Toronto Star : Maher Arar's wife calls for honest debate

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Maher Arar's wife calls for honest debate

Racial profiling must be acknowledged before we can eradicate it, Monia Mazigh tells symposium

Debra Black | Staff Reporter | October 17, 2007

Racial profiling should be acknowledged and discussed so Canadians can actively eliminate it from society, says the wife of Maher Arar, the Canadian who was wrongly arrested by American authorities, interrogated and then sent to Syria where he was tortured.

Sadly, scholars and the media neglect it, Monia Mazigh told a symposium on racial profiling at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education yesterday. "We should raise it, discuss it, eliminate it from our society. But first we need to acknowledge it."

Police and government authorities often deny it, she said. But she knows first hand that it exists, she told the audience. "I experienced it myself. ... Five years ago my husband and myself were labelled `Islamic extremists' by the RCMP and CSIS."

But neither she nor her husband was ever told why. Perhaps it was because she wore a headscarf, her husband had a beard or because they prayed five times a day, she speculated at the seminar, which was sponsored by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

As a consequence of that label, Arar was interrogated by U.S. authorities, arrested, imprisoned, sent to Syria, tortured and, about a year later, freed. A federal inquiry recently cleared his name and Ottawa paid him $10.5 million in compensation. He still remains on a U.S. no-fly list. The reason for that is unknown to either Arar or his wife.

The consequences of racial profiling are severe, said Mazigh. Communities feel marginalized and humiliated and the economic consequences can also be devastating with people losing their jobs simply because they've been interviewed by CSIS, she said.

Law enforcement agencies cannot rely simply on religion or appearance to start an investigation, she said.

"I had courage to speak out and denounce the treatment," she said. But not everyone does. She encouraged anyone who has experienced racial profiling to protest loud and long.

Racial profiling is not new to Toronto or, for that matter, Canada, a series of experts told the symposium. Young, black males have been experiencing racial profiling in Toronto for years, experts said. Indeed they said racial profiling has been an ongoing historical problem in Canada – one that has had and will continue to have grave ramifications for all Canadians.

Five years ago, the Toronto Star published a special investigation into racial profiling by Toronto police, said Carol Tator, an anti-racism and equity teacher at York University's anthropology department. That series sparked a lot of denial and debate, said Tator, who along with colleague Frances Henry wrote a book about racial profiling in Canada.

The book was triggered by the Star series and examined the practice of racial profiling and how police culture reinforces racism.

In the series, the Star found after analyzing hundreds of thousands of criminal charges that blacks charged with simple drug possession were taken to a police station more often than whites facing the same charge. The data also showed a disproportionate number of black motorists in the database were ticketed for offences that routinely would come to light after a traffic stop.

Racial profiling doesn't keep citizens safe from violence, Tator said.

"It is violence. ... It can be argued that racial profiling by the police is the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Racial profiling exists in many of our democratic institutions."