Democracy and accountability are an illusion
“Aren’t you afraid?”
That is a question I’ve been asked hundreds of times over the past two years as I researched, wrote, and published my latest book, Dispersing the Fog: Inside the Secret World of Ottawa and the RCMP.
The question has been asked of me by curious politicians, bureaucrats, police officers, a judge and an ex-judge, my friends and acquaintances, and members of my own family.
The very fact that it is asked suggests that Canadians are not entirely comfortable in their own country. We think we live in a safe, open society, but at the same time so many Canadians seem to believe that it is dangerous to ask questions or raise issues that might strike at the heart of something darker going on within the country.
Am I afraid?
No and yes.
In my career as a journalist and author, I’ve seen how power is wielded in the shadows.
In the early 1980s, as a reporter at the Globe and Mail, I undertook an investigation into the Urban Transportation Development Corp., an Ontario Crown corporation. The UTDC, as it was known, was the baby of then-premier William Davis, who had received international recognition for promoting the company’s linear-induction train technology. I found that the technology was extremely expensive and would not likely sell in a competitive market without enormous government subsidies.
The UTDC never sold another train after that article.
Back then, Davis took aim at me both personally and professionally. He called me a traitor to Ontario and complained privately to the publisher of the Globe and Mail about my “biased” reporting.
A few weeks later, while I was stopped at a traffic light on University Avenue in Toronto, a reporter for the Toronto Star pulled up beside me, rolled down his window, and said: “I hear you’re going to sports.”
And so it happened. Three weeks later, I was a sports reporter, but the sidetracking did not deter me. A year later I was the sports editor, then city editor and, finally, national editor at the Globe and Mail.
Nevertheless, I continued fighting to the end, driven by the belief that journalism was a calling, not a profession.
Over the years, I witnessed the gradual transformation of newsrooms. New reporters had better and more elaborate pedigrees. I remember one time when then–Globe editor William Thorsell posted the biography of a new young reporter on the bulletin board as an example of what we should all aspire to be. The reporter, Mark Kingwell, had multiple degrees and was an accomplished pianist. As it turned out, he wasn’t much of a reporter, but he turned out to be a notable pop philosopher and author.
Pedigree and university degrees became more important than instinct in the news business. Newsrooms, once rowdy and noisy, became like insurance company offices: neat, tidy, and lifeless. It was no surprise, therefore, that the stories emanating from these newsrooms became just as predictable. News decisions were replaced by business decisions, and the news business still wonders why it is not so highly regarded by the public.
In the 1990s, I wrote two books about the RCMP: Above the Law and The Last Guardians. The first book was widely praised; the second was all but ignored by the mainstream media. I think the reason for this was that I had begun to focus on the unseemly political realities of Canada, for example, the politicization of the bureaucracy and the lack of checks and balances built into the system.
At one point in the mid-1990s, I began to investigate the Vancouver Stock Exchange and the influence and activities of members of the Church of Scientology. Nobody would publish the piece, mainly because Time magazine was facing a $500-million lawsuit after having written a slice of that story.
In 1996, I became involved in an investigation in Hamilton, Ontario, of a waste-management company. By just asking questions, I attracted an $11-million lawsuit and death threats
In that investigation, I was among the first—if not the first—to uncover and recognize large-scale accounting fraud. I mistakenly believed that government, police, the banks, and the accounting industry would rush to the rescue, but I had not come to appreciate how much the world had changed in such a short period of time. The mainstream media, fed to the point of satiation on news releases and marketing by governments, business, and themselves, did not want to hear the story. In fact, they were more interested in attacking me.
I was made out to be the enemy, even though the company in question had hired private investigators to conduct surveillance on me and my family. Attempts were made to steal our trash. Someone tried to poison our dogs. My family lived in fear, and our circumstances were severely reduced, but we wouldn’t give in. It took me a decade to fight that lawsuit off and win a favourable settlement.
The two books I had written during this period were not published because of the outstanding litigation. The roaring tigers of the media and publishing world had been reduced to cowering kittens and stenographers.
By the time I came to write Dispersing the Fog, I was battle-hardened. That doesn’t mean I was not fearful, but I was careful and cautious, particularly so when I stumbled into the underlying story of Maher Arar.
The official Arar story was that he was an innocent man who was betrayed by incompetent RCMP and CSIS officers and shipped by the Americans to Syria, where he was tortured for a year. The O’Connor Commission held hearings and the Harper government awarded Arar $10.5 million in compensation in February 2007, and another $2 million for legal fees. I had publicly bashed the RCMP for what it had done on numerous occasions on radio, on television, and in print.
However, as I researched the book, there was much about the Arar story that did not make sense to me, especially after I began to dig deeper into the official story. An apparent typo in the O’Connor Commission report eventually led me back into Arar’s past to a convicted arms dealer. The timing and the circumstances of the arrest of the arms dealer, as well as the fact that documents about the case went missing from a Montreal courthouse in 2000, were extremely suspicious.
As I pursued the Arar story in the fall of 2007, each step I took was measured and thought out in advance. I didn’t want to talk to too many people I did not know, because that could be dangerous. The entire Arar affair had been hidden under the veil of national security. Reporter Juliet O’Neill and the Ottawa Citizen had already been raided by the police after having written stories about Arar’s past, based on tips from anonymous sources. I felt I had to fly under the radar and get my story out before anyone realized what I was doing.
However, strange things did begin to happen. By October 2007, my sources were telling me that the government and the RCMP had issued strict orders that no one discuss the Arar case with me.
In November, my computer started acting weirdly. I found that it was heavily infected with viruses. I installed a new computer on a Wednesday afternoon. It had a Windows firewall and another firewall on its router. The next morning, my brand-new computer was barely functioning. A technician from my Internet provider, Eastlink, worked over the phone with me for more than an hour trying to determine what was wrong. Finally, a technician came to my house. He discovered that overnight someone had hacked into the system and deposited 1,105 copies of viruses and Trojan horses on my hard drive. Eastlink security said that whoever had attacked me had targeted me and was “extremely sophisticated. You should call the police.”
I did not do that. I just changed computers and used my laptop. The next week, my laptop wasn’t working. Someone had managed to get into the registry and flip off my product code.
“Whoever did this must have been in your house,” a security technician from Eastlink told me. “You should call the police.”
I was certain that no one had been in my house, but I asked Eastlink to record both situations in its logs.
I had one more attack similar to the others. I called Halifax police chief Frank Beazley and asked him for advice. He told me to complain to the RCMP about it, but I declined to do so. I knew how the RCMP might try to use something like that against me by suggesting that I was paranoid. I asked Beazley to note my call and concerns in his diary.
So I just soldiered on, changing computers and improving my defences but never going off-line and working on a computer unconnected to the Internet. Call it doublethink. I believed that if I had done so and tried to hide what I was doing, I might have invited an intrusion by whoever was interested in my work.
“Are we in danger?” my wife, Sharon, asked me.
“Maybe, I don’t know,” I told her. “But I may have to go to jail for a while on some trumped-up charge. Will you visit me?”
Things seemed to settle down after that, but when I told my editor, Jonathan Schmidt, at Key Porter Books what had happened, he was stunned. “Our computers have been down for days,” Schmidt said. “Our technicians can’t figure out what happened.”
Maybe there was a connection and maybe not. Maybe it was all just a coincidence, but I had to take whatever was happening seriously.
My phones and computers were always acting up. As I reported in the book, I was mysteriously blocked from some Web sites while probing possible connections to Arar. Nevertheless, I talked openly on the phones and through e-mails and made it clear that copies of my stories were regularly being sent to my publisher, agent, lawyers, and others, including two working journalists. I kept these people in the loop at all times because the dumbest thing for a vulnerable freelancer to do is try to protect an explosive story alone. Ask Danny Casolaro. He ended up dead in August 1991 in a West Virginia motel bathtub, and his file on the “Octopus”, as he called it, went missing forever.
I did not flinch in pursuing this story because I see myself as merely the agent of the story, and the story demanded that I go as far as I possibly could to tell it.
Should I be afraid for my life? It seems like such an unreasonable proposition to even consider, but that’s the way Canadians seem to think. Like a vast colony of J. Alfred Prufrocks, far too many of us are afraid of our shadows, of making a scene or getting peach juice on our clothing. We are caught up in our creature comforts, our ATVs, iPhones, and scripted reality television, willfully oblivious that everything we have can be taken away at a moment’s notice, because no one really seems to believe in anything but the easy life.
Dispersing the Fog is more than the story of Maher Arar; it is an investigation and analysis of the past 30 years of Canadian politics. It conclusively shows, based upon hard and irrefutable evidence, that we have lost control of our own country. There is an appearance of democracy, but real democracy and accountability are an illusion. There is no will at the highest levels to incorporate checks and balances in the system that would serve to protect us all. I guess that’s too dangerous an idea to be discussed openly.
I love Canada. I want Canada to be fair, progressive, and governed by the rule of law. It is a battle worth waging for everyone, even if it means in the short term being personally smeared by politicians, police, and members of the media who are all too cognizant of their own culpability.
That’s the only thing to fear in Canada. You don’t get killed for being on the cutting edge in Canada; you either are ignored or shunned, or get heaps of mud thrown at you. Over the past few weeks, I’ve experienced all three.
I was booked to do a number of shows on national television—CTV’s Canada AM, the CBC’s Sunday Morning—and the CBC radio syndicate, among others. Each cancelled at the last minute. Why? We can’t find out. My public-relations person, Pat Cairns, says she has never seen a media response like that. She’s astonished. It’s clear that not only my well-researched Arar story but everything else in the book—about the RCMP, Jean Chrétien, Brian Mulroney, Stephen Harper, and the state of Canada—is making too many people nervous.
Although the media is aware of what I have written, no one, to my knowledge, has bothered to confirm or refute what I report. To do so would only open a can of worms that no one—the government, political parties, or, especially, the mainstream media—wants to touch.
Instead, the official Arar story is perpetuated ad nauseam as if I had written nothing. The CBC’s Anna Maria Tremonti was almost in tears in early November while interviewing Arar and his wife, Monia Mazigh, about her recently published memoirs.
An executive producer for The Hour said George Stroumboulopoulos wasn’t interested in my story, and a week later, on November 27, Stroumboulopoulos interviewed Arar and Mazigh again, promoting Mazigh’s book without ever popping a meaningful question about Arar’s mysterious past.
I have been tarred as a conspiracy theorist—the lowest of the low—which is the Canadian way of shooting the messenger. I’ve even heard reporters say that my Arar story is not credible because I do not have “official sources” confirming it, as if the government would admit to what it has done. Many of the facts I dug out were unknown to the original RCMP investigators in the Arar case, hidden from them by their own force. The great irony is that the Canadian media got sucked into the Arar story because it relied religiously only on official sources who manipulated it into a box. The facts speak for themselves—the emperor is in the buff.
Those who have read it tell me Dispersing the Fog is a powerful and important story about the way Canada works and who is pulling the strings.
My brave publisher at Key Porter Books believes Dispersing the Fog is a landmark work—an elephant in the room that cannot be ignored forever. Just how long it will take to break through this journalistic blockade is anyone’s guess.
Thank you for letting me take this shower in public. And no, I have no problems sleeping at night.