As hundreds of Tamil migrants, including children and pregnant women, remain detained in British Columbia under the spurious allegation that they pose a risk to national security, Mary Jo Leddy’s Our Friendly Local Terrorist is an eloquent reminder that such hysteria predates Stephen Harper’s hard core agenda.
Leddy, who for many years has worked and lived with refugees in Toronto as part of the Romero House community, weaves together a compelling chronology of a Kurdish refugee’s 13-year struggle against the unsubstantiated terrorist label pinned on him by Canada’s secretive, scandal-plagued spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).
Suleyman Goven, a political activist and refugee from frequent detention and torture in Turkey, is not a household name, but his endless efforts to become a permanent resident, facing down some of the most powerful institutions in Canada, illustrate a dilemma faced by countless asylum seekers. In short, his refusal to spy on his community for CSIS proved a costly choice that still haunts him.
Indeed, CSIS never forgets and certainly never forgives those who refuse its entreaties. Goven was lucky, though, because a white Canadian, Leddy, joined him for his CSIS security interview. Leddy’s astonishment at the tone and content of the seven-hour interrogation jolted her as she furiously scribbled notes and eventually dressed down the government agents for their remarkable leaps of illogic and their extortion: cooperate or else.
Leddy artfully shows us the human face of hidden despair, isolation and dehumanization suffered by refugees in Canada. Coming out of the security “interview,” she was frozen at the sound of a primal, howling scream that Goven hurled skyward, again faced with the demand to spy on his fellow Kurds that no amount of torture would make him agree to in Turkey.
The story follows Goven who, despite being denied status for “security” reasons, built and maintained a Kurdish community centre, a focus of CSIS surveillance, pressure and the disrupting suspicion that erupted in serious divisions within the community. Leddy also borrows heavily from his well-kept diary, a testament to the amount of time he had spent suffering from depression — the only time he writes. He recorded symptoms of mental torture that flowed from the limbo he experienced, unable to get on with his life due to the decisions of faceless bureaucrats immune from accountability.
Goven’s case was no aberration; Leddy recounts that some 13 Kurds came forward to sign a public statement that they had also been pushed by CSIS to spy in return for status in Canada. Despite the barriers, he pushed forward on all fronts, eventually landing a complaint hearing at the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC, the CSIS review committee).
Her description of the hearing — part of which was heard in secret, without Goven or his lawyers present — is disquieting enough, including descriptions of intense CSIS pressure on the community as the hearing proceeded. Just when it seemed government agents could sink no lower, though, a CSIS lawyer introduced a clearly forged document in an attempt to discredit Leddy.
In the end, the SIRC found there were no grounds to label Goven a security threat. The victory, though, was short-lived, because years of further struggle lay ahead as Goven discovered the decision, highly critical of CSIS, was not accepted by the spy agency nor by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, whose representatives refused to take the report’s conclusions into consideration while still denying his permanent residency application. It’s a compelling example of how CSIS acts above the law, without repercussions.
Meanwhile, any Kurd refugee families for whom Goven provided translation become the subject of security inquiries; it was a never-ending nightmare of guilt by association, and while Goven eventually did get his status, CSIS continues to harass him and the Kurdish community to this day.
Leddy is forthright and honest in her account; she refuses to idealize Goven, admits that she does not always like him, and is happy when he does not call. She talks about his fits of rage, her own doubts about his background early on in their relationship, and the journey she herself needed to travel to realize he was the victim of an unfair targeting process.
The book includes an excellent essay (“Manufacturing Terrorists: Refugees, National Security, and Canadian Law”) by the always insightful Sharryn Aiken (unfortunately, it appears not to have been updated for 2010). Similarly, a curiously truncated version of the SIRC report on the Goven case fails to include the most interesting sections that lead to his exoneration.
Those minor points aside, this book is essential reading that opens an educational path CSIS certainly would not want readers to take. It also goes a long way towards explaining why the agency continues to inspire fear with late night door knockings, deceptive invitations to grab a coffee, and its enormous power to destroy people’s lives.—Matthew Behrens