Photo of George Galloway at Stop the War, in London, on February 24, 2007, by davidChief.
Incendiary British anti-war MP George Galloway was scheduled to speak at a Toronto Coalition to Stop the War event tonight. On March 20, though, he received a letter from Robert J. Orr, Immigration Officer for Canada in London, England, informing him that the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) had made a “preliminary determination” that he was inadmissible to Canada on grounds of national security, raising national furor over what his Toronto lawyer, Barbara Jackman, termed an abrogation of the right to freedom of speech. Meanwhile, Alykhan Velshi, senior aide to Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, took the liberty of calling Galloway an “infandous street-corner Cromwell who actually brags about giving ‘financial support’ to Hamas,” a man who “I’m sure …has a large Rolodex of friends in regimes elsewhere in the world willing to roll out the red carpet for him.”
Galloway, MP for the anti-war party Respect, is notorious for his outspoken declarations against the war in Iraq (for which he was ejected from the Labour Party in 2003) and his support for Palestine. Velshi claims that his provision of aid to the beleaguered Gaza strip, which included a $45,000 contribution to Prime Minister Haniyeh’s administration, constitutes support for Hamas, a terrorist organization in Canada, and makes him persona non grata under section 34(1) of Canada’s Immigration Act. According to evidence presented by Jackman in the Federal Court of Appeal on Sunday morning, Orr’s letter was apparently sent four days after Minister Kenney received another letter, this one from the Jewish Defense League—deemed a terrorist organization in the U.S.A., though not in Canada—requesting action from the government on keeping Galloway out of the country.
Galloway’s legal challenge to the ban was presented at the Federal Court of Appeal on Queen Street West yesterday at 11 a.m. Torontoist arrived early and just barely managed to grab a seat at the front; as many or more people as in the public gallery were accommodated in another room that was linked by video to the Toronto courtroom and the Ottawa office from which Judge Martineau spoke.
Jackman argued that Galloway’s aid to Gaza (through Viva Palestina, a charitable organization that he founded) was not directed towards violence or terror but humanitarian aid, as most of the items donated went to the Red Crescent Society. With regard to the cash donation, Jackman noted the irony in Canada’s claiming it terrorist support when it passed muster with the Israeli administration, saying that the cash went to “the Prime Minister of Gaza, not the head of Hamas. That may be a case of the same people wearing different hats, but the different hats are important.”
According to Jackman, the aid to Gaza was a symbolic political act and, as such, qualifies as an act of expression. Since Galloway’s appearance threatens no violence on the part of either his supporters or contenders (he has appeared to sold-out audiences in Canada on several previous occasions), the censorship is a breach of the right to freedom of speech. And not just Galloway’s, either; James Clark, speaking for the Toronto Coalition to Stop the War, claims that “it’s not just supporters that come to hear him; there are other people who come to challenge his views, to argue with him. We want that to happen, but right now Mr. Kenney’s decision is preventing it.” To that end, Jackman included a statement on behalf of his potential audience, arguing that “speech is not one-way,” and that his listeners’ deprivation of face-to-face engagement with the British MP constitutes an “irreparable loss.”
Photo of Galloway on the screen at a 2003 London anti-war protest by Ben Sutherland.
However, the most interesting argument made by Jackman—one that will not appear in Judge Martineau’s written decision, but may very well carry past this single instance of censorship—was on the basis of misapplication of the law. Jackman argued that Orr’s letter constituted a preliminary assessment of Galloway’s eligibility to enter the country; though CBSA has the authority to make such decisions in cases where a visa or work permit is required, Orr’s letter should have no legal authority in Galloway’s case, as Galloway is coming to Canada as a visitor (his speech is pro bono, though his travel expenses are being covered). The Crown’s representative claimed that Orr’s letter was informational, not decisive, and that all speculation on Galloway’s reception at the border is purely hypothetical. However, Jackman argued that the letter will almost certainly count as evidence in a border officer’s examination of Galloway’s admissibility as a foreign national, tainting what she argues should be a fair process and virtually guaranteeing his detention. As a member of parliament with commitments in the British House, Galloway cannot risk what would almost certainly result in a forty-eight-hour courtesy call to a Canadian jail for seeking admission to Canada as a supporter of terrorism.
The Crown’s statement, full of dispassionate legal jargon, was less engaging (and convincing) than Jackman’s. But a notable exception to this was Crown counsel’s barely perceptible physical reactions to Martineau’s merciless grilling on the legal basis for Orr’s letter and Galloway’s chances of being detained at the border, especially the full-body twitch that accompanied Martineau’s characterization of Veshni’s statements as “defamatory.” Meanwhile, Jackman’s team rounded off its case with a pithy comparison from Hadayt Nazami to an era “thirty, forty years ago, in the United States: take the immigration language and replace the word ‘communism’ with ‘terrorism,’ and you get the same result,” giving a powerful if bold injunction to rectify what it successfully framed as a regress in Canada’s humanitarian rectitude.
Judge Martineau’s decision will arrive in counsels’ inbox by 2 p.m. today. If Galloway wins, that should get him to Toronto in time for his 7 p.m. speech. If he gets the axe, supporters travelling in a “Freedom Caravan” will meet him on the Montreal side of the border crossing north of Burlington, Vermont, and hear him speak from an amplified telephone, says Clark. Galloway is currently on tour in the United States, and he has appeared and spoken in several cities without hindrance.