cameron was on the CIA payroll, running experiments for the infamous MKUltra program, which tried to use LSD to control the minds of unwitting citizens. MKUltra was the CIA’s first foray into mind control, an area with which the agency would become obsessed for years. In fact, a CBC article I read about Cameron even dates the CIA brass’ confirmation bias and willingness to accept “bad science” back to those early Montreal experiments that helped shape the original MKUltra program. It was this bias that allowed the post-9/11 spy agency to accept the faulty scientific bases upon which their “enhanced interrogation” program was built. 

Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal 

Enhanced interrogation is what the CIA called the torture methods they used on suspected terrorists without due process. I don’t have the stamina to go into all of the incredibly fucked nonsense that went on under this program and there are movies like The Torture Report and countless articles that do a better job. But very basically, the CIA ran an illegal kidnapping program in conjunction with the torture program that allowed them to just take anyone they wanted away and torture them in various horrifying and humiliating ways at black sites across the globe, as well as in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, which is a military prison and therefore somehow different? Not really the point though.  

As part of the War on Terror, the CIA would kidnap a suspected terrorist off the street or something similar, fly them to a black site in a friendly country, and use dehumanizing techniques like sleep deprivation, stress positions — effectively poses that are designed to be as uncomfortable and painful as possible and that a torture victim would be forced to maintain for hours —  including something called the Palestinian Chair which is one that Israel invented (huge shocker), nudity, waterboarding, confinement boxes, and my personal least favourite, medically unnecessary rectal feeding to attempt to extract information about planned terrorist attacks or networks. 

It’s at this point that most stories about torture mention that the CIA’s torture program yielded negligible results. It turns out that when you’re being tortured, you’ll say anything your torturers want to hear to get them to stop, including fabricating information about an attack in Montana (lol Montana) that was never real, and about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, as in the case of Abu Zubaydah, which hawks in George W. Bush’s cabinet used to justify the 2003 invasion. I’ll be honest though, if you were on the fence about torture until you learned it doesn’t work, you might want to go see someone about that hug. 

You’ll remember from a couple paragraphs ago that the first part of the torture program relies on those kidnappings, called “extraordinary renditions” in bureaucratic parlance. The ones of these that we know about very often led to torture, so it might also interest you to know that according to an old freedom of information request, 74 CIA planes landed in Toronto between 9/11 and 2006. It’s known that US spies often transported “detainees” (read: kidnapping victims) through other countries as part of their spy stuff. Wonder who those planes were carrying…

Also, while we’re still on the Americans, at least one Canadian citizen ended up in Guantanamo Bay, where he alleges he was tortured: a kid (yep) named Omar Khadr. Khadr was born in Canada but his father, who was into Al-Qaeda (talk about boomer parents (fuck wait I didn’t mean for that to be a pun, is it insensitive for keep that in?)) brought him to Afghanistan when he was in his mid teens. In 2002, Khadr was caught up in a firefight that killed one American soldier and took out another’s eye. He was accused of throwing the grenade that killed the American, Christopher Speer, and was arrested and later transferred to Gitmo. He was 15.

Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr

There, he was subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques and questioned by both Americans and Canadians, before he was eventually returned to Canada several years later after what he claims was a coerced guilty plea (not hard to believe to be honest) and finally, after he sued, the Canadian courts cleared him and the Trudeau government paid him $10.5 million for his troubles, much to the outrage of every Sun and National Post columnist in the country. I’m not getting into an ideological debate on this but a good rule of thumb is that if Christie Blatchford has an opinion, you should probably hold the opposite one. 

So we let our closest ally torture a Canadian, but surely we wouldn’t let anyone else do that right? It’s just us and the States, nobody else tortures our citizens right? Uh, no, not right. A National Observer article describes the experience of a Calgary man named Abderrahmane Ghanem, who alleges CSIS and the RCMP wrongfully targeted him for surveillance after a group of Muslim men left his community to join ISIS in 2016. In the piece, he and his lawyer allege that CSIS passed information to Algerian security officials who had Ghanem detained upon his arrival in Algiers. He was arrested and held for more than a year, during which time he says he was tortured. 

Another Canadian, an Ottawa engineer with dual Syrian and Canadian citizenship named Maher Arar, was arrested at JFK airport in 2002 and was deported to Syria by U.S. officials acting on RCMP information, even though he was travelling back to Canada and also wasn’t a terrorist. Arar spent a little over a year in Syrian detention, where he says he was tortured. 

There are other cases that go a lot like those two, and there were even other Canadians in Guantanamo Bay, and it’s all a part of Canada’s subtle new strategy of outsourcing their torture to other countries with the reputational infrastructure to do that kind of thing (rather than founding schools around torture, that’s sooo 20th century). But we’ve even had problems not getting other countries’ citizens tortured. In 2010, a University of Ottawa professor named Amir Attaran obtained documents that showed that Canadian Forces had transferred detainees to the Afghan National Army, even though we knew those guys tortured people. At a parliamentary committee meeting about the revelations, diplomat Richard Colvin testified: “According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured.” See?

The Palestinian Chair: A Stress Position Used by U.S. Interrogators at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq

So to recap, even though Stephen Harper tried his very best to make torture an American problem when the original Senate report came out, this country has constructed racist institutions designed to torture Indigenous people out of their culture, allowed our American allies to conduct dangerous and unscientific research because of Cold War hysteria, allowed the deformed ancestor of that research to justify an invasion that was only ever about oil, then allowed Canadian citizens to fall victim to torture, and consigned others still to torture at the hands of other countries with much fewer qualms about the whole thing than I have.

Maybe we aren’t known for it, but Canada tortures like a motherfucker, there’s no denying that now. And the fact that even I didn’t quite grasp the breadth of the human rights violations our government has racked up over the years is terrifying. Especially since you could be forgiven for assuming that since our counter-terrorism methods are so “proactive” we’d be better at fucking countering terrorism. But we suck at it! You’ll notice most of the names in this article are Arab, but we’ve had two ideologically motivated van attacks in three years and both were committed by a white man. The Quebec City mosque shooter was white. And though it wasn’t necessarily ideologically motivated, the worst mass shooting in Canadian history was perpetrated by a white man who got his guns from the U.S. 

I’m not saying that counter-terrorism efforts are useless — think of the would-be Kingston bomber (who was caught by the FBI by the way) — but I think our intelligence agencies need to turn their focus inward a little. The cases I cited in this article are all at least 10 years old because that’s how government secrets work, but I’d be shocked if we’ve completely halted all of these programs and Justin Trudeau didn’t jump on the opportunity for good press. Also, I know for a damn fact the RCMP has the resources to focus more on white terror because they could be doing that instead of fighting journalists in court on both fucking coasts — Fairy Creek and Nova Scotia. Journalists, I should say, without whom we wouldn’t fucking know there was a problem in the first place. So basically, get it the fuck together security agencies, abolish solitary confinement, and stop with the torture. Please. 


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