DECEMBER 31, 2004, TORONTO -- The line-up of people trying to get into the downtown Toronto building that houses the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) continued to grow over the lunch hour on the last day of 2004. Anxious employees of Canadian National and the Royal Bank, which share office space there, were told they could not enter without proper identification. Some who had gone out for lunch were unprepared for such a harsh reception, or had left their ID upstairs.
The cause? Apparently, orders had been issued to prevent access to the building because there was going to be a vigil called Free the Five in 2005, calling attention to the plight of five Muslim men held without charge or bail 15 collective years behind Canadian bars. (In Ottawa, a dozen people held a similar vigil outside of the main Immigration building, offering dialogue with employees leaving early for the holiday.)
An early vigiller who had stepped inside the 277 Front Street West building in Toronto to stay warm was hustled out within ten seconds of his arrival by building security. Then, as the first of about 15 people arrived to hold banners and jail bars with the names of the Secret Trial Five affixed to them, numerous police vehicles and police on bicycles showed up to secure the area. It was one-on-one policing with the nine Metro Police officers and a half-dozen private security team members prepared for anything -- even singing.
Singing? Well, you can never be too careful. Perhaps this heavy presence was because police knew some of our group had attended the December 24 caroling outside the Toronto Refugee Jail . Not 24 hours later, three refugees slated for deportation made a daring escape from the jail. Perhaps our freedom songs had made a modest contribution to that effort?
Or maybe it was the October CSIS sit-in, during which six arrests were made in an event that could have won the prize for the "Most Mellow Direct Action of 2004."
Or could it have been the infamous couch incident, in which Santa Claus and the Elves had left a huge counselling couch to help CSIS agents get over their irrational fears of Arabs and Muslims? Although CSIS refused to accept the gift, Santa had left it behind at the building's entrance, with police fuming that charges might be laid under the criminal code (see offences involving unauthorized chesterfields or presents which will not fit standard-size gift boxes?)
Whatever it was, police did not seem pleased at our presence. One senior officer informed a member of our group that we were all trespassing where we stood and that we should move closer to the street. The news was accepted for what it was worth, and the group continued to stand where it has always stood in the past few years of similar vigils, refusing to budge.
A reporter from the U.S. National Public Radio showed up to do a documentary on secret trials in Canada, curious as to why "everyday Canadians" should be concerned about the issue. It was clear, as "everyday Canadians" were locked out of their workplace due to a peaceful vigil, that the debasement of democracy represented by the secret trials has effects which ripple throughout society, even to the building that houses CSIS. Indeed, the inside man operating the key to the automatic doors apparently enjoyed his job of preventing access so enthusiastically that he broke the mechanism, so that even individuals with proper clearance were left out in the cold.
The NPR reporter asked how we felt about CSIS claims that secret trials were a necessary evil. "The problem with saying it is a necessary evil is you are still left with evil," came one reply.
Meanwhile, an unidentified white man showed up to take dozens of pictures of the group, fascinated by this gathering. When one of our group went to ask him who he was, he recoiled in fear, stumbling on his words as he tried to explain that, er, um, he was doing, um, a, well, you know, a piece about Activism in Toronto. Of course, yes, that was what he was there for! Activism, in Toronto. Good answer! He took some final snaps and hurried away, refusing to speak to anyone involved with Activism in Toronto.
The spirit of the group was upbeat, alive with the hope that after years of suffering, some hope and freedom might be on the horizon for these five men and their families. The recent ruling of the U.K. Law Lords has ruled such indefinite incarceration is illegal; other rulings, even in the U.S., shame Canada's own judicial system, which continues to uphold the shameful secret trial security certificates, but perhaps in 2005 Canada will start to catch up with the rest of the world when it comes to respect for basic legal norms.
But we are not naive enough to believe that the courts alone will suddenly grant justice in these cases. It remains a task for all of us who are concerned with human rights and equality for all people, regardless of citizenship status, to continue pushing on all fronts to ensure an end to secret trials, freedom for the Secret Trial Five, and a truly just and respectful immigration and refugee system.
For more information on what you can do to help out, contact the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada, PO Box 73620, 509 St. Clair Ave. West, Toronto, ON M6C 1C0, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.homesnotbombs.ca
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