On July 8, 2013, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced his resignation from Stephen Harper’s government, as well as his departure from politics altogether. He mentioned personal reasons for this move. We still don’t know if his torture legacy came back to haunt him, or if the recently publicized American spying program PRISM quietly affected his political career.
But who really cares, because for his supporters Vic Toews will always be remembered as Mr. Tough On Crime, the man who defended the “rights of victims,” or rather some particular victims, to be precise.
Indeed, when Vic Toews became Justice Minister, he meticulously implemented the political agenda of his boss Stephen Harper and he continued to do so after he was appointed Public Safety Minister. It is not a secret that the tough-on-crime package was one of the five priorities of Stephen Harper when he was elected prime minister in 2006.
But for the Muslim men arrested in the ‘war on terror’ and for all human rights advocates in Canada, Vic Toews will always be remembered as Mr. Who Authorized Torture.
Vic Toews became Justice Minister in 2006, and few months later, Guantanamo North, a six-inmate facility within the maximum security Millhaven Penitentiary near Kingston opened its doors to hold four Muslim men who were detained under the controversial security certificate procedure. While they were held in isolation, it was reported that the detainees complained about the conditions of their incarceration, where it was extremely hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. It was also reported that “they had no access to dental care, that they were harassed by the guards, and that floodlights in a courtyard they could not access kept them up at night.”
One of the detainees, Hassan Almrei, embarked on a 155-day hunger strike while incarcerated in isolation at this infamous institution. Vic Toews didn’t budge as he continued to forcefully implement his boss’s agenda.
Soon after, when the majority of security certificates were quashed by the courts and the detainees freed from strict conditions, Vic Toews didn’t order the closure of Guantanamo North. The $3.2-million facility remained vacant until Omar Khadr came to live in it in 2012, after his repatriation from Guantanamo Bay. By that time, Vic Toews was already Public Safety Minister. He quietly authorized the intelligence agencies, as well as border agency CBSA to accept all types of information, even when that information was extracted from torture. The objective was considered “noble,” as this was justified to save the lives of innocent people. Of course, didn’t Mr. Toews also mean the lives of those who were tortured? Well, obviously this question didn’t preoccupy Mr. Toews. It didn’t bother him that Omar Khadr, a teenager at the time of his arrest, was ill-treated by the Americans in Bagram and also later in Guantanamo. Mr. Toews was on a mission; he had to finish his job. Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, complained to the Public Safety Minister and asked him to withdraw the “torture directive”. Mr. Neve’s request fell on deaf ears.
Last April, Vic Toews didn’t even allow a reporter to interview Omar Khadr. He claimed that the interview posed a security risk. So far, I haven’t figured out how this is possible but maybe Mr. Toews knows better than us and has his own reasons to believe so. I still don’t know why Vic Toews, himself a son of immigrants with a strong background of religious minority (Mennonites) who escaped the torture and oppression of the Soviet Union, became the key implementer of a systematic policy that mainly targeted another religious minority — in this case, people who adhere to the Muslim faith. If you have the answer, please let me know.
Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge for over a year. She campaigned tirelessly for his release. Mazigh holds a PhD in finance from McGill University. In 2008, she published a memoir, Hope and Despair, about her pursuit of justice, and in 2011, a novel in French, Miroirs et mirages.