By: Joyeeta Dutta Ray in Toronto, ON

As Toronto evolves into the world’s most multicultural city, so does its colourful communities, rising as a collective force to overcome challenges. This time, it’s the women who are initiating change. Meet a few dynamic South Asian immigrants who have stepped forward to pull up others in the community in various ways.

If Women Move Forward, the Whole Community Moves Forward

Shiuli Akhtar* (*name changed) stands as a symbol of pride for Sultana Jahangir, Executive Director at South Asian Women’s Rights Org. (SAWRO). She defines what Toronto’s grassroots member-led non-profit organization stands for: helping South Asian women, Bangladeshis in her case, come into their own in Canada.

Shiuli migrated to Toronto from Chittagong, Bangladesh in 2013, two small kids in tow. She had a degree in Chemistry but no work experience to talk of and little English skills. When she approached SAWRO for help, she was first enrolled in an English learning class, followed by a computer course. When her skills grew, so did her confidence. She got a break in a cosmetics firm in December 2014, only to be laid off 8 months later.

Not one to leave anyone stranded in the middle of the road, SAWRO pulled her into COSTI to switch lanes as a medical lab technician. Shiuli rose to the challenge, volunteered in a clinic for 3 months before she was absorbed into a full-time role. 4 years later, she lives her dreams in the same clinic with pride.

Sultana Jahangir, originally from Bangladesh, moved to Toronto from the USA in 2005, where she lived for about 7 years. Having faced injustices as a new immigrant under the Bush Administration, she understood the plight of her people in Canada.

“(Low-Income) women in the Bangladeshi community are very isolated. They are not familiar with writing resumes or Ontario’s employment process. It is hard for them to sustain precarious jobs as they are not protected by working rights. We have policies from the 1930s which do not apply in today’s environment.”

The work environment in Canada is going through drastic change. Full-time employment supported by good wages is giving way to temporary contracts that pay pittance. Women at the lower end of the job spectrum are hit hardest with little benefits and lesser job security. SAWRO helps them by working with labour rights and employment organizations for “systematic change”. Once these women sustain themselves, there is a profound difference. “They first get their voice and recognition in their own families,” says Sultana. 

Today, after 5 years of service, SAWRO supports over 2000 Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Afghani and Indian women. About 346 were assisted with jobs. Plans are on to reach other marginalized groups now. “Every ethnic group has their own characteristics,” Sultana says. There is no one solution for all.

Driving Change by Giving Back

When Harpreet Sodhi migrated to Canada from India in 2001 to seek better opportunities for her family, little did she know that she would end up offering greater opportunities to others in the process. 

A computer teacher for seniors back in India, Harpreet was used to training the mentally and physically challenged. Since she was “lucky to be gainfully employed”, she set about helping others through “Women That Give” - a non-profit group founded in 2016 by Fawzia Khan jointly with  like-minded South Asian volunteers. The mission was to offer weekly workshops to help financially distressed and mentally disturbed women stand on their feet. 

One of their greatest victories was Carol Mckeon, a mentally disabled woman under their care, who rose to take part in the 2017 International Paralympics Softball team, held in Toronto. 

“Social isolation is a big factor that leads the disabled, abandoned and physically abused to depression and financial distress”, says Fawzia. “WTG uplifts these women by building their capacity and helping with job placements.”

“This land gave us the opportunity to grow so it’s important for us to give back,” says Harpreet. “We wanted to combine efforts to make a stronger impact as a unified force”, adds Fawzia.

Helping Women Professionals Fly Higher

For Bhuvneet Thakur, life changed with WINGS (Women’s Initiatives to Nurture, Grow and Support), a Mississauga-based non-profit organization. A student who arrived in 2016 to study at Humber College for a Business Accounting Diploma, Bhuvneet faced a roadblock once she finished her term. It was hard to find entry level jobs in her specialization.

“I realized the importance of connecting with professionals and carrying credible references,” she says. But for newcomers like her, networking is a challenge. “It’s hard to know who to talk with and how to start.” That is where WINGS steps in.

Started by Sanjukta Das, a Humber College Business Placement Advisor and Social Activist, who came to Canada less than a decade back from India, WINGS took flight with an enterprising board of women directors in 2014, to provide networking opportunities to empower women. 

Bhuvneet secured a co-op placement with WINGS, and connected with other professionals, “magnifying her self confidence.” Shortly after, she got the much-needed break at Humber College itself. “I will continue volunteering at WINGS to help others reach their goals,” she states.

WINGS now plans its first Trade Expo on March 18th, 2018 as a tribute to International Women’s Day. It aims to bring together the rising number of South Asian women entrepreneurs and professionals at the Grand Convention Centre in Brampton. Funds from the proceeds will go towards a homeless youth shelter. 

“Volunteering gives the chance to not just change one’s own life but also someone else’s”, says Bhuvneet. Good to see the baton pass on to younger hands.

This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series. Writers interested in participating are encouraged to join the NCM Collective for an opportunity.

Published in Top Stories
Thursday, 08 June 2017 05:47

What to do About Afghanistan?

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

I have come to know the journalist Michael Petrou over the past few years.  He would sometimes call me to seek my views on terrorism when he was with Macleans magazine and I relied heavily on his book ‘Renegades’ – the story of Canadians in the Spanish Civil War – for a section of my second book on Western foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq.  I happen to think he is a great writer and a solid scholar.

In a recent piece of analysis on the CBC Web site Michael noted that Afghanistan is ‘teetering on the edge of a dark abyss’ and that Canada, which lost 158 soldiers in its decade-long post 9/11 deployment, ‘should join its closest allies and return to Afghanistan.’  He argues that much progress has been made in Afghanistan since 2001 (infant mortality, a fledgling democracy, female school attendance) but that true advancement will be measured over decades.  For his part, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to be leaning towards a peacekeeping mission in West Africa (possibly Mali) although even there the government is waffling.

And so the question remains: should Canada recommit to Afghanistan?  Great question with no easy answer, especially in the context of the bombing in Kabul on May 31 that killed over 150. I will play the classic Canadian card and straddle the fence (joke: why did the Canadian cross the road? A: to get to the middle), providing views to supporting both a yes and a no response.  It is not that I am normally wishy-washy: it’s just that there are solid arguments on both sides.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Afghanistan needs  the help of the international community and that community must respond.[/quote]

I fully believe that we cannot abandon Afghanistan. We tried that once – after the ragtag mujahedin kicked Soviet ass (with oodles of outside help it must be added) – and look where that got us.  Warlordism, brutality and the arrival of the Taliban, which in turn played genial Afghan hosts to Al Qaeda.  Afghanistan became a de facto failed state (it is hard to describe the Taliban regime as a ‘state’) and we know that failed states are prime real estate for terrorist groups (Somalia, northern Nigeria, Iraq, Yemen, etc.).  If we don’t want to see the rise of yet another terrorist organisation on the scale of AQ we might want to keep our presence there robust.

Besides, don’t the Afghan people deserve a normal life? Given that the Afghan government appears incapable of providing the conditions for one shouldn’t we offer, on humanitarian grounds if nothing else?  We will still run into the problem of Western ways clashing with Afghan culture but surely there are universal principles we can help maintain.

On the other hand, Afghanistan is not known as the ‘graveyard of empires’ for nothing.  Many have tried to tame and control the country and none have succeeded.  In addition there is the problem of how long. We were there for more than ten years and while, as Michael points out, some progress has been made the place is still a mess and may be getting worse. Will we need to establish an open-ended mission? How much will it cost?  Are Canadians willing to accept more casualties in a country far away and little understood?  Is the Canadian military equipped (materiel and human resource-wise) to continue multiple tours for our men and women in uniform?  What is the end game?  How do we measure our success?  What is our exit strategy?  Does anyone have an answer to these?  Carleton University’s Steve Saideman has an interesting blog on lessons learned the first time around.

I fear that this conundrum falls into the ‘damned if we do and damned if we don’t category’.  We cannot turn our backs on Afghanistan even if we seek to measure it solely through the lens of national interests and security. Afghanistan needs  the help of the international community and that community must respond.

And yet those questions are still there.  Furthermore why Afghanistan and not Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo or the Central African Republic?  Aren’t they as worthy?

Canada may be taking its time with this decision, and that may be frustrating to some, but a sober second thought is indeed required in this instance. If we are both to honour the deaths of those 158 soldiers and prevent 158 more we need to think this through.

Phil Gurski is a 30-year intelligence veteran and the author of the forthcoming The Lesser Jihads: Bringing Islamist extremism to the world. 

Published in Commentary
Sunday, 23 April 2017 16:15

We Can Choose Not to be Afraid

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

We live in a world where fear is easy to spread.  There is no shortage of evidence that bad things happen and that there are some bad actors in a lot of places. 

The rise of the 24/7 news cycle and the ubiquity of social media have a lot to do with this. Sometimes, this fear is disproportionate to reality. The fear of violent crime is a good example: statistics in this country and others show pretty convincingly that violence of this nature is at historic lows and yet people still rank fear of violent crime high on their list of anxieties.

Terrorism fits here as well, as I have often said. 

While there is no doubt that terrorism exists and we are reminded of it daily (less so in the West and more so in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia), we still have to maintain an objective perspective.  Even if terrorism occurs more frequently today than it did, say, 40 years ago (although historical analysis might even differ on that point) it is still a rare event. 

It is impossible to claim that terrorism is more rampant than non-terrorist crime for instance (shootings, domestic violence, etc.) let alone other kinds of death (disease, car accidents, etc.).

"Manufactured" fear

Terrorism is different from other forms of violent deaths because of its inherent ability to cause fear. That is why we call it terrorism – it instills terror and fear.  That in essence is what the terrorists are trying to achieve, making us afraid of what they can do so that we will make decisions about things (foreign policy is a primary goal) under duress, decisions we would not normally make.

Some fears are natural – fear of snakes or spiders – and may go back a long way in the history of humanity. Others are manufactured. War and terrorism would fit here. If a fear is manufactured there must be a manufacturer and an audience (or recipient) of that fear.  The audience, I would argue, has a choice of whether to accept or embrace the fear. It is as simple as that. 

In other words, we play an enormous role in our own freedom from fear. We can simply choose not to be afraid.

Defeating terrorism

I am not trying to oversimplify the terrorist threat or the challenge in dealing with it.  This is indeed a hard problem that has always defied, and will most likely always defy, simple solutions. We will not 'defeat' terrorism anymore than we will 'defeat' crime in general. 

But we can 'defeat' the goal of the terrorists by refusing to be cowed by their actions and their propaganda.  We can decide not to allow them to make us afraid.

I'd like to end with a quote by the Swedish Prime Minister in the wake of this month's terrorist attack in Stockholm (an Uzbek terrorist drove a stolen beer truck into a pedestrian mall, killing four and wounding 15) as it really sends a strong message about fear: "I believe today’s [gathering] was a clear message from Stockholm and Sweden that we intend to keep our open, warm and inclusive society. That was the message. Terrorism will never defeat Sweden.”

Would that we all elected to not give in to fear and terror and tell the terrorists that they will never win.

Phil Gurski worked for more than  three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at

Published in Commentary
Monday, 16 January 2017 16:37

Novel Explores Road to Radicalization

Book Review by Phil Gurski

Belief is a novel by Mayank Bhatt, a Mumbai-born resident of Toronto.  It tells the story of the son of Indian immigrants to Canada who cooperates with terrorists to identify Canadian places to bomb, in part to avenge the death of Muslims in Afghanistan by Canadian soldiers. 

The book parallels to a certain extent the 2006 case of the “Toronto 18”, a terrorist cell that planned to explode truck bombs in Toronto and at a military base in eastern Ontario to punish Canadians for the decision to deploy the Armed Forces in Afghanistan after 9/11.

This work of fiction is billed as a look into what “makes young people give up their sheltered, secure lives and take up causes that are sure to lead to catastrophe, for others as well as themselves”. 

It does not quite achieve that goal, but does contain a good look into the effects of terrorism on a family. We see the devastating effects on the mother and father, immigrants who fled violence in India to seek a new home in Canada, but had to struggle to make a new life in a new land.  We see the anguish of a pregnant sister whose husband’s promotion may be canceled because of Rafiq’s actions.

We see a South Asian police officer, Ravindar, who tries to help the family but who is not trusted completely, perhaps because of his role as a representative of the law.

The book does delve slightly into what has often been put forward as the ‘causes’ of radicalization to violence in Canada.  There are references to the slaughter of Muslims in India and to discrimination and bias against immigrants in this country.  

Neither theme is developed in this novel. It also does not explore other reasons why individuals go down the path of radicalization.

The mastermind

Early in the novel the author includes excerpts from emails sent by the terrorist ‘mastermind’, a man named Ghani Ahmed, to Rafiq, the young man arrested and accused of participating in a terrorist plot.  These excerpts are full of the rhetoric most commonly associated with terrorist recruiters: innocent Muslims are being killed and no one is doing anything to stop it.  Ahmed appeals to the faith of Rafiq and tries to convince him that fighting back is a religious obligation.

Ahmed is an intriguing character and more could have been written about him.  Who was he?  Where did he come from?  Who else was involved in his plot?  How did he identify Rafiq as a willing participant? .

The one character who remains an enigma is Nagma Khala, a woman who runs a Muslim crèche and who had an extraordinary influence on the young Rafiq.  She is deeply religious, but it is never clear whether her faith contributed in any way to Rafiq’s openness to radicalization.

Flashbacks to India

I welcomed the introduction of two officers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), although their portrayal is superficial and unsatisfactory. It would have been interesting to introduce a main character from CSIS and show how that person was trying to understand the scope of the terrorist plot and Rafiq’s role in it.  That may have been beyond the author’s expertise, though.

The book contains many flashbacks to life in India and provides interesting background into the lives of the protagonists, although the link between these episodes and Rafiq’s decision to become a terrorist is not obvious.  They do provide insight into the circumstances behind the parents’ choice to leave India, but these are tangential to the book’s primary plot.

Throughout the book the author seeks to present Rafiq as an unwilling dupe whose involvement in terrorism is peripheral.  While Rafiq regrets his choice, he also seems to minimize his role. 

It is only at the end of the novel, when Rafiq learns of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai (in 2008 – a real event) that he grasps the enormity of what he was part of in Canada and (spoiler alert!!) tries to commit suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills.  The author’s attempt to paint Rafiq as a character to be pitied does not come off strongly, even when he writes of the bullying Rafiq received at the Maplehurst Detention Centre in Toronto.

Overall, the book flows and reads well, with the exception of the flashbacks. These occur at times at unexpected intervals and detract from the story.

The book does a good job at showing the destruction of a Canadian immigrant family when one member becomes involved in terrorism. The emotional responses of the characters are believable and compelling. 

As long as the reader does not see this novel as an actual book on homegrown terrorism in Canada it is a good read.

Phil Gurski worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at

The book Belief  is published by Mawenzi House

Published in Books
Wednesday, 12 October 2016 23:38

Monsef Birthplace a Non-issue

Commentary by David Cohen in Montreal

I feel compelled to comment on the case of Maryam Monsef, Liberal MP and federal Minister of Democratic Institutions, who has been caught up in a story about the location of her birth 32 years ago. Monsef, an Afghan citizen who arrived in Canada at age 11, was born in Iran.

She had previously believed she was born in her country of citizenship, Afghanistan. Her documentation had stated that this was the case — documentation that had been submitted by her mother all those years ago.

Do you remember when you were 10 or 11 years old? Did you decide what school you went to or where you lived? Probably not. And if your parents decided when you were a child that the family would emigrate, or flee hardship, did you decide what your destination would be, and how you would get there? Hypothetically, if you were 10 or 11 and somebody, such as a parent, was submitting a form on your behalf, would you ask to review it for accuracy?

And if it turns out that somebody made an incorrect assertion on a form submitted on your behalf more than two decades ago, should you suffer the consequences of a decision that you yourself never made?

Of course not.

Stoking a fire

Some editorial media outlets in Canada have taken this situation and made a disingenuous effort to stoke a fire. For example, in an opinion piece in the Toronto Sun, the author writes: the Trudeau government actively revokes citizenship from people who provide false info on their applications. Now the question is whether democratic reform minister Maryam Monsef is going to receive the same treatment if it turns out her citizenship application contained false information. The article goes on to mention the possibility of Monsef being deported.

Apart from giving her a government Ministry that doesn’t exist (it’s democratic institutions, not democratic reform), the article errs in a more sinister way. Yes, citizenship may be revoked from individuals who knowingly provide false information, but Monsef herself, at least to the best of our knowledge, never submitted the application. Her mother did. And so there is a leap of logic.

The fact of the matter is that few people in Canada can go back more than a couple of generations before an immigration story forms part of the family tree. We are, by and large, an immigrant nation. Some of these immigrants arrived from states of flux, from changing situations in the regions of the world from which they came.

How does it matter?

There are almost certainly stories and situations similar to Monsef’s own story across the country. In many cases, it is likely that the person at the centre of it all doesn’t even know the full story.

Remember this: if we are talking about punishing Monsef, it would be a vicarious punishment handed out to someone who did not make a decision when she was 10 or 11 years old. And in the end, how does it even matter where she was born?

And also remember that she is a remarkable woman, who, in her so far short career, has shown nothing but resilience and intelligence. She has had to in order to get where she is now.

Attorney David Cohen is a senior partner at Campbell Cohen ( Read more of his blogs at

Published in Policy

by Alireza Ahmadian in Vancouver

More than 160 Canadians lost their lives, more than 1,000 were wounded, and the government spent over $20 billion during Canada’s mission in Afghanistan.

Stephen M. Saideman, a scholar and the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University, re-evaluates Canada’s performance in Afghanistan in his new book Adapting in the Dust: Lessons Learned from Canada’s War in Afghanistan.

Why Afghanistan and Kandahar

“Canada did not go to Afghanistan to turn it into a democracy that respected human rights and fostered functioning institutions,” Saideman writes. Canada’s objectives were to support its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, particularly the U.S., and change its own international standing.

NATO connects Canada to Europe and gives Canada, at least in theory, equal standing to the more powerful U.S., writes Saideman. It may also prevent American unilateralism, as the U.S. will have to take into account the preferences of other members of the organization.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Canada did not go to Afghanistan to turn it into a democracy that respected human rights and fostered functioning institutions.”[/quote]

Moreover, Canada has a strong interest in strengthening its relationship with the U.S. given its economic interdependence, limited defence budget and geographic location. The Afghan mission cemented that relationship.

The insurgency was much less intense in northern and western Afghanistan, but Canada decided to deploy to Kandahar in southeastern Afghanistan, which became one of the most violent sites of the war.

The conventional argument has been that the Canadian Forces (CF) had intentionally downplayed the risks associated with a mission in Kandahar. However, Saideman says that the mission in Kandahar met the aspirations of then prime minister, Paul Martin, the CF, and department of foreign affairs, trade and development.

Each was interested in redefining their own role and Canada’s role in the international arena. They also believed they could make a meaningful difference on the ground.

Warriors and/or peacekeepers?

The CF, over the course of the mission, changed its rules of engagement, its culture, and its status, both in Canada and with its international partners, following the adverse effects of the Somalia Affair. The 1993 military scandal involved the death of 16-year-old Somali national Shidane Arone at the hands of two Canadian soldiers during a humanitarian mission in Somalia.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Saideman is extremely critical of parliamentarians from all political parties in their handling of the mission in Afghanistan.[/quote]

The current generation of CF officers, Saideman says, were keen “to be seen as warriors and not as peacekeepers.” General Rick Hillier, former Chief of the Defence Staff for CF said “[t]he immense frustration at the ignorance of so many who labeled us ‘only’ peacekeepers had disappeared” following the Afghan mission.

Saideman notes the sacrifices made by the CF, but is also critical of characterizations of the Afghan Mission that “were too optimistic.” It is in the CF’s interest, the author says, to address this credibility gap created by its representation of the Afghan mission; “otherwise, it will be ignored as politicians will find its overly optimistic perspectives to be less than useful.”

Canadian Afghan detainee issue

In 2007, reports emerged that the CF and the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not address reports that Afghan detainees held by CF were subjected to torture after they were transferred to Afghan forces. This could have potentially constituted war crimes.

Saideman is extremely critical of parliamentarians from all political parties in their handling of the mission in Afghanistan. He says that the opposition parties’ fixation on the detainees was at the expense of addressing a much more important issue – the mission’s failure to establish any semblance of good governance.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Is fighting a violent war in a foreign country to enhance our international standing a Canadian value?[/quote]

He also notes that members of the Standing Committee on National Defence do not have security clearances and are therefore not authorized to see classified documents.

In other words, they do not know what the CF may be doing. This lack of knowledge and context can prevent parliamentarians from holding the Minister of National Defence accountable.

A good start

“If Canada deployed troops to Afghanistan to build a self-sustaining, stable, secure democracy,” its mission failed, writes Saideman.

However, Canada supported its allies, honoured its commitments, and made serious efforts to change things for the better in Afghanistan. Therefore, the mission “was worth it insofar as it constituted significant support for the most important multilateral security organization and its most important ally.”

Saideman’s book is replete with strong analyses. However, it does not study the success or failures of Canada’s Counter-Insurgency principles and efforts. If Canada is to get involved in similar missions in the future, the lessons learned from this effort in Afghanistan will be helpful.

Furthermore, while the author says that deploying troops to Afghanistan “was consistent with Canadian interests and values,” he does not mention what those values are. Are they only to support our allies?

Since Saideman says that helping the Afghans and building a democracy were not Canadian objectives, then we have to ask a tough question: Is fighting a violent war in a foreign country to enhance our international standing a Canadian value?

Saideman’s normative assessment poses moral questions about “Canadian values” and the construction of national interests with regard to the Afghan mission that his book does not answer. His contribution remains a good start to revisiting Canada’s Afghan mission.

Alireza Ahmadian is a Vancouver-based writer and researcher. He has a master's degree of arts in international affairs and diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He has appeared on BBC World News and BBC Persian to discuss world affairs and is published on online forums such as New Canadian Media, BBC, and foreign policy blogs.

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Published in Books

by Diba Hareer in Ottawa 

Her story reads like a movie script. 

Twenty years ago, Maryam Monsef fled the brutal rule of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and now, two decades later, she has become the first Muslim to be appointed a cabinet minister in the federal government.  

In 1996, Monsef’s mother and her three daughters settled in Peterborough, Ont. after Iran refused to grant them refuge. 

It is the kindness and the support that my family and I received from the people of Peterborough-Kawartha that is at the heart of the service that I intend to give to the people of this riding,” says the Minister of Democratic Institutions. 

Campaigning in a small town 

Monsef says the fact that she grew up in a smaller community allowed her to build networks. It was easier for her to create connections in Peterborough, a city of less than 80,000 people. 

“It is possible to plant seeds in this community because of its size, and to see those seeds grow, and to see that you can have an impact when you come together and collaborate.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Monsef is also the first female Member of Parliament (MP) ever elected in the riding Peterborough-Kawartha.[/quote]

Monsef is also the first female Member of Parliament (MP) ever elected in the riding Peterborough-Kawartha. It’s an achievement she attributes to a lot of hard work. 

During the 60-day election campaign she and her team knocked on 70,000 doors and held 10 different roundtable discussions with the community. 

At these meetings she outlined her priorities for the riding. She campaigned for the Liberals on good sustainable jobs, preservation of the environment, health care and access to services for seniors. 

According to Monsef attracting and retaining newcomers to her riding is critical for the prosperity of the district. 

“Over a 160 different groups and individuals have been meeting for over five years and [have] developed strategies and action items devoted specifically to that mandate of creating a more welcoming community for newcomers to our area.” 

She adds that her riding continues its efforts to be a welcoming community to newcomers and Canadian immigrants. 

Strengthening democratic institutions 

While she was born in a country with a lack of human rights, it will be Monsef’s responsibility to strengthen Canada’s democracy as Minister of Democratic Institutions. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"[M]y job I believe is to restore and to strengthen Canadians' respect and appreciation for these democratic institutions that we are so privileged to have.”[/quote]

Monsef describes the scope of her job as “broad”, encompassing Senate reform, electoral reform and elections spending. 

“The way I see my job I believe is to restore and to strengthen Canadians' respect and appreciation for these democratic institutions that we are so privileged to have.” 

She would also like to see more women’s participation in Canadian politics. 

Monsef says she is grateful for the women who paved the way before her and hopes to do the same for others who follow. 

Inspiring Afghan Canadians 

For Afghans in Canada the news of Monsef’s appointment as a cabinet minister broke at the same time with the news of the horrific stoning of a young girl in Ghor, a northwestern province in Afghanistan.  

Amid the horror in Ghor, Afghans welcomed the news of Monsef’s appointment with delight and surprise. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Monsef’s election is helping to build the image of refugees and trust of Canadian society in them."[/quote]

Adeena Niazi, the Executive Director of Afghan Women’s Organization in Toronto is of the view that refugees are too often perceived to be a burden and treated as unequal members of society, but that Monsef’s election has the power to change that. 

“Monsef’s election is helping to build the image of refugees and trust of Canadian society in them. It decreases the discrimination against refugees in society.” 

Monsef forces the public to re-think their perception of Afghan women, Niazi adds. 

“The international media has portrayed Afghan women as victims, listeners and oppressed, but since Monsef’s election everyone has come to realize that Afghan women are not just silent victims; they have strength and ability.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"[S]ince Monsef’s election everyone has come to realize that Afghan women are not just silent victims."[/quote]

Khalid Mirzamir, an Afghan Canadian immigration counsellor in Ottawa, says Monsef’s story is one of hope and inspiration. 

“Maryam’s election reminds all of us as immigrants that Canada is a country where it gives everyone the opportunity to grow.” 

Hope is what Frozan Rahmani felt after Monsef was elected. The Toronto-based student followed the campaign closely and shed tears of joy when Monsef’s victory was announced. 

Rahmani is awed by the fact that it was Monsef’s mother who was the key to the minister’s success. 

After fleeing the Taliban, Monsef’s mother started life from scratch with her three daughters in Canada. The difficult task is a shared experience for many immigrants in this country. 

“I am not happy because we share the same heritage as Afghans, but because I know that she has risen from a society that has pains, from a culture that in the 21st century does not value women,” says Rahmani. “We have witnessed the stoning of women. But Maryam did rise in Canada and made us proud.”

Journalist Judy Trinh mentored the writer of this article through the NCM Mentoring Program.  

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Published in Politics

by Michael Harris in Ottawa

In politics as in life, you always meet the devil on a curve.

For Justin Trudeau, mass murder in Paris is his trial by ordeal as prime minister. It didn’t take very long. At the end of the month, Paris was supposed to be the glittering venue where a new, young prime minister, and an impressive delegation, would announce to the world that the old Canada is back. No more fossil awards, no more climate change denial on behalf of oil companies or the Koch Brothers, no more corporate-driven “facts” on the environment, no more beating the war drums. Canada was not shaking its finger at the world anymore, but offering an embrace.

It was the Canada the world knew — collegial and multilateral, not bullying and unilateral. Or at least that was the script until the City of Lights became a charnel house.

Changing script

Events in Paris threaten to turn the Trudeau debut and the climate change summit into a sub-plot. One of the reasons behind Trudeau’s landslide victory on last month was his promise to withdraw from the bombing of ISIS in Iraq and Syria while still remaining in the U.S. led coalition but in a different role.

One of the first things Trudeau did after winning the election was to inform U.S. President Barack Obama of his decision to get out of the bombing business. Judging by the polls, Canadians approved. A whopping 75 per cent said that they were happy with the outcome of the election — though no specific question was asked about bringing back the jets.

In place of the bombs, Trudeau offered three other ways Canada could contribute to the coalition effort: take in 25,000 Syrian refugees by year’s end; increase humanitarian aid to those displaced by the bitter civil war; and to train Kurds in Northern Iraq so that they could defeat the terrorists who have annexed other peoples’ lands to create their self-declared caliphate.

With 129 dead in Paris, the French president cancelling his trip to the G-20 summit in Turkey, and the far right French leader Marine Le Pen demanding the “annihilation” of ISIS, Trudeau will be under tremendous pressure to reverse his decision to bring home the F-18s.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][T]he prime minister’s pledge to re-settle 25,000 Syrian refugees by year’s end will soon be portrayed as a dangerous and irresponsible opening of Canada’s borders.[/quote]

Doubtless, there will also be a concerted push for his new government to leave more of the police-state legislation, C-51, in place.

Finally, the prime minister’s pledge to re-settle 25,000 Syrian refugees by year’s end will soon be portrayed as a dangerous and irresponsible opening of Canada’s borders, particularly if it can be confirmed that one of the Paris attackers was a refugee who held a Syrian passport.

I note that Godfrey’s Zombies over at the Post are already playing the stale Islamophobia card left over from the Harper years by suggesting that the horror of Paris calls into question a lot of his new direction in foreign policy and national security. It’s all designed to make Trudeau’s knees jerk.

Scrutiny expected of new defence minister  

In the wake of Paris, the Conservatives also have another potent attack line into the Trudeau government when parliament reconvenes on December 3 — Canada’s “Badass” new minister of defence, Harjit Sajjan.

Just two days before the Paris attacks, Sajjan was widely quoted as saying Canadians needn’t fear ISIS. The entire quote, which included “ISIS is a threat, no doubt about that. Should we fear it? No. The Canadian population should have full confidence in all the security services to keep us safe,” will not likely get wide citation. Don’t expect to see those nuances repeated by the likes of Rona Ambrose or Jason Kenney when they rise to ask questions on their first day as the official opposition.

Nor is Sajjan’s vulnerability limited to his poorly timed, but nonetheless true, declaration about ISIS. Sajjan’s military past, filled with honours and awards for courage and ingenuity, also has a potential dark side.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Sajjan might find himself in an untenable position if the Trudeau government decides to call an inquiry into an old ghost of the Harper years — the Afghan Detainee scandal.[/quote]

According to a new piece written for NOW Magazine, Sajjan might find himself in an untenable position if the Trudeau government decides to call an inquiry into an old ghost of the Harper years — the Afghan Detainee scandal.

Why are the folks over at the Rideau Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives asking for a public inquiry into this issue? For starters, because it has never been resolved.

Despite the parliamentary testimony of diplomat Richard Colvin, the Harper government smothered every investigation into whether Canadian forces had committed war crimes by turning detainees over to Afghan authorities who then tortured them. Only 4,000 out of 40,000 documents Harper was ordered to hand over by the Speaker of the House of Commons were ever produced. That is called unfinished business.

But there is another reason. The Military Police Complaints Commission is investigating a new case to determine if Canadian soldiers abused and terrorized detainees at their Kandahar base.

Accordingly, the Rideau Institute is asking for a judicial commission of inquiry into the detainee affair “into the actions of Canadian officials, including ministers of the crown…” The head of the Rideau Institute, Peggy Mason, a former UN diplomat, says that if Justin Trudeau is truly committed to transparency and accountability, this is the file to prove it on.

That might be uncomfortable for Trudeau’s choice as minister of defence. Everyone knows that Harjit Sajjan was a high-level intelligence officer who participated in combat operations during his multiple tours in Afghanistan which began in 2006. There have been published reports that Sajjan gathered intelligence that led to the killing or capture of 1,500 suspected members of the Taliban.

But here’s the catch for Trudeau. The former Major Sajjan was the Canadian “intelligence liaison” to one of the most corrupt and abusive local authorities in Afghanistan — the Governor of Kandahar, the infamous and corrupt Asadullah Khalid.

Khalid had something unusual for a man who had everything: his own dungeon in Ghazni province. It has been reported that he regularly tortured people there for money and for information. Khalid went on to head up Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS).

During his Parliamentary testimony, diplomat Richard Colvin said Khalid was well-known back in the day for his human rights abuses.

The question is this: in his capacity as intelligence liaison to such a man as Khalid, did Sajjan pass on intelligence information to his superiors that was obtained by torture? Did he know all along that what Richard Colvin laid bare to the world was true?

At the time of this writing, the author of the NOW magazine piece, Matthew Behrens, had been told by DND officials that Sajjan was too busy for an interview.

Trudeau needs to do what he said he would

It is the Big Leagues and they pitch fast. Justin Trudeau’s honeymoon may be over in jig-time.

So what should he do? Submit to all the pressure to admit that ‘Harper’s way’ was the right way? My unsolicited and very likely unwanted advice is to keep faith with Canadians and do what you said you were going to do. And that will mean saying a few things that are tough to declare, but need more than ever to be said — including that bombing in the Middle East is not the answer to that region’s massive problems.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Justin Trudeau needs to have the courage of the convictions that got him elected.[/quote]

Andrew Bacevich wrote in the Boston Globe about waging a “pitiless war” against ISIS, which French government leaders have threatened in response to the atrocities in Paris:

“It’s not as if the outside world hasn’t already given pitiless war a try. The Soviet Union spent all of the 1980s attempting to pacify Afghanistan and succeeded only in killing a million or so Afghans while creating an incubator for Islamic radicalism. Beginning in 2003, the United States attempted something similar in Iraq and ended up producing similarly destabilizing results. By the time the U.S. troops withdrew in 2011, something like 200,000 Iraqis had died, most of them civilians. Today Iraq teeters on the brink of disintegration.”

I like the poem by Karma Ezara Parikh. She wrote: “It’s not Paris we should be praying for, it’s the world.” This came from a woman who is a better historian than the hired guns over at the Post and most of the Western media.

Parikh knew that the day before the attacks in Paris, ISIS had killed 43 people and wounded 239 more in an attack at an open air market in Beirut. She remembered that 19 were recently killed and 33 injured by an ISIS suicide bomber in Baghdad, who struck at a funeral in a mosque. One hundred more were killed by ISIS last month in Ankara, Turkey. The world yawned. Paris was another matter.

President Obama said this: "This is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values we share.” He offered no official statement after Beirut.

The West has been bombing Muslim countries in the Middle East since 1980 and all it has done is to give the world Al Qaeda on steroids and chaos not only in the Middle East, but also in the western democracies who seem to think that that they can send their war machine into the Middle East without domestic consequences. President Obama himself has said that U.S. foreign policy created ISIS.

Justin Trudeau needs to have the courage of the convictions that got him elected. When it comes to the so-called War on Terror, the Harper approach was part of the problem, not the answer.

Michael Harris is a writer, journalist, and documentary filmmaker. He was awarded a Doctor of Laws for his “unceasing pursuit of justice for the less fortunate among us.” His new book on the Harper majority government, Party of One, is a number one best-seller and has been shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Literary Award for English-language non-fiction.

Re-published in partnership with

Published in Commentary
Thursday, 24 September 2015 00:00

Understanding Human Smugglers

by Zoran Vidić in Belgrade, Serbia

Charon, in Greek mythology, was a grim and sombre ferryman who transported souls of the newly dead across the river Acheron to the Underworld. Those who did not pay a silver coin for the ride were pitilessly thrown out of the boat.

Nowadays, there is another kind of ferrymen. Part of the modern underworld, they transport refugees from their war-torn hells to potential salvation.

Just like Charon, they charge money for their services, but can’t always promise safe passage to their voyagers. They are smugglers of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa to Europe, and their trail is littered with dead bodies.

In Belgrade, Serbia, we meet these smugglers at their usual rendezvous: café Kušet, near the central train station.

As we enter, all eyes turn in our direction. It is obvious – we as locals and journalists are not welcome here.

While we are fidgeting with our cameras and recorders, three bulky men, who speak Pashto and are likely from Afghanistan, sit at the nearby booth and glance at us, trying to figure out where we are from and whether we represent any kind of danger.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][M]any former refugees who fail to make it to the European Union stay in Serbia and join the smuggling ring.[/quote]

For all we know, they could have been migrants, just like hundreds of others outside of this café and in the park.

In fact, many former refugees who fail to make it to the European Union stay in Serbia and join the smuggling ring be it as guides, translators or full-blown smugglers.

At the end of August, for instance, members of a mostly Bulgarian gang were responsible for the death of 71 people who were found suffocated in an abandoned van on a highway in Austria. One of the men involved was an Afghan national with Hungarian residence papers.

A necessary evil

As we begin to speak with the men, we find out that transport from Preševo (Serbia’s border with Macedonia) to Subotica (Serbia’s border with Hungary) costs €300 per head. The “family package” price is negotiated on the spot, and children usually pay half price.

Serbia is just one section on the “Balkans route” and it can cost up to €10,000 to smuggle a person from Turkey to a Western European destination.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Our source tells us that the smugglers have the process down to an art.[/quote]

These prices vary depending on the quality and comfort of the service, with higher prices usually equating to a higher survival rate.

Our source tells us that the smugglers have the process down to an art: the paying customer is told exactly what to do when he or she enters Greece, whom to call in Macedonia, and who is waiting for them in Serbia.

When the customer arrives in Serbia, he or she is usually taken by cab drivers, or sometimes minivans, to the main points of meeting.

There they spend one or more nights in hostels or motels before continuing their journey toward the northern border, where they are met by their next connection.

The “clients” must make sure that they have enough money to pay for any travel expenses, such as road tolls, but also for the fine if they are caught.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“[People smugglers] do not care about the well-being of the refugees, they care about profit.”[/quote]

"People smugglers are criminals and not well-minded helpers,” said Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner, commenting on the recent tragedy in Austria. “They do not care about the well-being of the refugees, they care about profit.”

But, in the eyes of the refugees and other migrants, human traffickers are just a necessary evil.

The migrants are those who pay the price, be it in hard currency or with their lives. They are caught between hammer and anvil: the desire to leave their war-torn homeland and the perils of such a gruelling journey.

Interventions and penalties

Speaking to the reporters outside her home in British Columbia, Tima Kurdi, a Canadian citizen and aunt of the Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi who drowned in Turkey trying to reach Europe, held herself responsible for the tragedy.

“I blame myself because my brother does not have money,” she said. “I sent him the money to pay the smuggler. If I didn't send him the money, those people still (would be) alive.”

Responsibility also lies in the hands of the western countries’ governments, who have only recently begun to intervene.

The Head of National Police Headquarters’ Border Security Department in Hungary, László Balász, told press that police have intervened with 913 human traffickers this year.

For assisting the unauthorized border crossing in Serbia, smugglers face jail time of anywhere between six months and five years.

If the perpetrators are public servants or officials who are found guilty of abusing their authority to the point where people are found dead, the penalty may go up to 10 years.

Considering this, transporting migrants across the sea and by the land is a calculated risk, but it appears that many of the human traffickers and their helpers feel spending a few years in jail is worth the money they stand to make off this human tragedy.

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Published in Top Stories
Sunday, 13 September 2015 20:31

Tales of Immigrant Women in Canada

by Florence Hwang in Regina, Saskatchewan

While performer and playwright Natasha Martina was researching in a library in Dublin for a play, she came up with the idea to combine her family’s emigrant story and her creative partner Sue Mythen’s knowledge about the Irish famine years of 1840s.

The result: a contemporary theatre production about how the Canadian immigration system has progressed since before its inception in 1867 to present day, which was featured in this year’s Saskatoon Fringe Festival.

Martina and Mythen’s play Displaced tells the story of three immigrant women: Mary, who leaves Ireland during the famine in 1847; Sofia, who flees Germany in 1947; and Dara who escapes an arranged marriage in Afghanistan in 2007. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Displaced tells the story of three immigrant women: Mary, who leaves Ireland during the famine in 1847; Sofia, who flees Germany in 1947; and Dara who escapes an arranged marriage in Afghanistan in 2007.[/quote]

Growing up as a first generation Canadian, Martina heard stories about her parents starting with nothing, saving every penny to make a life here, and her godparents coming over on a freighter ship with only $9 in their pocket.

She also learned about other families’ immigration stories by volunteering at the Saskatoon Open Door Society, helping newcomers learn English.

“I heard about so many stories from individuals, as well as I interviewed a couple of employees from Open Door, who had experienced similar challenges in their plight to immigrate to Canada,” says Martina, who is also an associate professor in the drama department at the University of Saskatchewan. “I was very humbled by their stories and even more empowered to create and produce Displaced.”

Many women in Canada can relate to the experiences told through the characters in Displaced. Here is a look at just four.

Seeking refuge from persecution

Samra Kanwal is an Ahmadi Muslim from Lahore, Pakistan. She came to Canada in March 2012 to flee persecution from the government.

She was 18 when she moved with her parents, younger sister and brother to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Her uncle and aunt sponsored her family through the Saskatchewan Immigration Nominee Program, which gave them much support in the two years it took for her family to become permanent residents.

“It was a tough time as we had to spend money accordingly and had to be cautious that people around us should not learn about our decision to move to Canada,” explains Kanwal. “Otherwise, we could have faced problems from the extremists who could hit you any time since they have backing of the local authorities.”

Getting a foot in the door

Sarka Kolacna still remembers the exact date she arrived in Canada – Oct. 28, 2006. That’s because it’s a national holiday, similar to Canada Day, in her home country of the Czech Republic.

When she was researching ways to enter Canada, she saw the live-in caregiver program as her only option. She posted an ad on Craigslist and found one family who she worked with for two years before applying for permanent residency.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“I never thought I’d be able to teach English here.”[/quote]

Since then, she’s started to make use of her formal training as a teacher of English and German. She is teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) for a global relocation company.

“It’s what I was originally trained to do, and I enjoy it very much. I never thought I’d be able to teach English here, and the fact that I’m not a native speaker often excludes me from being a suitable candidate for a job that requires it, but some schools don’t.”

Dealing with the Canadian cold

In 2010, at age 18, Nengi Allison moved from Rivers state in southern Nigeria to Nanaimo, B.C. There, she lived in an apartment with six other Nigerian students. In 2011, she moved to Regina to study environmental studies at the University of Regina.

Allison has no family in Canada and misses home a lot.

She had to get used to an entirely different culture in terms of studying, and the drastic difference in climate – particularly the winter.

“I found the winter affected me psychologically because you have to stay warm at all times and I’m trying to concentrate on what I’m studying,” explains Allison. “All of a sudden I wanted to go back home because where I come from, Nigeria, it’s always hot there.”

Adjusting to work culture

Cecilia Olmos is a sports journalist from Mexico City. Her older brother, who immigrated to Denmark 16 years ago, inspired her to immigrate to Canada.

In 2006, Olmos went to Vancouver as an ESL student. She instantly fell in love with the west coast city.

“I loved its landscapes, nature and vibe. I wanted to stay longer, but I didn’t really know how,” says the 34-year-old.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“The way people negotiate, interact, and communicate with one another was so different from what I’m used to.”[/quote]

After learning that studying in Canada could help her chances in the immigration process, she booked her flight to Vancouver in December 2008.

First, she completed an ESL program in Vancouver, and then enrolled in a sports journalism program in Toronto where she was the only foreign student.

When Olmos moved back to Vancouver she was fortunate to find a workplace that sponsored her, but she struggled with the work culture.

Everything from behaviour to customs and habits was very difficult for me to get used to,” she says. “The way people negotiate, interact, and communicate with one another was so different from what I’m used to. And doing all of the above with English as a second language made it double challenging.”

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Published in Arts & Culture
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