Feature Article

Trial by smear: Terrorism and the Harper PMO

By Andrew Mitrovica 

iPolitics | September 25, 2014

What happened to Maher Arar wasn't supposed to ever happen again.


Arar, a Canadian citizen with a wife, a family and a good job, was 'rendered' to a Syrian prison in 2002. There he was tortured for months because anonymous Canadian officials, working hand-in-glove with the U.S. government, used bogus 'intelligence' to tar him as a terrorist.


Simply put, that's what former Ontario Associate Chief Justice Dennis O'Connor concluded after he exhaustively examined what happened to Arar and why it happened.  In the end, Ottawa had to pay Arar millions of dollars for smearing his name and for permitting a loyal Canadian to be secretly shipped like a piece of baggage - first to Jordan, then to Syria, where he was kept in a coffin-like cell where rats roamed free.


Despite the horror that Arar endured - and the undeniable role that powerful Canadian officials played in it - more Canadians are being put in a position of having to defend themselves against the terrorist smear. This time, the powerful government officials making the terrorist-ties accusation aren't anonymous. They're in the PMO.


And the latest target of the thinly-veiled 'terrorist' smear is the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), an independent, non-partisan, non-profit group that has worked for 14 years on human rights and civil liberties issues on behalf of Canadian Muslims.


The NCCM is having none of it. In May, the Ottawa-based NGO filed a defamation lawsuit against Harper and his chief spokesperson Jason MacDonald, after the latter told Sun News that he would "not take seriously criticism from an organization with documented ties to a terrorist organization such as Hamas."


And what did the NCCM do to offend the government's notoriously fragile (verging on paranoid) sensibilities? It criticized Harper for including a controversial rabbi in his official delegation to Israel in January. That's it, largely. This rather mild rebuke prompted MacDonald to go nuclear and accuse one of Canada's oldest Muslim-Canadian advocacy groups of having concrete links to Hamas.


Let's be frank about what that incendiary broadside - delivered to a so-called news channel operating as a bullhorn for the Conservative party - really means. The odious accusation here is that the NCCM is a hive of terrorist sympathizers, or worse. The ghost of Joe McCarthy haunts the PMO.


Arar, for one, knows that once that ugly label is stamped on your forehead it's mighty difficult - if not impossible - to erase. And when the prime minister's chief mouthpiece is doing the stamping in public, that constitutes ironclad proof for the Conservative base and beyond.


NCCM wants a public retraction, a permanent injunction preventing the words from being republished and damages of up to $100,000. I suspect the money is irrelevant. What they really want is to have this stain removed - not only for themselves, but for their families and for every other hard-working, honest and loyal Muslim-Canadian who loves this country.


I have no doubt that this punitive prime minister has added the NCCM to his long list of enemies and intends to crush them - if he can - in the courts. So Harper has retained Peter Downard, a top-flight defamation lawyer in Toronto, to carry a big, blunt legal stick for him while he's busy posturing for another kind of fight with the 

real terrorists in Islamic State. (Downard is also representing MacDonald.)


Downard may have written his clients' 22-page statement of defence, but every word of it oozes Harper's noxious political modus operandi and his distinctly vengeful way wih opponents.


Right off the top, Harper's lawyer throws MacDonald under the big blue bus. (It's like a mosh pit under there now, isn't it?) Here's what Page 2 of the statement of defence essentially says: 'Hey, don't sue the prime minister - sue his PR flak, since he's the one who said it.'


Here's the legalese version: "Prime Minister Harper did not publish the words complained of ... (he) did not participate in, direct, authorize or approve the publication of the words. Prime Minister Harper is not vicariously liable for the actions of staff members in his office."


Next comes what I call the Kindergarten defence: 'They started it.' Again, the legalese: "Jason MacDonald made this statement honestly and in good faith. The statement was in direct response to the NCCM's public criticism that the Prime Minister and the PMO ... (was) 'accepting and legitimizing the promotion of hate' against Canadian Muslims."


Finally, the statement of defence claims that MacDonald told the truth - cross-his-Tory-heart-and-hope-to-die.


Now, what evidence does Harper cite to back up the claim that the NCCM is run by terrorist-linked fifth columnists? I looked in vain for any "intelligence" from the spooks at CSIS or the RCMP. (You'll recall that these are the guys who were convinced that Arar was sleeper al-Qaida agent who received terror training in Afghanistan. They were fantastically wrong.)


Where does Harper turn next for his supposed smoking gun? To a United States court, of course. Think about that. The PMO reaches into a District Court in Texas and plucks one relatively obscure case heard in a northern backwater of the Lone Star state to brand his fellow citizens as Hamas-linked terrorists.


(You'll recall, again, that this is the same prime minister who apologized to Arar for Canada's role in smearing his reputation and his subsequent torture based on false information produced by American and Canadian official sources. He'll never learn.)


Here's the extent of Harper's 'evidence': The NCCM was once called CAIR-CAN. That acronym was similar to a U.S.-based organization called CAIR. The two groups, NCCM insists, were and remain separate entities.


Not in Harper's eyes. CAIR once appeared on a "list of unindicted co-conspirators" entered in a case involving another charity allegedly providing "material support" (whatever that means) to Hamas. De facto: CAIR-CAN (now NCCM) and CAIR are one happy Hamas family.


Talk about your legal Hail Marys. There's more of this kind of tenuous, convoluted guilt-by-association stuff in the statement of defence. I urge you to read it - if you can stomach it - and decide for yourself. 


Look, I don't know which side will ultimately prevail in court - if it gets that far. I do, however, know this: The NCCM has taken a principled stand against an unrepentant bully who has sullied its name and the names of every Canadian associated with it.


I wish my fellow Canadians at the NCCM every success.


Andrew Mitrovica is a writer and journalism instructor. For much of his career, Andrew was an investigative reporter for a variety of news organizations and publications including the CBC's fifth estate, CTV's W5, CTV National News - where he was the network's chief investigative producer - the Walrus magazine and the Globe and Mail, where he was a member of the newspaper's investigative unit. During the course of his 23-year career, Andrew has won numerous national and international awards for his investigative work.
Quote of the Week 

"Stumbling through darkness and racing through light, we have persisted in the creation of a Canadian civilization."

- Adrienne Clarkson,

Former Governor-General of Canada


September 27, 2014


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