Ka Hsaw Wa speaks at the University of Ottawa in Dec. 2007. Photo: Matthew Morgan.

Members of the University of Ottawa’s administration tried to prevent prominent Burmese human-rights activist Ka Hsaw Wa from speaking on the campus in late 2007, according to documents obtained by the Canadian Friends of Burma through an access to information request.

Three PDFs, the contents of which are outlined in the story below, can be read here:

Documents (click to download pdfs): Set 1 (October 2008), Set 2 (February 2009), Set 3 (April 2009)

Wa is from the Karen people, an ethnic minority of seven million in Burma, which has long been suppressed by the military junta. The community waged a jungle war since 1949, seeking independence.

They are just one of many ethnic minorities in Burma. Most are suspicious of the Burmese majority as the ethnic minorities fought with the British in the second world war, while the Burmese fought on the Japanese side and only switched once it became evident that they were going to lose the war.

After independence a number of efforts were made by the government to more fully include these minorities in the new Burmese state, but all those efforts were pretty much swept aside after the military coup in 1962. Most of the ethnic groups in the country ending up creating their own armies to fight against the central government. However during the 1990s all of them, except for the Karen ending up signing cease-fire agreements with the military, which has allowed the regime to focus on the Karen and really reduce the territory which they control in the country.

The military also particularly dislikes the Karen because after the suppression of the 1988 student led uprising, which Aung Sung Su Kyi and the People’s Alliance for Democracy of course played an important role in, most of the students fled into areas which were at that time held by the Karen army and were provided with food and shelter, by the Karen people.

The subject of Wa’s presentation was the highly controversial Burmese business activities of Total SA, the French oil giant whose board members include the Desmarais family, one of the University of Ottawa’s biggest benefactors.

Hours after it had been announced that Wa, the Earth Rights Co-founder and human rights activist, would be speaking in a campus building named after the family patriarch, Paul Desmarias, senior staff from at the University of Ottawa were emailing each other about the event and devising ways to prevent it from taking it place

The flurry of exchanges began on Friday, Nov. 30, 2007 at 7: 49 AM when Vice President for External Relations Bruce Feldthusen forwarded the Canadian Friends of Burma announcement to his colleagues, adding the following comments as a preface:

“I assume you received this? Nice of us to let them use the Desmarais building.”

The email announcement read:

“BURMA Blood Profits: Was Ottawa U’s new Desmarais building paid for with cash tainted by the blood of innocent Burmese citizens?

Main Speaker: Ka Hsaw Wa Co-Founder Earth Rights International and investigator into human rights abuses during the construction of the Total/UNOCAL Yadana natural gas pipeline. He will speak on the devastating impact to Burma from Total’s partnership with Burma’s violent dictatorship. Ka Hsaw Wa’s investigation was the basis for the landmark lawsuit by villagers from Burma against UNOCAL for forced labour and human rights violations.

Funding for the University of Ottawa’s new 12 storey Desmarais building came in part from a $15 million donation from billionaire Paul G. Desmarias, whom the building was named after. Mr. Desmarias, patriarch of the family that controls Power Corp. served on the board of the French Oil conglomerate Total from January 1999 till May 2002 when he gave his seat to his son Paul Desmarais Jr. Power Corp. continues to own a significant share of Total. Total is infamous for its involvement in a pipeline in Burma in which it partnered with the Burmese military and UNOCAL. Construction of the pipeline caused
severe environmental destruction, the forced relocation of thousands and benefited from child and forced labor provided by the very same villagers who were forced at gun point to leave their homes.”

Upon reading this notice, University of President Giles Patry replied minutes later:

“Can’t believe this. Might be a bit too llate [sic] to do anything about it. We should monitor to see if they are exposing themselves with libellous comments.”

About 30 minutes later, Victor Simon, University of Ottawa vice president for resources emailed both Patry and Feldthusen to suggest that the university could block the event from taking place by claiming it was “libellous”:

“Gilles, Bruce, I can’t stop thinking that we should prohibit the use of our facilities for this event, on the grounds that the program material includes allegations and accusations that may be libellous… I know that this kind of action thinking flies in the face of many principles we hold dear in the University world, but I think we have others interests at stake here.”

Feldthusen then emailed both Patry and Simon that he was concerned that the event posed unspecified “security issues.” Furthermore, Feldthusen then contacted Claude J. Giroux the head of the University’s Protection Services, to pass on his concerns and make security aware that he wanted to know if any students were involved. In another email, Feldthusen sent to Simon and Patry later that day he reiterated his concerns about the event stating “So I do see some risk of trouble here.”

According to the emails, Giroux had his protection services subordinates immediately investigate Wa’s upcoming presentation, this included going to the event’s Facebook page and taking a screen
capture so as to make a note of those attending.

The protection services investigator forwarded the Facebook screen capture to his superior stating: “This is from Facebook. I love this program!!! We know who is likely to attend.”

On the afternoon of Monday, Dec. 3, two days before the event was set to take place, Feldthusen forwarded Simon and Giroux a positively written short blog posting from The Ottawa Citizen’s website about Wa written by Kate Heartfield. An alarmed Feldthusen prefaced the accompanying note with: “So this is clearly a set up”.

The next morning, at 5:48 a.m., Simon replied:

“Bruce, who is renting the room and who allowed this rental to proceed?” Minutes later Feldthusen replied “[redacted] and I don’t see how anyone could have stopped him”.

Later that morning, Patry emailed Simon and Feldthusen claiming that the Canadian Friends of Burma were somehow taking advantage of the University of Ottawa’s Student Federation (SFUO), who had in fact invited Ka Hsaw Wa and the Canadian Friends of Burma on to campus for the event. “I gather that the ‘Friends of Burma’ are not paying for the room. In that sense this is not appropriate fir[sic] the SFUO to be used as a front, in my view.”

Simon replied minutes later: “Absolutely! We would have detected this if we had followed our normal
protocol. I just sent a note to Micheline [Charbonneau Seguin] and Marc [Duval] asking them to be more vigilant in the future”.

The University of Ottawa delayed disclosure of the email Victor Simon referred to. More than 10 months after the initial request was submitted CFOB finally obtained the text of this email written in French.

Several other emails have been completely redacted by the University of Ottawa citing attorney client privilege and privacy concerns. CFOB has challenged the university’s decision to withhold the full release of the documents and the issue is before Adjudication at the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner if Ontario.

CFOB is determined to learn the identity of an individual who following the presentation sent a detailed report of the event to the University of Ottawa’s legal counsel. A censored version of report was
disclosed after a lengthy delay.

If this individual was indeed acting as an agent of the university as it appears, then the University of Ottawa has joined the Burmese military regime and multinational oil companies on the dubious list of organizations that spy on Wa.

In the end, the talk went on without a hitch, it was well received in a full room, with many questions asked afterwards. During Wa’s address, organizers became suspicious because a man in the back row was writing notes about what the speakers said, and he was obviously not a student.

Everything specifically about him has been redacted, which is why organizers are challenging this and taking it to the Ontario provincial ombudsmen, quite a lengthy process.

Harvey Su, an elderly Karen man who attended Wa’s speaking event was deeply disturbed to see the documents obtained by FIPPA which clearly show that the University of Ottawa administration wanted to prevent Wa’s presentation from taking place.

The 81-year-old, a survivor of the Burmese military’s campaign against ethnic minorities, was appalled to learn that the university administration actively attempted to stop the event.

When shown the documents, which are attached to the story as PDFs, Su said: “Who are these University of Ottawa presidents, vice presidents and security staff working for exactly, the people of Ontario? Or are they working for the Desmarais family, the oil companies and the Burmese military regime? This I really want to know.”

When asked if he would feel comfortable if his soon to be university-age granddaughter would go to the University of Ottawa in the near future, Su replied:

“I don’t want any of my grandchildren going to a university where they are going to be spied on simply for being Karen refugees deeply concerned about the plight of our people back in Burma. I fled Burma so my family could be free, so as long as people like this Victor Simon fellow remain in charge at the University of Ottawa I will urge my grandchildren to go to Carleton University or some other place.”

Kevin McLeod a co organizer of the event and CFOB board member who filled the access to information requests was shocked when he read the emails, some of which discussed his activities:

“The emails show a deep hostility on the part of the university administration to academic freedom, human rights and free speech and we haven’t even seem all the emails yet.”

McLeod is particularly disturbed by the statements of Feldthusen, then VP external but now serving as the dean of the university’s law school:

“I initially emailed Professor Feldthusen about the event because he is an expert on tort law and I naively thought he’d want to meet Ka Hsaw Wa because Earth Rights was part of a very important legal case. I didn’t expect Feldthusen to respond by ordering the university security to investigate which students were involved, it’s a total disgrace. You can understand why Harvey Su and other refugees who have seen these emails are really disturbed.”

Matthew Morgan, a volunteer with the Canadian Friends of Burma, helped to organize Ka Hsaw Wa’s 2007 talk at the University of Ottawa

Cathryn Atkinson

Cathryn Atkinson is the former News and Features Editor for rabble.ca. Her career spans more than 25 years in Canada and Britain, where she lived from 1988 to 2003. Cathryn has won five awards...