Canadian and Travelling Abroad? You’re on Your Own
Posted Mon, Dec 7, 2009

As one might imagine, the opportunity to travel internationally is one of the perks of working in the field of international law, human rights, and development. As I think back over my current journey, which has included project work in Zambia, South Africa, and Abu Dhabi over the span of the last month, as well as side trips to London and Zurich, I’ve been reminded of two things.  First, like any Canadian who now ventures beyond our borders, I’m going to have to continue to make damn sure that my glasses and lips look just like those found in my passport picture, lest I end up “Suaad Mohamud-ed” (the glasses won’t be a problem, but so much for that collagen injection I’ve been pining for).  Second, and more seriously, once again it has been driven home that my Canadian passport is the most valuable thing I own.

In every place I have been recently, there has been one constant: showing that passport and revealing my citizenship has resulted in the best of treatment.  While I’ve seen fellow foreign airline passengers being stopped and questioned extensively at borders, officials generally take one brief look at that blue booklet and immediately wave me through. When it comes to booking into international hotels, once the check-in staff is presented with evidence of Canadian citizenship, it’s not unusual to see a subtle, and positive change in their manner.  This is particularly so in countries where I hear the comment that “we didn’t know there were black people in Canada” (hard to believe, I know, but trust me, it happens more often than you’d think).  Average citizens on the street become noticeably less wary and more helpful once they find out I am from Canada. There are plenty of other examples, but the point is, as those who travel frequently know, showing a Canadian passport tends to afford one goodwill and often, even special treatment abroad.  This is remarkable, and indicative of the respect that Canadians enjoy in other parts of the world.

It would be nice if our own government started to show that it valued Canadian citizenship as highly.

In case after recent case, the government has flatly refused to help Canadians overseas who have found themselves in distress.  Suaad Mohamud was stranded in Kenya for months after Canadian officials inexplicably and erroneously branded her an imposter. Despite that she suffered an ordeal which included being thrown into a Kenyan prison, our government refused to reopen the case or take any steps whatsoever to verify Ms. Mohamud’s identity, until her lawyer forced them to.  As we all now know, she was then proved to be exactly who she claimed. The same thing happened to Abdihakim Mohamed, an autistic Canadian youth who was also stuck in Kenya – this time for over three years – again because the government first contended he was not who he claimed to be, and then refused to take the time to look into the matter to verify this supposition.  Appallingly, he’s still there, though there is hope he will finally be repatriated later this month.  Mr. Abousfian Abdelrazik, who was apparently erroneously placed on a UN terrorist watchlist, was stranded in Sudan after being refused a passport and travel documents by the Canadian government, even after no evidence was found to support the accusations against him.  Oddly, given that he was refused the documents on national security grounds, officials at the Canadian Embassy in Sudan then allowed him to take refuge under their roof, and live in the Embassy’s gym for over a year.  Apparently, not everyone was convinced that Mr. Abdelrazik posed a much of a threat.

Another example is the case of Ms. Nathalie Morin, a Canadian citizen living in Saudi Arabia who alleges that, for the past two years, she and her child have been prevented from leaving and returning to Canada by her Saudi husband.  Saudi law gives husbands the authority to restrict the travel of their spouses (which is hardly a surprise given that it also forbids women from driving, among other restrictions).  This law has recently been changed to permit foreign-born wives to leave without their husband’s permission, but as the amendment is not retroactive, unfortunately it does not apply to Ms. Morin.  Again, our government has decided not to intervene, with the Foreign Affairs minister recently stating that the matter was a private one, to be resolved by Saudi officials.

In those cases noted above which were actually resolved, it was only after the families of the stranded individuals hired lawyers to sue the government that there was any movement on their matters. Suaad Mohamud’s counsel forced the government to conduct a DNA test, which conclusively proved her identity and finally shamed the government into repatriating her.  Thanks to pressure from his lawyer, Abdihakim Mohamed was similarly promised travel documents in the wake of the Suaad Mohamud fiasco.  Maybe he’ll even get them.  In the case of Abousfian Abdelrazik, the matter proceeded all the way to trial, and it was only after a scathing decision by the federal court, which ordered the government to repatriate Mr. Abdelrazik, that he was finally returned home.

It seems that now it is only when ordered by a court that our government will bother to extend itself to protect Canadian citizens in jeopardy overseas.  In the face of this new reality, two thoughts come to mind.  First, one can only pity the poor soul who cannot afford a lawyer to force the government to act.  If Suaad Mohamud’s husband had not been able to scrape together the money to retain counsel, she would undoubtedly still be wandering the streets of Nairobi, thousands of miles from her home and teenaged son.  This is particularly disturbing, given that in the cases noted, the stranded Canadians all appear to have been guilty of nothing other than simply being in the wrong place, at the wrong time.  There is no evidence of malfeasance against any of them, and in the case of Suaad Mohamud, it is clear that she ended up blacklisted solely due to the errors, if not outright incompetence, of Canadian officials abroad.  Unfortunately, this didn’t seem to matter when officials in Canada were later asked to investigate these matters.

Secondly, the reality now seems to be that if you’re a Canadian citizen traveling abroad, you’re on your own.  The unspoken attitude seems to be that if you run into difficulties beyond our borders, well, you shouldn’t be out there anyway.

Apparently, it’s now amateur hour on the international stage. This bizarre mentality is not shared by anyone who understands how global relations function in the 21st Century; it is closer to that which would have been found 30 years ago. Suffice it to say, this is not the foreign policy of a confident nation sure of its place in the new globalized world; rather it would seem to reflect the impoverished view of one which sees the world as an ominous and threatening place, that it would prefer its citizens to fear and stay away from.

If Canada is to thrive and become a leader on the evolving international stage, it is inexplicable why policies would be adopted which can only make our citizens wary of traveling to foreign countries and emerging markets.  Our competitiveness depends on citizens, as well as government, coming to understand all corners of the globe, and not being afraid to cultivate the opportunities that lie there.  At the end of the day, the question is whether we believe our people should be free to travel, trade, and lead in the new global environment, or whether, in truth, we’re going to encourage such contributions only grudgingly, and would prefer that our people cower behind our own borders.  It goes without saying that the government cannot perfectly protect every Canadian abroad, but why would it not at least want to try?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but until it is answered, here’s a word to the wise: keep those old glasses and forget the collagen injections.

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Darren Thorne
Darren Thorne, B.A., LL.B., LL.M. Educated at the London School of Economics and Political Science (Master of Laws Degree) and Toronto's Osgoode Hall Law School (Bachelor of Laws), Darren Thorne is an international lawyer specializing in international law, development and human rights. Based in Europe in recent years, Mr. Thorne has an extensive history of onsite international development work and within the last two years has been involved in project work in Ethiopia, Tanzania, South Africa, Mongolia and Italy, among other places.

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