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Who Are Great Canadians?

Five people who prove our nation's potential.

By Michael Byers 26 Sep 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. This piece was adapted from his new book, Intent for a Nation: What is Canada For? released in May by Douglas and McIntyre. Byers gives a "Necessary Voices" lecture on his vision for Canada on Wednesday, Sept. 26, at 7:30 p.m. in the Lecture Theatre at UBC Robson Square, in Vancouver.

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Sheila Watt-Cloutier: Inuit dynamo.

I'd like to introduce you to just a few remarkable Canadians, as exemplars of what this country is -- and could be.

SHEILA WATT-CLOUTIER was born in Kuujjuaq, in northern Quebec, in 1953. Her mother was Inuit, her absentee father was a white RCMP officer, and she spent the first decade of her life on "the land" -- living in tents and travelling by dogsled. Today, Watt-Cloutier is one of Canada's most internationally influential politicians, having been elected president of the Canadian section of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference in 1995 and chair of the entire Inuit Circumpolar Conference in 2002. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference is an international organization that draws the Inuit of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia together into a unified political force.

In the 1990s, Watt-Cloutier represented the Inuit during the negotiation of the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants. These toxic chemicals, which include DDT and PCBs, are produced in the industrialized regions of the world. Disproportionate amounts are then carried to the Arctic and move up the food chain, accumulating in the fatty tissues of predators such as seals, walruses and ultimately humans.

Throughout the negotiations, Watt-Cloutier made a point of educating everyone involved about the fact that the Inuit are the world's most pronounced victims of persistent organic pollutants, to the point where Inuit women have to think twice about nursing their babies. Her focused yet impassioned efforts paid off: the Stockholm Convention, adopted in May 2001, requires states to take specific steps to reduce or eliminate the production of persistent organic pollutants and to dispose safely of existing stocks. So far, 128 countries have ratified the convention, including Canada, China, the European Community, India and Japan.

More recently, Watt-Cloutier turned her attention to climate change. In the face of the cataclysm threatening her people, Watt-Cloutier has travelled like a woman possessed, challenging political and corporate leaders to act, and delivering impassioned speeches at conferences, universities and think-tanks worldwide. In an awe-inspiring display of willpower, she has transformed the Inuit into the globally recognized human face of climate change. Watt-Cloutier is a great Canadian and a true global citizen, in the best sense of the term.

DAVID THOMAS is a journalist, author and technology entrepreneur from Montreal. A decade ago, he moved to the small town of Fernie, British Columbia, to escape the crowds and hassles of big-city life -- only to discover that his new home was subject to some of the same problems and issues he was trying to flee.

The Flathead River valley in southeast B.C. is one of Canada's most pristine wilderness areas. Lynx, wolverines, grizzly bears and wolves roam the forests, while the river is home to rare populations of bull and cutthroat trout. But the valley also contains vast quantities of natural gas, trapped in coal seams just a few hundred metres below the surface. Extracting this kind of natural gas, commonly referred to as "coal-bed methane," requires closely spaced wells and thus considerable surface development, including access roads, power lines and compressor stations. The gas itself is trapped beneath large quantities of saline groundwater, which has to be pumped out and then disposed of, a process that has caused terrible soil and watercourse degradation in other places, such as Wyoming's Powder River basin.

The government of British Columbia, intent on reaping billions of dollars in potential royalties, has energetically been promoting the development of coal-bed methane across the province. New wells are labelled as experimental for the first three years in order to exclude them from the usual regulatory framework, while the regulations themselves have been loosened to allow wells to be located closer together. Royalty rates are lower than for conventional oil and gas, and each new well receives a $50,000 credit.

By 2004, a handful of test wells had been drilled in the Flathead River valley. The activity attracted the attention of local residents, including Thomas, who by this point had been elected to Fernie city council. Thomas persuaded his fellow councillors and a number of other local residents to ask the provincial government to conduct a full environmental-impact assessment before more drilling took place. The government promptly denied the request, and announced that it would begin auctioning exploration rights for the area.

Thomas and his colleagues then appealed to the federal government for help, but Ottawa demurred. The story might have ended there, were it not for the fact that the Flathead River flows south into the United States, where it forms the western border of Montana's Glacier National Park, a World Heritage site. In a stroke of brilliance, Thomas contacted the governor of Montana and informed her that tainted water from Canada might soon be despoiling one of that state's most pristine areas. Governor Judy Martz immediately appealed to the B.C. government to postpone the auction until a full environmental-impact assessment was conducted. When her request was denied, she contacted Ottawa, pointing out that Canada was obligated by treaty to ensure that boundary waters "shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other." Martz also wrote to Colin Powell, the then U.S. secretary of state, and asked for his assistance.

The B.C. government was furious that Montana had involved itself in the matter. But politicians in Victoria and Ottawa could do nothing about the fact that Montana's involvement was suddenly attracting national media attention. The day after the bidding for the exploration licences closed, a visibly disappointed B.C. minister of mines Richard Neufeld announced that no bids had been received. Rumour has it that Shell did in fact table a bid, only to withdraw it just hours before the auction closed. The company was not about to risk another highly visible environmental controversy.

David Thomas is another great Canadian who, through perseverance and imagination, has taken Canadian interests to the international level and prevailed.

MONIA MAZIGH was born in Tunisia and came to Canada in 1991 to study. At McGill University she met Maher Arar, her future husband, who was born in Syria and had moved to Canada with his family at the age of seventeen. Mazigh and Arar have both been Canadians for more than a decade, though Arar is also still a Syrian national -- but only because that country refuses to accept renunciations of nationality.

Arar has experienced some of the very worst treatment that human beings are capable of inflicting on one another. His horrors began on Sept. 26, 2002, when he was detained at New York's JFK Airport while returning to Canada from a family vacation in Tunisia. After 12 days of questioning, he was deported to Jordan and then Syria, where he was imprisoned and tortured for a year without charge.

Were it not for Mazigh's determined efforts, her husband might still be in that tiny Syrian cell, or more likely, dead. I vividly remember hearing Mazigh being interviewed by Anna Maria Tremonti on CBC Radio's The Current on Feb. 12, 2003. By then, Arar had been imprisoned in Syria for 132 days. Mazigh's clearly articulated and controlled passion moved me, and, as it turned out, tens of thousands of other Canadians. Although a transcript cannot convey the tone and tenor of a conversation, the following excerpt offers some sense of why that particular interview had such a powerful effect:

Mazigh: This is the way, how a citizen, a Canadian citizen is treated? It is nonsense. His life has been destroyed and the life of my kids and myself too.

Tremonti: Are you confident the Canadian government is doing everything it can do?

Mazigh: I don't think that they are doing whatever they can do, because if they are doing that, he should be here. It's now too much. It's now five months that he's not back. So, to my point of view, they are not doing everything that they can. They can bring him back and this will be a wonderful thing, and a wonderful gift for, not only me, for all Canadians.

Many Canadians joined Mazigh in pressing for government action, sending letters and e-mails to Ottawa, making phone calls and turning Arar into a cause célèbre that Jean Chrétien could not ignore. The Canadian government finally began to apply pressure on Syria and, on Oct. 5, 2003, Arar was released and flown back to Ottawa.

Even then, the struggle was not over. Arar's detention and torture had left deep psychological scars. One can only imagine the challenges faced by Mazigh in rehabilitating her husband and looking after their two children while working all the while to pay the bills. And then there was the issue of Arar's reputation and career. He is a highly trained computer engineer, but he found it impossible to secure employment after returning home. Many Canadians continued to regard him with suspicion.

In response, Mazigh began a new advocacy effort, this time to pressure the Canadian government into establishing a judicial inquiry. The government resisted at first, but the report of the Arar Commission was released in September 2006, four years after Arar's rendition to Syria. Although heavily censored, the report clearly and definitively cleared Arar's name. In January 2007, the Canadian government finally apologized to him and his wife and family, and agreed to provide $10.5 million in compensation.

Canadians still owe Arar and his family much, including our profound thanks. The attention that Mazigh brought to Arar's rendition and torture has been critically important in rallying support for civil liberties at a time when they've been threatened and compromised. We now know that Canada's police, security and intelligence services overstepped the mark after Sept. 11, 2001. Thanks to Mazigh, the balance between security and individual freedoms in this country is much closer to where it should be. Some rights, such as the right not to be tortured, remain sacrosanct.

Today, Mazigh and Arar are putting their lives back together. In July 2006, Mazigh became a professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. The residents of that small city have embraced their new neighbours as remarkable Canadians and true global citizens.

DOUGLAS ROCHE is a former member of Parliament from Edmonton who served as the Progressive Conservative Party's critic for external affairs during the late 1970s. In 1984, he was chosen by Brian Mulroney to be Canada's ambassador for disarmament to the United Nations. There, Roche served as chair of the Disarmament Commission, a subsidiary body of the UN General Assembly that meets in New York City each spring. In 1998, Jean Chrétien appointed Roche to the Senate, where he chose to sit as an independent.

Roche has spent a lifetime campaigning to eliminate nuclear weapons, which he describes as "the paramount moral and legal problem of our time." It's a daunting task, since there are more than 20,000 nuclear weapons still in existence, enough to destroy life on Earth several times over. The weapons are held by a total of nine countries, five of which have ratified the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), three of which -- India, Pakistan and Israel -- have not, and one -- North Korea -- that ratified and then renounced the treaty. Of particular concern today is the possibility that a few nuclear weapons might fall into terrorist hands.

In May 2005, the regular five-year review conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty took place in New York City. The 153 government delegations were seriously polarized. On one side, the United States wanted the conference to deal exclusively with the nuclear potential of countries such as Iran. On the other side, many developing countries were equally concerned about the thousands of nuclear arms still in existence, and about plans by the United States to develop new kinds of nuclear weapons. They wanted more attention to be paid to the obligation of nuclear weapons states, under Article 6 of the NPT, to take steps to disarm. The conference collapsed.

Douglas Roche has been spearheading a global effort to save the NPT. He's the force behind the Middle Powers Initiative, an attempt to forge a new coalition between NGOs and "middle power" countries such as Canada, Brazil, South Africa and Sweden that have chosen not to acquire nuclear arms. The idea is that this coalition would be able to apply more pressure on the nuclear weapons states to begin serious negotiations on the reduction and eventual elimination of their nuclear arsenals. This, in turn, would provide the impetus for co-operation between developed and developing countries on other proliferation issues.

Roche has written eighteen books, countless newspaper articles and a series of influential policy papers. He lobbies politicians and bureaucrats incessantly, and not just in Canada. In 2004, he drafted an open letter to then prime minister Paul Martin opposing Canadian participation in U.S. missile defence. Thanks to Jillian Skeet, a Vancouver peace activist who can talk her way past any receptionist or agent, the letter was subsequently signed by a who's who of prominent Canadians, including Bryan Adams, Pierre Berton, Stompin' Tom Connors, Sarah McLachlan, David Suzuki and Sacha Trudeau. Other people played key roles in the campaign to keep Canada out of missile defence, but when Paul Martin finally announced his decision not to participate, nobody deserved more credit than Douglas Roche.

The last time I saw the 77-year-old, he was speaking at the University of British Columbia about his latest book, Beyond Hiroshima. One of my students made the mistake of asking when he was going to cease his efforts and retire. "When the last nuclear warhead is destroyed," he replied fiercely. "We must never, ever give up." What a Canadian! What a global citizen!

People like Sheila Watt-Cloutier, David Thomas, Monia Mazigh and Douglas Roche make me optimistic about Canada's future. They and thousands of other Canadians like them are actively and positively shaping this country and the wider world. They are global citizens seeking to improve the political, economic, social, cultural and environmental conditions of the communities in which they live, and not just for their own benefit.

MATTHEW GILLARD. Many of my students at the University of British Columbia are also global citizens. They're remarkably international: roughly one in four was born outside Canada, and nearly everyone has at least one parent who was an immigrant. They're also incredibly engaged. Every fall, I teach a course called the Change the World Seminar, in which students strategically seek to influence public policy. Remarkably, more than half of them succeed in some discernible way. My most memorable experience from the seminar came courtesy of a young man from Newfoundland named Matthew Gillard. In September 2004, Gillard decided to investigate what the government of Canada was doing to stop the many rapes, killings and displacements that were -- and still are -- taking place in Darfur. In the course of his research, he came across a short report in the Kelowna Daily Courier about a federal cabinet meeting that had recently taken place there. According to the report, Paul Martin's Liberals were just days away from committing $20 million to the African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission in Darfur. But Matt was unable to find any further news reports on the $20 million, so he took it upon himself to track the money down.

I showed him how to use the government of Canada online telephone book, and I lent him my telephone. He proceeded to call every civil servant in Ottawa who might conceivably have known about the $20 million. Most knew nothing; others were evasive; some clearly did not believe that Matt was just a student working on a class project. Finally, after dozens of calls, Matt turned to me and said: "I have to phone Africa. Someone just told me that the Canadian High Commission in Addis Ababa might be able to help. Apparently they're responsible for Canadian interests in Sudan."

"Sure," I replied. "Go ahead."

"It's not that easy. Ethiopia is eleven hours ahead of Vancouver. I need to phone at 6 a.m."

We met at my office the next morning. I well remember the walk to my office: it was dark and drizzly, and I nearly stepped on a skunk.

The first person to answer the phone didn't know anything about the $20 million, but he forwarded the call to someone else. The second person couldn't help either, but when she heard what Matt was asking, she cheerfully replied: "Okay, hang on a second. I'll put you through to the person who knows."

The "person who knows" was almost certainly the Canadian military attaché. He quizzed Matt at length. "You're phoning from where? Are you really a student?" After 10 minutes, he chuckled, having convinced himself that Matt was harmless: "It's all very interesting, you know. Ottawa decided several weeks ago that it wasn't going to give the AU the $20 million. But they've been receiving so many telephone calls the last few days that, yesterday afternoon, they changed their minds."

An optimistic intent for a nation

It's time for Canadians to recognize our considerable strengths and past successes in promoting changes at the international level, for when Canada acts on behalf of the international community, it not only does good, it also bolsters its reputation, thus generating what Joseph Nye of Harvard University calls "soft power" -- the capacity to persuade. This provides us with an advantage vis-à-vis the United States, which, by often acting in narrowly self-interested ways and favouring bullying over diplomacy, has squandered its soft power.

We are not destined to lose our identity and independence and be subsumed into the United States. We have a greater role to play, for a truly great country should be about more than a high GDP. It should be about maintaining and improving the quality of life of all its citizens. And it should be about improving the lot of human beings everywhere, for the simple reason that doing so is right and just.

My mentor, the Cambridge international lawyer and social philosopher Philip Allott, opened my eyes to a simple but incredibly empowering fact: much of what human beings take to be immutable about political systems -- traditions, norms, laws and constitutions; institutions and organizations; even the nation-state itself -- exists principally at the level of human ideas. As a result, these seemingly immutable structures can in fact be changed. All we have to do is imagine something different -- better laws, a better country, even a better world -- and then translate our ideas into action. Can we do it? Sheila Watt-Cloutier, David Thomas, Monia Mazigh, Douglas Roche, Matthew Gillard and thousands of other Canadians clearly think so. And what is a nation if not its people? Why can't an entire country be a "global citizen"? Why can't this be our "intent for a nation"? For this, I believe, is what Canada is for.  [Tyee]

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