A weather-worn poster of Chelsea Manning in Montreal, QC. (Image: Francesco Mariani/Flickr)
A weather-worn poster of Chelsea Manning in Montreal, QC. (Image: Francesco Mariani/Flickr)

United States whistleblower Chelsea Manning will have to wait until 2022 to find out if she can legally cross the Canadian border.

While the Canadian government is arguing Manning is inadmissible due to prior convictions, academics, activists and her lawyers fear Canada’s decision to ban Manning could empower less democratic countries to punish whistleblowers.

Manning, 33, is a former United States Army soldier who disclosed nearly 750,000 military and diplomatic documents via Wikileaks. Among the leaked materials Manning provided to Wikileaks included a video of United States forces gunning down Iraqi civilians from Apache helicopters, an event that took place in 2007.

Years later, Manning explained her decision to leak the materials, saying “I stopped seeing just statistics and information and I started seeing people.”

Manning’s efforts as a whistleblower landed her in federal prison after being convicted of crimes including espionage. Manning served in prison from 2010 until 2017, when President Obama made the decision during his final days as commander-in-chief to commute her 35-year sentence – the longest sentence ever imposed in the U.S. for a leak conviction.

After her release from federal prison, Manning challenged incumbent Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland during the 2018 election, though she fell short with less than six per cent of the vote.

One year later, Manning found herself back behind bars. She served from March 2019 to March 2020 for contempt of court after she refused to testify before a grand jury investigating Assange.

Manning’s inadmissibility to Canada became clear shortly after her first release from prison. While trying to cross the New York-Montreal border to travel into the country, Manning received a letter from border officials issued to Ahmed Hussen, the minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship at the time, denying her entry.

Manning challenged the denial in 2017, filing an admissibility hearing in a Canadian tribunal. Her hearing finally took place this month, after receiving a bizarre invitation by Canadian government lawyers to attend a Montreal hearing in person — an act that would have resulted in Manning being thrown out of the country.

On Oct. 7 and 8, Manning appeared virtually at an Immigration and Refugee Board hearing.

Manning, who is bound by a non-disclosure agreement with the United States government regarding her leaks, called the process “exhausting.”

The hearing, which lasted two days, will culminate in a final written decision slated to come sometime next year.

Academic calls ban a victory for autocrats and censors

Among the strongest opponents of Manning’s inadmissibility to Canada is Robert J. Deibert, professor of political science and director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto.

In September, Deibert issued a 15-page statement documenting both the work of the Citizen Lab, an academic research hub, and its reliance on whistleblowers for its coverage. Deibert noted in his statement the Citizen Lab has previously relied on and republished data from leaked documents disclosed by American whistleblower Edward Snowden.

According to Deibert’s statement, if the goal was to keep Manning out of the country, one position the immigration minister could take is to label Wikileaks as a foreign entity or terrorist group. Alternatively, the minister could argue that “communicating protected information directly to the public or providing it to a third party (such as a journalist) who then publishes that information would be sufficient to constitute communication ‘to a foreign entity or to a terrorist group’ — the logic being that those individuals could then access the information through public channels.”

Deibert pointed to concerns of the potential abandonment of public interest research by punishing whistleblowers, adding that important stories would remain untold.

“Practically speaking, such a development would represent a victory for autocrats, censors, and the vendors of rights-violating technology everywhere, who might prefer that their activities remain unexamined by organizations like ours,” Deibert wrote.

Deibert isn’t alone in advocating for Manning’s admissibility.

When Manning tweeted a photo of her denial of entry letter in 2017, then-NDP leadership candidate and Manitoba MP Niki Ashton panned the move by the Canadian Border Agency. Ashton called the move “unacceptable” and called on the federal government to “fix this and allow her in our country.”

Also in 2017, the Association for Progressive Communications submitted a letter to the immigration minister and the minister of public safety and emergency preparedness regarding Manning’s inadmissibility.

The letter, signed by over 40 elected officials, academics, professionals, and civil society organizations, says denying admissibility to a country because of actions or positions on human rights “is an indignity that must be remedied.”

“Continuing to deny her entry to Canada would serve no rational benefit to public safety and would seriously undermine Canada’s commitment to international justice, security, and human rights,” the letter reads.

War criminals welcome, but not whistleblowers

El Jones, a long-time advocate of decarceration based in Halifax, believes the decision to ban Manning from Canada is hypocritical.

“We’ve seen a relentless persecution of people, especially those who are revealing the truth about the American military,” Jones said. “Chelsea Manning showed us what was actually going on. We were being told this was a war for freedom and we know it was a war for oil.”

Each fall since 2004, the Halifax International Security Forum comes to Halifax in an effort to preserve global security.

The independent, non-partisan, non-profit organization has previously welcomed former U.S. president George W. Bush and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice — two of the lead proponents of the Iraq war.

Jones, an author, journalist and teacher, protests outside the Westin Hotel each year when the Forum comes to town.

“Because she revealed [war crimes], she can’t come into Canada, but the people who actually profited from that, [who] ordered that and oversaw that war can come in no problem,” Jones said. “What it tells you is being a war criminal is no problem. Exposing war criminals is the only problem.”

Jones also drew parallels to the movement of people being controlled while governments provide weapons to countries who commit war crimes, like Saudi Arabia.

“Why is the movement of people controlled and the movement of capital is not?” Jones asked.

Banning a trans whistleblower is Canada’s latest effort of homo-nationalism, or “pinkwashing,” Jones said, describing the act as a “settler-colonial state using gay rights in order to present themselves as progressive.”

“We welcome LGBTQ refugees, but then you have Chelsea Manning, a trans woman who was tortured in prison,” Jones said. “Now all of a sudden that’s a threat and danger.”

Requests for comment from Manning were forwarded to her attorneys who did not respond to rabble.ca’s interview requests.

Image: Gilad Cohen

Stephen Wentzell

Stephen Wentzell is rabble.ca‘s national politics reporter, a cat-dad to Benson, and a Real Housewives fanatic. Based in Halifax, he writes solutions-based, people-centred...