Last week, the attorney general of Ontario announced the appointments of seven new justices of the peace.
One of the seven had legal training. The others included a retired elementary school teacher, a social worker and a former director of radio programming, marketing and sales.
These are in no way atypical of the qualifications expected of a Canadian JP.
When the RCMP searched the home of Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O’Neill in January of 2004, they did so under the authority of a search warrant issued by a justice of the peace, based on a section of Canada’s post 9/11 Security of Information Act.
The act is designed to circumvent the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in cases where there is an imminent threat to national security.
The search of O’Neill’s home and office was conducted in response to her November 2003 story in the Citizen citing information in a leaked government document alleging that Maher Arar had terrorist connections.
Arar, you may recall, is the Syrian-Canadian engineer who was kidnapped by US authorities at the airport in New York while en route to Canada, and sent to Syria to be tortured.
The leak was almost certainly provided to O’Neill in order to discredit Arar.
At the time he was getting a lot of press with his accusations that the government of Canada and the RCMP were complicit in the crimes against him.
O’Neill’s lawyers claim, not unreasonably, that the raid on her home was part of that attempt to discredit her, and that in fact the reporter was ‘set up.’
If the allegations are true, they point to a criminal conspiracy between members of the government and the RCMP to subvert justice, stifle the press and persecute both Arar and O’Neill.
If they are false, the whole matter still demonstrates how easy it would be for police to abuse the powers given them by Canada’s anti-terror legislation.
The raid on O’Neill’s home, along with her home office, was conducted at night.
Ten officers crowded the reporter’s apartment. While nine went through her personal effects, the tenth, a “truth-verification officer,” interrogated O’Neill during the search. He tried to get the reporter to reveal the source of the leak that led to her story.
O’Neill’s lawyers are now in court trying to get the warrant quashed on the grounds that it was improperly issued, and that the raid itself was an abuse of the power granted by that warrant.
A search warrant permits the police to search a home. Nowhere does it provide for a professional interrogator to enter and question the homeowner.
His Worship C.P. Sculthorpe, the JP who issued the warrant, may be eminently qualified to judge complex legal matters, or he may not, but in this case he appears to have been hoodwinked by the Mounties’ lawyers, who failed to mention that, while the application for a search warrant was being made under the Security of Information Act, the RCMP had already declared the leaked document to be “disposable and unclassified.”
The fact that individuals of minor legal qualifications are able to issue warrants under such a draconian law as the Security of Information Act is only a small part of what is wrong with this legislation.
In Canada today, if the state decides to pursue you under anti-terrorist legislation, neither you nor your lawyers have the right to see the evidence against you, and you may be held indefinitely without trial.
Under similar legislation, Arar was abducted by the US, and then deported to Syria, where he was subjected to unthinkable tortures.
O’Neill’s fate was much gentler, but still not something any citizen wants to endure.
This is Canada today. If you are neither dark-skinned nor a reporter, you may feel safe from such persecution, and for the time being it appears you are, but if you didn’t speak out when they came for Arar, who will speak when they come for you?
Today, under present circumstances, anti-terrorism legislation in Canada doesn’t do much to threaten the privacy, security or liberty of white middle class citizens who are unconnected to the media.
But if you ignore the way the law is now used to intimidate reporters and persecute people of Middle Eastern origin, what will come next?
Canadians enjoy the illusion that we are a tolerant country, whose Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects us from overzealous government officials.
The story of Arar and O’Neill demonstrates that this is a fantasy we can no longer afford.