Canadians left to twist in the wind (National Post, Sept 15, 2003)

Like thousands of other Canadians, I have been reading William Sampson's account of his ordeal in Saudi Arabia with the painful mixture of incredulity, fascination, horror, outrage and frustration we reserve for such an extraordinary narrative of suffering and courage in the face of evil.

Angry questions crowd the mind as I read of officials who came, observed and abandoned Sampson to the savagery of a barbarian "justice" system. I am sickened by the knee-jerk self-exculpatory spin of Bill Graham and his minions on the "soft diplomacy" bandwagon.

Amongst the lessons William Sampson took away from his nightmare was that he and other nationals were lucky to have Britain working on their behalf; if he had depended solely on Canada, he might still be in that hellhole.

Our government's failure to defend Sampson is not a random or accidental lapse from normal policy. Weakness and confrontation-avoidance with repressive regimes is a behavioural pattern, a conscious Canadian choice when its citizens are in trouble abroad. Yet history shows that vigorous public pressure is what works with closed repressive regimes. Why is Canada so intent on wearing the Miss Congeniality crown amongst the nations? Why won't Canada stand up for her citizens abroad?

I can't help thinking these days of Barbara Amiel, the well-known Canadian journalist, and the way our government treated her when she was jailed in Mozambique in 1980.

When I read Amiel's memoirs and learned the truth about what happened to her, I was ashamed for swallowing whole the "official" government line on her Mozambique misadventure. All I can say, and it is a lame excuse, is that in those days I was ridiculously wet behind the ears politically. I assumed without question that all democratic governments stood behind their principles and looked out for their citizens' best interests.

Amiel always admitted that crossing into the country on a larky New Year's Eve party impulse was a pretty dumb thing to do, but she actually never expected the border guards to let her and her two friends in. What happened to her then was horrifying. She was thrown into a primitive cinder block political prison with 600 men and one other woman without food or sanitation for nearly two weeks. There was no sink or furniture; one bare light bulb burned 24 hours a day. She was humiliated and a witness to the effects of torture. She was certainly given to think she might be tortured or even executed at any time, even though no charges were laid against her, and she was not allowed access to a lawyer.

The Mozambique government, then the Soviet Union's close ally, put out the story that she had stolen American Express Travelers' Cheques. The Marxism-friendly and Amiel-hostile CBC -- Amiel's gadfly anti-socialism was ever a thorn in the liberal media's tender parts -- revelled in the allegations, continually interviewing the Mozambique minister of information so he could repeat the outrageous slander day and night.

During her imprisonment, the Canadian government did not lift a finger to help her, even though she was suffering from malaria and typhoid. When the subject was raised in Parliament, then-external affairs minister Mark McGuigan (speaking for Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau) said that while the jail conditions were bad, they were the same for Mozambique criminals. This was contemptible: Our government was condoning the subhuman standards of a totalitarian regime at the expense of its own citizen's human rights.

It was through the efforts of the far more realistic and virile British government (thankfully, like Sampson, Amiel had a dual passport) that she was released. But once back in Canada, she was treated as a pariah by the government and by complicit liberal cultural elites. Upon her return, Barbara Frum did a live TV interview on As It Happens with Mozambique officials, and -- unbelievably for a journalist of her stature and prestige -- did not invite Amiel on air to respond.

On the issue of citizens' rights our government is schizoid. Amiel and Sampson were left to twist in the wind. But the mandarins seem very keen on protecting the rights of suspected Islamist fanatics and cluck loudly to all and sundry about human rights violations whenever some suspiciously well-travelled (Afghani, Pakistani) al-Qaeda rat-pack affiliate is detained overnight without a battery of lawyers at his side.

I used to believe that when I am in a foreign country, my government and its embassies abroad are my symbolic national "parents," there to protect me if I get into trouble. As the experiences of Barbara Amiel and William Sampson make clear, when we Canadians leave home, we must consider ourselves people without a country. Why should William Sampson want to come back to Canada? He is a national orphan. We are all national orphans, potentially.

© Copyright  2003 National Post