British MP George Galloway was banned from entry to Canada in March 2009. Galloway and supporters have taken Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Jason Kenney, to court in an attempt to overturn the ban. Canadian Federal Court heard the case this week in Toronto. On Wednesday, April 28, Galloway set aside some time from campaigning in the UK elections to speak to rabble editor Cathryn Atkinson.
Cathryn Atkinson: How are you feeling about the hearing?
George Galloway: I’ve been confident all along that Canada remains a country governed by law, rather than the capricious whim of here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians. I was always confident and still am confident that the court will grant permission because really all we’re asking is to have a say.
People don’t have to agree with it, and many will not. But the Canadian people have a right to hear, and hear not down a crackling telephone line but face-to-face, where they can ask questions and engage in the debate.
It’s unbecoming of a country like Canada to ban a fellow commonwealth parliamentarian elected for almost 25 years, five consecutive terms, and a man who can travel in and out of the United States, sometimes on a weekly basis. To say that such a person is a terrorist is deeply insulting to the intelligence of the Canadian people.
CA: You’re in the middle of the U.K. election, and you are raising funds for your charity, the Viva Palestina aid convoy, right now, and I wondered how the Canadian ban fits into what you are experiencing at the moment.
GG: I’ve been grappling with the Harper government across the Atlantic and fighting an election in the East End of London at the same time and this is not what I would have chosen, but that’s the way it’s broken. I’ve been talking to the Canadian media in the last few days more than I have been able to talk to the British media.
Skipping ahead, I am also preparing to sail into Gaza [with humanitarian aid] from Turkey on May 15, so everything is quite tight. If it goes our way [in court], then as soon as I can — or tout de suite — I’ll be there in Canada, pausing only to collect my toothbrush.
CA: I understand you were attacked in London recently while you were campaigning. What happened?
GG: The Islamist fundamentalists don’t like us, because we are their rivals [in the constituency]. We say to Muslims that are angry and bitter that they are right to be angry, but the best way to be angry is to engage in the democratic political process with people who are not Muslims, but who are equally angry about the same things. That’s not a message that the fundamentalists want to hear.
[NOTE: Police arrested and bailed three men on suspicion of behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress with regards to the alleged attack, which took place on April 10.]
CA: How often had you visited Canada before the ban?
GG: I’ve travelled very widely in Canada: Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, and I’ve spoken, of course, by video link in many other places, Mississauga and others. The best way to get to the top of the bestsellers list is to have someone ban your book, and one of the consequences of Jason Kenney’s foolish ban is that far more people in Canada know what I stand for and will be interested to hear me when I eventually get there, than ever would have been the case if he had not embarked on this.
CA: Are the issues raised by your banning bigger for Canadians than for you?
Yes. I want to stress I have no automatic right of free speech in Canada. Yours is a sovereign country and can exclude people that it sees fit under its own law. But when the law is perverted in such a way, and the result is that Canadians are denied their sovereign right to hear someone they want to hear, then that’s much bigger than this individual case.
If Canada is governed by people who are capable of telling a pack of lies, then that’s the biggest issue of all.
CA: You’re very much aware of the email exchanges regarding your ban between Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s director of communications, Alykhan Velshi, and the bureaucrats in Ottawa and London. What are your thoughts on them?
GG: I learned of my ban from the front page of the dirtiest newspaper in [Britain], Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, which is a very strange way to conduct diplomatic behaviour between the high commission in London and a senior British parliamentarian. They didn’t have the grace or the manners to call me personally and tell me that this was going to be in the papers and that this decision had been made.
But more importantly than that, it turns out that what was claimed to be a decision of the immigration department, which the immigration minister was unlikely to overturn, it turns out that it was a decision made in the minister’s office, and the immigration department was instructed to comply.
CA: Did you feel that your privacy rights had been violated, given how the ban became public knowledge? What have you been advised regarding this by your lawyers?
GG: Yes. I don’t know the details of the laws, but it was undoubtedly a breach of my privacy and a breach of diplomatic etiquette, and it’s damaging to Canada’s relation with the world, especially with fellow parliamentarians. When that news broke in The Sun, people thought it was some kind of spoof. How could Canada ban a senior British parliamentarian on the grounds that he was a security risk? It’s just too ridiculous for words.
And then there’s the issue of how I am able to sit in New York and deliver speeches by videolink to Canada. New York, the centre of the biggest terrorist atrocity in the western world, I can travel in and out of at will. But Canada, I can’t. This is a measure of how Canada has become Israel’s ambassador at large. Not just Israel’s ambassador at large, but Netanyahu’s ambassador at large — the most extreme government that Israel has ever had.
I can’t imagine why Canada would want to throw away the high reputation it had in the world as a decent place in which people respected others. For what? For Netanyahu? What’s in that for Canada?
CA: There many pages of emails, memos and other documents about your banning case which the Government of Canada’s lawyers tried to redact, including the exchanges between Velshi and government and high commission staff. What are your feelings about that?
GG: Redaction is the last refuge of the scoundrel. And these scoundrels who tried to redact were confounded by a good, old-fashioned cock-up [mistake], because the material has ended up public anyway. You couldn’t make it up.
CA: The George Galloway ban case is coming smack in the middle of other troubles for the Harper government: the Guergis/Jaffer affair, the Speaker’s ruling on redacted information regarding Afghan detainees, and more. Your situation seems to be part of a larger series of problems this government is now facing.
GG: Yes. I have to be careful not to stray too deeply into Canadian political waters, but it’s clear to me that the Harper government has really damaged Canada’s reputation in the world and its standing amongst its own people. It is severely reduced. And this case that I’m involved in has contributed to that.
Mr. Kenney has lain a gunpowder trail which has ended up blowing up in the government’s face.
CA: People are saying, well, journalists are saying, that George Galloway couldn’t have bought this kind of publicity in Canada. What do you say to that?
GG: Undoubtedly, the audience, when I do arrive, if I’m allowed to enter the country, will be vastly greater than it would have been had I not been banned, and that’s the ultimate irony. If I were Mr. Harper, I would be asking Mr. Kenney how he embarked on such a very foolish course of action. And I suspect that when people do hear what I’ve got to say about Palestine and about the war in Afghanistan that they will understand maybe a bit more why the Harper government was so unwilling to let me speak there.
CA: I understand you had launched a libel suit against Jason Kenney and others for being accused of supporting terrorism but had to abandon it.
GG: I had to abandon it for financial reasons. The lawyers were charging me $30,000 a month before the case started, and then the costs of the case. And then the case might have taken up to two years. It was completely beyond my reach and I had to abandon it. I’m sorry about that, but I had to.
CA: If you succeed in overturning the ban, will you revive it?
GG: I’m not sure the statute of limitations allow for it, but obviously we’ll look at it.
CA: When will you come if the ban is overturned?
GG: I’ve got the British election on May 6 and I’m sailing into Gaza on the 15th, or leaving Turkey on the 15th and arriving into Gaza a few days later, God willing, and I don’t know how long I’ll be stuck at sea. That depends on the Israeli navy, I suppose. But as soon as I can after that, I’ll be in Canada.
But we won’t know the result of today’s hearing for four weeks, as I understand it.
CA: I know you’ve answered this before, but could you tell me about your relationship with Hamas, which apparently caused this whole problem?
GG: I’ve never been a supporter of Hamas and I’m not now. I met President Arafat when I was 23 years old, and I was with him at his bedside in Paris when he died five years ago, and I remain loyal to his political life. I’m not in favour of Hamas, but I am in favour of democracy. The Palestinian people are entitled to choose their own leadership and nobody else is entitled to choose it for them, least of all those who seek to negate them, who seek to drive them off the map and out of the political game.
That’s real nub of the question, isn’t it? I think it’s immoral to kill people’s children because of how their parents voted in a democratic election. There are others, and Harper’s government is one of them, who believe it’s entirely legitimate to starve people’s children to death and I just don’t.
CA: In terms of the ongoing campaign of the boycotting of Israel, the divestment movement and the framing of Israel as an apartheid state, has this changed the way Israel is being viewed now? Is it different now?
GG: Well, I think it is. Israel has been spending its political capital with profligate abandon since 1982, since the big invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which led to the massacre in the Sabra and Shátila camps. Then in 2006, their invasion of Lebanon, in 2008-09, their invasion of Gaza, their murder of the Palestinian operative in Dubai [on Jan. 20, 2010], the stealing of the passports of many friendly countries, have all more-or-less left the Israeli political bank balance close to zero. The only place where they seem to have credit now is with the Harper government.
CA: How has British public opinion moved on this issue?
GG: It has moved decisively. When I started out on this campaign in 1975, when I was 21, you could’ve fitted all the supporters of the Palestinian struggle in my office, with room for an elephant at the back. Now there are millions and millions of people who know that the Palestine question is the heart of the matter. It’s the flaw at the heart of western policy towards the middle east, and that has been paid for very expensively in Palestinian blood.
The more these changes take place in public opinion, the more reckless, really, the Israeli government has become, and it’s all the more surprising, therefore, that Canada should have a government so absolutely… well, I don’t want to use the word craven because that would suggest submissiveness. I don’t think the Canadian government is submissive towards Israel, I think the Harper government is the last redoubt of George Bushism, and they ideologically identify with Netanyahu. It’s particularly tragic.
George Galloway is the Respect Party MP for Bethnal Green and Bow in London, and is currently running for re-election in a neighbouring riding.