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How to Explain the Bureaucrat?

Muslim artists who educate poor kids are denied Canadian visas to talk about their work. This is the way we heal the world.

Marcus Youssef 19 Apr
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I recently co-wrote and toured a show across the country, Ali and Ali and the Axes of Evil. It's a satirical cabaret predicated on the premise that, with the generous support of the United Furniture Warehouse of Nations, a couple of refugees from the war-torn Middle East cajole their way into a Canadian theatre by promising to do a multicultural drama of the type favoured by the CBC.

However, what the refugees actually perform is a caustic satirical attack. One target is the total-war ethos of the so-called War on Terror. It also lampoons middle-of-the-road liberalism, which I figure tends to be deeply offended by the likes of Ottawa's Khadr family -- the avowed Al Qaeda supporters insist that as Canadian citizens they have as much right to medical treatment in Canada as anyone else, warm fuzzies for Osama Bin Laden notwithstanding.

The same liberalism results in those PC CBC-ish dramas that we pretend our show is going to be. You know, the earnest, multi-ethnic, Traffic-esque stories about Canada's minority communities. The ones that don't shirk the tough questions about racism or people like the Kadhrs but ultimately leave you with the feeling that as long as good, decent people continue to do their best, everything is going to turn out more or less OK.

Who's liberal now?

Ah, if only those feel-complex-and-good dramas were the truth, eh? It certainly seems like the opposite of the situation faced by international delegates to an arts conference that will take place in Vancouver later this month. They've had their visas denied by the Canadian High Commissions in Islamabad, Nairobi and Delhi.

As the liberal-by-reputation media establishment (led by Rex Murphy and the editorial pages of the Globe and Mail) and thousands of Canadians get their knickers in a twist about the Khadr's insistence on their citizenship rights, this equally interesting, if quieter, immigration conflict is brewing more or less unnoticed.

In late April, DanceArts Vancouver, a local arts group that I sometimes work for, is hosting an international art and community symposium, called Breaking New Ground. It's the opening international event in DanceArts' Earth Project , a four-year multinational arts initiative that examines issues of global sustainability and social justice through the eyes of young people.

For the last seven years, DanceArts artistic producer Judith Marcuse has been producing large-scale multi-media touring shows for young audiences, all of which involve long periods of community outreach and participation. The Earth Project is the first with an international scope, and as such is the most ambitious.

United Nations divided

The symposium, which involves artists from more than 20 countries, is a UNESCO designated event, has UN special envoy Stephen Lewis as a guest, and will bring together 70 global artist/community activists, all of whom use art to attempt to affect the lives of people in their countries. For me, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet and learn from people like my co-presenter, Kenyan Kimingichi Wabende, a professor of literature at the University of Nairobi and leader of that country's Peoples Popular Theatre, a community based group that uses theatre to raise awareness about discrimination in Kenya.

The trouble is, it doesn't seem like Wabende and four other delegates are going to make it to the conference. All those who've had had their visa requests denied are relatively young men from Africa or the Asian sub-continent and four of the five are Muslim.

'Show us the money'

Atlaf Shaikh, the leader of Saathi, a Bombay-based visual arts organization that works with street youth, was refused because, consular officials say, he failed to prove he had enough money to cover his travel expenses and did not provide evidence that he was likely to return home.

In an email to DanceArts, Shaikh reports that before issuing their decision consular officials did not examine the symposium information he provided. It explicitly detailed DanceArts' agreement to pay for his travel and accommodations while in Canada. He also wonders if they took into account his wife and son in Bombay, to whom, he said, he's likely to want to return.

Similar reasons were offered by consular officials in Pakistan for the refusal of visas for Shoaib Iqbal and Raiz ul Hussan, leaders of Punjab Lok Rahs, a theatre company that works with disadvantaged youth. Ditto in Bangladesh for Syed Mizanur Rahman, leader of the Tree Foundation, a non-governmental organization with a similar mandate.

Marcuse, the recipient of an honorary doctorate from SFU and important player in the local arts scene, is pretty straightforward about what she thinks is going on. "I'm concerned that due process is not being followed in particular cases and I wonder if there may be some kind of racial profiling going on. No female delegates from the region had trouble getting visas," she adds, "as have no other delegates from different parts of the world."

Canada 'engages' the world

Funny, I thought the standard liberal Canadian line about the Muslim world and September 11 was that we (rich and democratic) had to engage them (poor and given to mobbish behaviour) in serious dialogues about the divide between north and south, about democracy and its institutions.

That's certainly what Marcuse says the Earth Project's initial symposium is all about. "It is ironic," she says "that these men are being kept from participating in a global project designed to address issues of civil society and justice, the very issues that are critical to resolving the global security issues we all face."

With the perhaps exception of Conservative foreign affairs critic Stockwell Day (who seems to be taking courses at the Donald Rumsfeld School of Policy and Apocalypse), who would disagree? It hardly seems to serve the national interest to deny visas to guys who do street theatre with poor kids in the very countries that are said to be breeding the legions of terrorists preparing to attack the west. (Vancouver's police chief, you'll remember, recently cited terrorism as his number-one policing concern.)

When a letter to the minister of citizenship and immigration about the visa situation yielded no reply, Marcuse e-mailed a longtime contact John Godfrey, a Toronto area Liberal MP. A Godfrey assistant is attempting to advocate on DanceArts' behalf with both the minister's office and the High Commissions who refused the applications.

Though he wasn't aware of the case, a spokesperson for citizenship and immigration assured me over the phone that one set of regulations is applied equitably to all visa applicants and, further, "There is absolutely, categorically no prejudice in the system." Hmm. I guess every hard-hitting multi-ethnic drama needs its faceless, party-line bureaucrat.

Waiting for the happy ending

Now all Marcuse and the refused delegates (and their local co-presenters) can do is twiddle their thumbs while the gears of bureaucratic judgment-assessment grind into action. Will the MP's assistant have enough clout to force the High Commissions to reverse their original decision? Will the minister's office follow through on its offer to help? Will the media pick up the story and embarrass the government into quicker action? Will any of this happen in time for the conference's April 28 start date?

If the story were an ask-the-tough-questions CBC-ish drama about unintentional racism in the consular offices of our diplomatic missions abroad, the answer is yes, absolutely. At the last possible minute the visas would come through, with the delegates airlifted to Vancouver on a Canadian Forces Hercules on its way home from Afghanistan.

If the story were satire, they would still get their visas. Then, however, the delegates would announce that while in Canada, they plan to stay with the Khadrs.

Seeing that it's real life, however, I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Marcus Youssef freelances at a lot of stuff. Ali and Ali will next appear at the National Arts Centre's Magnetic North Theatre Festival in June.  [Tyee]

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