We Canadians like to remind each other that ours is the best of all countries to live in.
According to the UN Human Development Index, we’re the most educated, literate people on Earth, we rank third in life expectancy, and though our crime rate is above the world average, it’s pretty good considering the hemisphere.
Our private property is safer than in many other countries, Canadian criminals being more given to offences against persons, such as assault and rape.
There are goods in our stores, money in our banks, and for most of the citizenry our natural distrust of government doesn’t need to run to fear.
Just as most of our air is breathable and most of our water potable, most of us have no need to fear arbitrary prosecution.
It’s hard not to wonder sometimes if all this peace and prosperity might be numbing our senses.
In Britain, which to us placid Canadians seems such a roiling, boiling, violent culture clash of a place, a serial killer of prostitutes can count on about three deaths before the entire country is after him, press, police, parliament and all.
In Canada three dead sex workers don’t generate enough ink for a decent headline.
Though myopic at home, we Canadians seldom miss the mote in the neighbour’s eye.
We all know about Guantanamo, for instance, and in our typical understated way 65 per cent of us describe the American prisons there as “an embarrassment.”
We’re less likely to know or care about the Kingston Immigration Holding Centre, a makeshift prison in Ontario that some have dubbed “Guantanamo North.”
Three men are housed at this collection of portable buildings surrounded by barbed wire.
Mahmoud Jaballah, Mohammad Mahjoub and Hassan Almrei, are all accused of belonging to terrorist organizations connected with Al Qaeda.
Little is known about the accusations except that they originate in Syria and Egypt.
Held under secretive “security certificates,” the men have been held between three and six years and never been permitted to see the evidence against them.
All three are prisoners of the Canadian Border Services Agency.
Each faces possible deportation, either to Syria or to Egypt, where they would be tortured, possibly to death.
All three have wives and children in Canada.
There’s no suggestion that these men have been waterboarded, sexually humiliated or hung up and beaten while in custody; this is, after all, the best country in the world, even for the victims of arbitrary detention.
Ungratefully, the three detainees at KIHC are on hunger strike to protest both the arbitrary nature of the proceedings against them, and the conditions at the holding centre.
The strike has lasted 71 days, five days longer than it took Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican, to starve to death in 1981. Sands refused all sustenance, while the Kingston detainees are taking orange juice, so their demise will be slower, but 71 days is still a very long time to go without food, and the men’s health is at serious risk.
Calling the protest a “voluntary fast,” the government seems content to let them slip into oblivion.
Despite this life-and-death drama playing out there, Canadians remain barely aware of the prison’s existence.
Unlike the three prisoners in KIHC, Bobby Sands had been tried in open court and found guilty of possession of a pistol that had been fired at police during an IRA bombing.
Though the word wasn’t in vogue at the time, Sands was what we would now call a convicted terrorist.
As he starved himself to death, the world watched with fascinated horror.
Even here in Canada it was front-page news.
While on hunger strike Sands was elected MP for his old neighbourhood in Belfast.
There was a raging controversy over whether the British government had a right or a duty to step in and save him and his fellow hunger strikers, especially after they had lost their wits to starvation.
Many feared Sands’s death would be the martyrdom that would blow Northern Ireland apart.
If Mahmoud Jaballah, Mohammad Mahjoub, or Hassan Almrei should die in custody, there’s a good chance most Canadians won’t even hear about it.
It’s almost certain only a handful will raise a fuss.
Generally, large chunks of Canada have to drop off and float away before the opinion polls register a blip.
In this best of all possible countries we treasure our freedom.
Our Constitution, the best constitution in the world, protects our mainly literate, educated, and white population against arbitrary arrest and detention.
It protects our right of habeas corpus and guarantees us a fair trial.
It forbids that we be deported to foreign states where the risk of torture is high.
Citizens of a less perfect state might have reason to fear a government that makes exceptions to those fundamental principles of democracy, that detains a man for six years while it fights in the courts for the right to deport him to torture.
They might come to think that what can happen to Mahmoud Jaballah today could happen to us tomorrow.
In a less comfortable country the plight of the three men in Guantanamo North might be considered a wake up call.
In peaceful, prosperous Canada you can sound the alarm all you want — the people have found the snooze button.