A Walk Diary of Sorts
Three of the Jaballah kids -- Usama, Afnan and Ali -- join the overnight vigil at the Metro West Detention Centre.
Over 100 people took part in some or all of the 100+ km walk against Racism, Repression and War from Hamilton to Scarborough July 20-26. Walkers ranged in age from three to 84, and included farmers, teachers, caregivers, retirees, artists, students, nurses, musicians, and people from a variety of faith backgrounds, including Muslims, Mennonites, Quakers, United Church, Anglican, Catholics, Agnostics, and at least one confirmed Radical Orthodox Pantheist. Folks from as far away as Windsor, St. Mary's, and Durham joined a regular crew from Hamilton, Burlington, Milton, and Metro Toronto.
Despite facing a surreal combination of the regularized repression which daily meets dissent on the streets, heat exhaustion from four days of 100 degree F temps, severe sunburn and endless smog advisories, many of us felt blessed to take part in a project which reminded us of the Susan Sontag comment that "someone who has enjoyed...a reprieve, however, brief, from the inhibition on love and trust this society enforces is never quite the same again."
Indeed, at a time when the idea of pilgrimage was in the press due to the World Youth Day activities in Toronto, it seemed most appropriate to hit the road at the height of a hot summer to show solidarity with all those targetted by racism, repression and war and, especially, those individuals who have been victimized by the "security certificate" secret trials and their families. For many, it was an emotionally draining introduction to what is often swept under the rug in this land: the daily face of racism. For others, a reminder of the need to redouble our efforts.
Among many demands, the walk tried to place a human face on this repression by calling for the release of Mahmoud Jaballah -- already cleared by a Federal Court of Canada Judge but re-arrested by a vengeful CSIS and in jail since last August 14 (nine of those months in solitary confinement) -- and Muhammad Mahjoub, held in jail since June 2000 on a flimsy guilt-by-association security certificate but not allowed to see the "evidence" against him. It also demanded an end to the extradition proceeding against Abdellah Ouzghar, who was tried, convicted and sentenced in absentia by a French court which knew his Hamilton address but neglected to inform him of the "judicial" proceedings until they were over.
The walk was meant to also state that racism does not take a summer vacation, and so as we went through communities, we reminded folks that we have a responsibility, especially as those who might enjoy the privileges of white skin, to address and end the roots of racism in Canada, which is as Canadian as the Maple Leaf.
Yet unlike the U.S., where racism has long been acknowledged as a major social ill, here in Canada, the majority of people suffer from what historian and writer Dionne Brand calls "a stupefying innocence" when it comes to answering the question: is there racism in Canada?
The answer to that question was clear to us before the walk; it became ever clearer as we watched a wide variety of responses to banners which read in English and Arabic, Stop Racism, and placards which stated Skin Colour Should Never Be Cause for Suspicion, Islam is not the Enemy, Racism Is, Stop Secret Trials in Canada, and RCMP and CSIS: Stop Harassing Muslims and Arabs. We heard a great deal about fear: fear to speak up and thus become a target of RCMP and CSIS harassment, fear of losing a job because of practicing Islam, fear of being scapegoated the next time the government makes some completely oddball comment about terror sleeper cells or suspicious Arabs renting apartment buildings.
Herewith is a brief summary of some of what happened during the walk. As a follow-up, we continue our call to release Jaballah and Mahjoub, and we are currently attempting to raise cash bail of $10,000 and $50,000 surety for Mr. Mahjoub (contact us if you can help). We believe the chance to make bail is unprecedented in a security certificate case. Though prohibitively high, we believe that if we can show as a supportive community that we believe Mr. Mahjoub's freedom and the need for a full and open trial are paramount and that bail can be raised, it will send a strong message to CSIS to back off its harassment and incarceration of people of Middle Eastern and Arabic background and Muslim faith.
Despite a heat alert, 45 people show up at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre to join the 20 km walk to Burlington. We flyer passersby, receive positive honks from drivers who recognize the meaning of our banners, and visit a local RCMP office, where we plaster a large poster to the door demanding that the Mounties investigate the REAL terrorists, such as corporate polluters and weapons manufacturers. We were led by a buoyant six-year-old who sang freedom songs and handed out flyers. We witnessed some racist catcalls from cowardly motorists ("Keep Canada White" seemed to be a common refrain throughout the walk). After a drink break at West Plains United Church and a wonderful lunch at East Plains United Church, some 25 people continue the rest of the journey. Once in Burlington, over a half dozen police squad cars pick up the walk and monitor it closely for the rest of our journey to the Halton Mosque, many of whose members greet us with cold drinks and welcome us inside for a talk about Islam and an invitation to observe afternoon prayers. Numerous folks from the mosque join us for dinner at Appleby United Church, a "subversive" idea that does not escape the attention of Burlington police, who surreptitiously post two squad cars in a park near the church's back entrance, where they remain on and off until after midnight.
Walk members are invited to address two United Churches. At East Plains, a walker explains the concept of the secret trials taking place in Canada and calls for the United Church members to show solidarity with Muslims being persecuted in this country. At Appleby, we address the theme that the truth will not change regardless of our ability to stomach it. We address the ugly truths that the walk seeks to expose, and call on Christians to take seriously hymns about love of neighbour, regardless of a neighbour's faith or birthplace. The walk to Oakville takes place in punishing heat, but the spirits of our 10 walkers are buoyed by a noisy and positive response from many driving along Lakeshore Blvd.
It is only when we stop at street corners to vigil for a time that we are greeted with slurs against Pakistanis, calls to keep Canada white, and the perpetually original "get a life" and "get a job." We walk into the tony Bronte Village, perhaps the first demo against racism to interrupt a quiet Lakeside luncheon in many moons. At a street-corner cafe, dozens of the brunch crowd peer out over their Eggs Benedict at our signs and, piqued by what must be their curiosity, we launch into an explanation of why we are walking for the group of 50 or so restaurant patrons. Most are not amused, only some take flyers. At one table, three men begin a chorus of NO NO NO NO NO when we offer flyers. A woman looks at her counterparts with that "is patriarchy EVER going to end" sigh of frustration and loudly exclaims, "YES! Give me one please!" The men pipe down immediately, the waiter refills their coffees, we move on.
Leafletting in old Oakville is an exercise in confronting complacency. "I'm good," "I'm okay," "No thanks, I don't need any" and "Not today" are common responses to the offer of a flyer and a dialogue. What racism, we are asked. Others state they do their bit and don't need our flyers. "But if you oppose racism, wouldn't you like to help free some people who are behind bars because of racism?" we ask. That blank stare returns, they move on. Nonetheless, some of the walkers report positive responses and good dialogue, with the promise to write local MPs and government ministers about the Jaballah, Mahjoub and Ouzghar cases.
Monday comes in with another heat alert. Two of the walkers who stayed overnight in Toronto ride the subway to Union Station to take a GO train to the start of the walk in Oakville. Our placards on the train generate a good deal of discussion. People are horrified when we explain what is taking place in Canada, what C-36 means, the security certificates, the secret testimony. As we walk to the GO, we notice a woman fanning her face. "Hot day," we comment. "Especially for people who stink!" she replies, her disgust with our placards evident.
We are a quartet working the walk from Oakville to Clarkson to Mississauga. Given the heat and our small numbers, we focus on leafletting strip malls, banks, restaurants, anyplace where people are lining up and a copy of our four-page flyer might ease the wait until they can grab an issue of People or TV Guide. We are yelled at by the manager of a McDonald's to get off his property. One of us is standing about 20 feet in front of the store entrance with a placard that says Racism is Terror: Stop Hate Crimes. "This is not the type of message we want associated with McDonald's." We explain that the Ontario Human Rights Code forbids racism and that there are laws on the books against hate crimes, and ask why he would be upset with a message consistent with the law of the land. "Look," he explains, "there's women and children who come in here!" The answer is, shall we say, bizarre, but before awaiting our response, the manager declares he is calling police and disappears into the store. It's too hot to wait for the cops to come and ticket us, so we move to an air conditioned Tim Horton's, where we are asked to leave after speaking with a family of four at a little table. The three children are very excited about the walk and want to discuss the issue of racism, but their mother intervenes. "Look, I don't think it's an appropriate time to discuss this. After all, it's breakfast."
We continue moving on, flyering inside of banks and local businesses. We stop at the office of Paul Szabo, one of over 30 MPs we contacted to meet with along the way. He was not in, but his constituency assistant seemed genuinely concerned, and said she would arrange a meeting for us with Szabo when he returned. Our arrival in Mississauga was greeted with lots of blasts from car horns. We continued to flyer inside beauticians, grocers, and even at the Peel Police station, where we convinced them to place our four-page flyer on the community board.
As we arrive at Square One mall, we meet a woman in a sari--racism is a very hot issue now, she says, and explains people make fun of her for wearing her traditional clothing. As the severe thunderstorms approach, we decide on a lunch break at the food court. Three of us are walking through the mall, two with placards over our shoulder (It's the only comfortable way to carry them) and we are accosted by security, who say 14 stores have called to complain about the anti-racism placards. "We can't have this message at Square one," we are told. Here we go again. "What if we wore Nike shirts?" we ask. "That would be okay. "But that's a political message too," we explain. "What if we wore a Screw Nike shirt?" "Then we'd have to throw you out."
We plead that we are simply going for lunch, we don't even intend to demonstrate inside the mall at this point. They say that even if we are sitting down, the placards must be covered to hide their message. They offer to bring garbage bags to cover them up. "So you're saying that a message against racism is garbage?" we ask. Eventually, a very frustrated and very hungry member of our trio wraps the placards in our banner, and suggests we take this up with management after lunch instead of with the minimum wage security guys on the floor. We lodge a complaint with Square One Management, and will demand that they set up a table to distribute anti-racism material.
It occurs to us, as we continue the walk, that malls are the perfect prison in a capitalist society, and a great place to shut down the discussion and democracy that make for a vibrant community. They are gathering places where only authorized messages are allowed, messages about buying stuff. Increasingly, malls and shopping centres are one of the last places where people gather en masse in an ongoing manner. We discuss the idea of challenging this privatization of what would appear to be public space after the walk: going into malls to blitz folks with the message to Stop Racism and, if charged, make a charter case out of it, for how can one be arrested for upholding the law of the land?
10 people join the walk. We leaflet for 30 minutes at Burnhamthorpe and Highway 10, and receive a strong response from drivers we speak with while awaiting green lights. One man who saw an article about the walk in the Etobicoke Guardian comes to speak with us, and offers to help us with some logistical problems. He later shows up at the jail for a bit of the overnight vigil. The walk travels along Burnhamthorpe for some 10 km, occasionally bumping into decidedly apolitical pilgrims for World Youth Day. Many seem uninterested in the walk, others are quickly shepherded away by their guides when they see the walk is about ending racism.
Again, we are encouraged by supportive honks and waves. One taxi driver honks furiously in support, accidentally drives up onto the opposite curb in his enthusiasm and, after regaining control of his vehicle, does a U-turn and comes to get a flyer. We are met by a CBC-TV crew for an interview, and walk on to lunch at Etobicoke City Hall.. Once there, we are told by a security officer that the placards leaning against the picnic bench under a shady tree have not been authorized by the city, and that they must be removed. Between bites of bagels, we again explain that these signs represent the Metro policy of anti-discrimination; he threatens to have us removed from the property and charged, but when we refuse to back down, he moves on, promising he'll be back. After lunch, we walk on to Litton Industries, manufacturers of numerous U.S. military support systems (including the infamous guidance system of the cruise missile). It is as if no time has passed, and we are back in the 80s at the height of protests there; as a few of us go to the picnic area in front of Litton, we are immediately accosted by security and threatened with arrest if we do no leave immediately. Queried as to why we would stop at Litton as part of an anti-racism walk, we explain that Litton's products usually kill people who do not enjoy white skin privilege. We finish up our day's walk at the Metro West Detention Centre, where we meet Mrs. Mahjoub; it turns out that taxi driver knows her and, when he saw the name Mahjoub on the placard, called her and told her to get to the prison to meet us. She explains her husband has suddenly (inexplicably?) become eligible for bail after over two years of brutal incarceration there: $50,000 surety and $10,000 cash. By nightfall we have raised pledges from fellow walkers of over $1,000, and plan an appeal to the activist community of Toronto to raise the bail as a statement against the repression led by CSIS and the RCMP.
We return to downtown Toronto for the weekly Moss Park vigil, where we note that a facility which has yet to open its doors to Toronto's homeless is wide open for World Youth Day delegates. We try to speak with them, but are stopped by security, who (stop us if you've heard this one before) threaten to have us removed if we do not get off the property.
Back at the jail, the CBC interviews family members of Mahmoud Jaballah; his wife and five of their six children stand vigil with about 35 supporters, and explain how much they miss their father and want him home. The children talk about how much they cry when they miss playing with their father, who is a principal at a Toronto Islamic school. Many of those gathered in support stand in a kind of shocked silence: here is the human face of our increasingly repressive political system, one which scapegoats Muslims and anyone from the Arabic and Middle Eastern world with secret evidence that its victims and their lawyers are never allowed to see.
We form a circle, and people introduce themselves to members of the Jaballah family, and announce their support. For a family which has been in the sights of Canada's state security apparatus for years, such support must come as welcome relief. Their clip is shown the next day on the CBC National. The clip is quite positive, and is the subject of Peter Mansbridge's lead kicker with the rhetorical question, "Is Canada becoming more undemocratic?" Numerous people came out from hearing about the sleepout on the news or on the internet; one is a truck driver who wanted to drop by and express his support; two are high school students from Ajax who wanted to say no to racism. Three squad cars keep vigil most of the night, driving in and around the parking lot, to make sure we are, we suppose, protected and served. About 20 people sleep out near the Metro West entrance, and rise early to form a picket line to leaflet the shift change the next morning.
We receive word, after weeks of calling, discussion and pressure with jail authorities, that Jaballah is being prepared for a move out of solitary confinement to the general population. He has not fared well after five months in solitary (who would?) and is quite weak. We hopr our pressure, our overnight presence and the renewed media focus on Metro West have contributed to the decision. As we prepare to walk through Wesson and Forest Hill, we meet numerous individuals who come up to us and ask for assistance. They are some of what must be a daily stream of families of Canada's disappeared: those individuals who are snatched from their residences when Immigration officers knock in the night, hustled off to the detention centre or the "Celebrity Inn" jail near the airport. One man says his brother, an architect, spent everything on coming to Canada, but his papers were not filled out correctly; he is now beginning his third week behind bars. An Iranian man says his brother disappeared and he tracked him down here as well. We provide our phone numbers and encourage them to call us if we can help.
The walk down Weston Road is amazing; the street-level response is raw and powerful. This is a community where the racism of economic apartheid and police violence is right at the surface, and the response to our presence confirms this. While some folks on the streets are reluctant to talk, others open up when they hear we have walked from Hamilton. "Anyone that crazy must have something worth listening to," one teenager says.
During our lunch break at York Civic Centre, we figure budget cutbacks keep security from harassing us for eating next to our placards. We continue east on Eglinton, lots of folks interested in what we're doing and taking flyers. One man unloading a furniture truck stares from the distance at our signs, and as we approach, thanks us for walking. "You don't know how hard it is to be Muslim right now," he explains. "Thanks for doing this." The walk makes its way down Oakwood to St. Clair, then over to Bathurst. We meet one young woman who was fired last fall during Ramaddan because her employer refused to allow her to wear a scarf for that month. As a result, she was without a job for four months. But in Canada, we are told there is no racism....The walk ends at the office of MP Caroline Bennett; we explain what we're doing, and the constituency rep explains he has followed the walk on the internet and is eager to speak with us. We immediately make an appointment to meet with Bennett in August.
We meet at the office of Bill Graham. He was supposed to meet with us, his assistant explains, but had a doctor's appointment. We arrange to set up a meeting later. We move on to the office of Dennis Mills who, despite the busy office where he is also chair of World Youth Day, he chats with us for some 25 minutes. We explain the security certificate, we explain a Justice Bud Cullen cleared Mahmoud Jaballah, and Mills says he used to work with Cullen. At the end of our meeting, one in which Mills is not always welcoming of our message (especially about the fact that we need an inquiry into the hundreds of detentions that occurred post 9/11). he nonetheless says he is going to fire off a letter to the 9 members of the board of CSIS and to the Solicitor General and Immigration minister demanding some answers in the cases of Jaballah and Mahjoub.
The walk along the Danforth stops at the Medina mosque, then continues to Victoria Park. We meet one gentleman who talks about the fear in the community, the constant CSIS surveillance and infiltration of mosques, the concern that anyone who joins the walk might be tarred by the CSIS "security threat" brush. We hear about the proprietor of a copy shop in downtown who was much in the news during the post 9/11 rush to scoop stories about terror connections and copying of false passports. Turns out the guy got into trouble because his nephew was one of those unfortunate enough to be rounded up in the massive US sweeps. When he called the RCMP and FBI to say his nephew was innocent, the RCMP showed up to interview him. Hours later, his shop was raided, and the clothes of this man and his wife were seized as evidence. Harassment continues. We wonder how many hundreds, perhaps thousands of similar instances have occurred in Canada. We end up in Scarborough, walking along a stretch of Lawrence Ave that has a heavy concentration of Halal shops. We realize by the day's end that we have run out of our flyers; by walk's end, we have handed out over 5,000.
The final day promises heavy thunderstorms. We look forward to the cleansing rains. We meet at the Immigration and RCMP public relations office at Yonge and St. Clair. Though not blocking any doors, we are nonetheless accosted by security who demand that we remove our signs and banners. "Don't make us call the cops," they plead. "We're not making you do anything," we answer. By the time they go in to make calls to the police, we are prepared to head down Yonge Street, where our first stop is Liberal HQ. They politely take our information, and we move to University Avenue, which is eerily quiet and almost deserted, save for massive stages being erected along with huge TV screens, a scene out of 1984.
We are a dozen now, and walk down the four lanes of the blocked off University Ave. on the east side. We call out to youth delegates that all is not well in Canada, that the rosy picture they have been fed is clouded by poverty, racism, violence. Within a minute or so, motorcycle police catch up with us, demanding to know who we are, whether we are an "authorized" group. We continue walking to the Courthouse at Armoury and University, where we hold vigil for some 30 minutes. During that time, we are approached by police who tell us not to leaflet on the sidewalk, else we'll be charged.
We explain that the courts have already thrown out the bylaw on unlawful handbill distribution, but they say they don't care--they will charge us anyway. We talk about how that is the type of thing we are protesting: the fact that police are increasingly making up the law as they go along, allowed to do so under the increased powers granted them in Bill C-36. We continue to discuss this, and the police, wary of some youth delegates in the vicinity and the sudden arrival of a Global TV camera, back off slightly, and quietly threaten that if we don't get our asses off the sidewalk soon, they would be back. We promise to continue handing out flyers on the sidewalk, because the last time we checked, University Avenue was not a charter-free zone.
As we prepare to move on to our next scheduled stop, an unmarked police van pulls up, with officers from Peel region inside. They ask about the walk, then thank one of us by name for the info. (They'd obviously done their homework in the few minutes it took to investigate us from the encounter with the motorcycle cops). We break from the rain near a bunch of world youth delegates who are chanting in the free speech area of city hall. Within minutes, we are accosted by security, who forget about the free speech area: we must leave, as our signs are not authorized. As they go on and on about dusty old by laws, as some of us try to explain we have been on the square hundreds of times without authorization, we meet with some delegates who have been harassed by Toronto police. One is a videographer from Chile who was padded down when police did not take kindly to his videotaping their motorcycles. They demand he show them the video he has shot, which he did; they demanded he give them the tape. He says his experience is not unique for some of the Latin American delegates. We talk about how the walk against racism occurs at a time when many World Youth Day delegates had visas rejected because of their country of origin--places like Sudan and Haiti. Interestingly, the World Youth Day committee refused to sign the city's non-discrimination policy
We move our group to the Peace Garden, which is surrounded by barricades but has an opening. We stand in the garden holding our signs. Within a minute, some 2 dozen bike cops swarm the barricade entrance, dismount, and engage in what must have been a textbook "intimidation posture." We form a circle of faith, and hold a prayer/meditation circle. We will not leave until we decide it's time to move on, not at their insistence. We eventually walk directly towards them and they part as we walk through. Another space we'll need to liberate when we don't have a schedule to keep, we promise ourselves. As the rain pours down, we make our way to the walk's end, the Immigration and Refugee Board on Victoria Street.
A number of us attempt to walk upstairs but are accosted by security, one of whom screams that we are trying to sneak flyers into the building (flyers which were clearly visible in our hands!). We meet with the regional director of the IRB, who is more than aware of the use of secret CSIS "evidence", but is not disturbed by them. His job, he explains, it simply to carry out the functions of the board, and even if there are mistakes made, the system as a whole works well, blah blah blah. It is eerily like the defence of following orders from another time of repression, and a fitting end to a walk calling on people in Canada to look to their consciences and speak out against the decimation of democracy. He says we should really talk to the ministers involved. We explain that it is his responsibility to follow his conscience, and that he must not go along with immoral and inhuman practices. We retire to the cafeteria to lunch, and a gaggle of security check everyone going into the building.
As we eat lunch, we discuss the need to keep such walks against racism and repression on the streets in a public and consistent manner. Anyone interested in joining us in this plan of action is welcome to call us at (416) 651-5800 or at email@example.com
Thanks to all who came out to the walk, who organized food and lodging, who slept out at the jail, who acted as drivers, who gave freely of their time and labour and good spirits.
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