Shattering the Fantasy of Multiculturalism
He disappeared — gone, out the door. I tried to get my notebook and belongings together in a plastic bag but by the time I was outside, I couldn't tell which direction he had gone.
At night it gets dark on Arlington Ave. in the Upper Village, the Toronto neighborhood where we were hanging out: Arshad, Fahim, and I, at Arshad's place. Fahim and I were planning to go back to his place in Scarborough via the subway so that he could shower and change but my fumbling spoiled those plans and the fact was with 96 hours left until his scheduled deportation Fahim wanted to be alone.
In the days leading up to his deportation on Tuesday, March 23, Fahim Kayani and I spent a great deal of time together: hanging out, taking pictures (and getting them developed), shopping, sight-seeing and desperately seeking restaurants that served Halal. But looking at him and even talking to him during that time one would never sense the torturous stress and anxiety the Canadian government's expulsion order had on him.
With friends he was calm and collected, happy and almost always smiling. He had the courage to come to Canada on his own, the strength to endure almost two months in detention as a "suspected terrorist," held without even the pretence of legitimate evidence. And through it all he refused to be a passive participant to the machinations of the legal system.
"I can't believe this is happening," he confessed to me as we were walking through the Eaton Centre one day, but he quickly composed his thoughts and that was the only time he mentioned how the deportation process was affecting him emotionally. He wanted so much to enjoy his last days that when he was feeling down, he didn't want to bother others with his worries. So he would seek reclusion, as on that Saturday night in the Upper Village.
Arshad's place on Arlington runs along Cedarvale Park, which swoops down into a valley and ascends steeply on the other side. Staring west and then east, and even with detailed directions, I had no idea where Fahim or the Eglington West subway station were in the pitch black. After half an hour of stumbling through the park and regaining my bearings in a school parking lot, I gave up looking for the subway station and traced my way back to Arshad's.
"He does this," Arshad said when I got back to the apartment. "Don't worry. He's been through much worse."
And he has. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) arrested Fahim along with 18 other South Asian Muslim men in a predawn raid on August 14, 2003 — Pakistan's Independence Day. The raid was part of Project Thread, a joint investigation of Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the RCMP.
The nineteen were initially accused of being an al-Qaeda sleeper cell. The news flashed around the world on CBC and CNN and in newspapers in magazines — Canadian cops catch extremist Muslim terrorist baddies. But the allegations, which ranged from plotting to destroy the CN Tower and the Pickering Nuclear Plant to setting off a radioactive "dirty bomb," were based on a house of cards that quickly crumbled. It was later revealed that five other Pakistani men were detained under Project Thread.
The RCMP alleged that airline posters in Fahim's apartment, put up by his roommate, who's father works for Lufthansa, were airplane "schematics." One suspect was accused of scoping out the Pickering Nuclear Plant when in fact he was in Pakistan at the time.
"Another piece of ludicrous so-called evidence the government had was that when [the Project Thread suspects] were crammed in an apartment together, many of them hadn't ever cooked before and they would burn meals," said Farrah Miranda, a member of Project Threadbare, a community group formed after the arrests to offer support and solidarity to the detainees.
"Their cooking was a sign that they were somehow linked to terrorist activity," Miranda said.
The RCMP also claimed that the Punjab, the Pakistani province where all but one of the Thread detainees came from, was a hotbed of "extremism." A short glance into any basic travel guide will tell you that the Punjab is Pakistan's center for arts and academics and a province of remarkable plurality in faiths and ideas. It seemed the RCMP was grasping at straws.
The terrorism allegations were quickly dropped after scrutiny and then the government began insisting that Project Thread was an investigation into immigration fraud. And as the government's case shifted from terrorism to visa violations, the Scarborough-based Ottawa Business College (OBC), an institution where each of the detainees studied separately during their time in Canada, became the focal point of Project Thread. OBC, was, in fact, not a legitimate school and the school's proprietor Luther Samuel was defrauding hundreds of students out of thousands and thousands of dollars in tuition by setting-up six phony classrooms.
The government charged the 24 Thread detainees with immigration fraud even though their student visas for OBC were approved by the government, who recognized the institution as legitimate. The RCMP seized 400 student files from OBC records but only 24 South Asian Muslim men have been charged with immigration violations and Luther Samuel has yet to face any charges regarding the OBC scam.
The case of Fahim Kayani and those of the other Project Thread detainees raise troubling questions about Canada's treatment of immigrants and the multicultural image it sells through its Embassies and Consulates abroad. As it stands today in Canada, mass murderers like Robert Pickton and war criminals like Slobodan Milosevic have more rights than immigrants like Fahim, who are charged with minor visa violations of dubious validity.
"The Public Security and Anti-terrorism unit had an interest in capturing 19 Muslim men to say to the US, to the rest of the world, and to Canadians, 'look what we're doing on the war on terrorism, look at how we are justifying the extraordinary powers that were given to us that violate your Charter of Rights, that violate your international human rights but it's okay because look at what we're doing to protect you,'" said Amina Sherazee, Fahim's lawyer.
Fahim spent six-weeks in detention at the maximum-security facility at Maplehurst in Milton — some of that time in with the general population, with prisoners and guards taunting him with calls of "Wake up, Taliban."
"Bullshit" is Fahim's favorite word to describe the terrorism and the immigration charges the government brought against him. But during his last days in Canada he used those words rarely and was focused on getting things done.
Fahim spoke at the peace rally a few Saturdays ago giving a stirring plea for help in his quest to stop the deportation and clear his name. After the speech, when we were marching, Fahim said "wow" a couple of times as he checked out the thousands of others in the crowd. He has always expressed his conflicted idea of Canada: government abuse on the one hand and the support he received from Canadians and the dissent he saw at the peace rally.
What do you do when you're going to be expelled in 72 hours from a country you've called home for almost five years? As for Fahim, he kept cool as a cucumber and during his final hours had fun meeting with friends, checking out the sights and looking for a decent pair of black pants, which Fahim told me are impossible to find in Pakistan.
After the rally we scoped out the Eaton Centre; on Sunday it was Yorkdale; and back to the Eaton Centre on Monday — still we weren't pleased with the slacks selection in Toronto's malls but Fahim bought a pair of shoes and we were able to get about 80 photos developed.
Saturday night Fahim crashed at my place. Just before heading off to bed, Fahim said he needed to offer today's prayer.
"Do you want me to join?" I asked.
"Yes, come on, if you want," he replied.
I did. Kneeling on the blanket facing Mecca, we sheepishly had to admit to each other, that we hadn't the faintest clue on how to do the azzan (the call to prayer) or how to lead the prayer. Adding to the absurdity of the situation is the fact that I'm not even religious.
So we prayed separately but together: two Muslim men from different sides of the world but like Midnight's Children linked by a place, and also a religion. Two Muslim men praying to God that the world didn't have to be this way, this messed up.
Monday afternoon, Fahim was resolved to visit the CN Tower. The trip was rife with irony — the CN Tower was one the "targets" Fahim was alleged to be plotting against. Fahim stood there on the observation deck looking North at the city and the country he was about to be kicked out of and he wasn't angry, he wasn't bitter, he was amazed by the view.
That afternoon while he was out enjoying his last day in Canada, Fahim received two telephone messages from immigration officials asking him to call the deportation authorities the following morning at 8am. The authorities had presumably been alarmed by a sit-in by supporters of Fahim at Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Judy Sgro's constituency office — one last attempt to pressure the government.
Fahim called in Tuesday morning and the authorities instructed him to report to the Greater Toronto Enforcement Centre (GTEC), the agency that carries out deportations for the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness. On Tuesday morning at 11am Fahim complied, believing the meeting would be merely to discuss his deportation later that day. However, Fahim was taken into custody by GTEC right away, despite the prior instructions.
Under the terms of a letter presented to Fahim, he was to have reported to immigration officials at Toronto's Pearson International Airport at 7pm, where he would be processed and then board a 10pm flight to Frankfurt and from there onto Islamabad.
Tsering Nanglu, spokesperson for both Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the Canadian Border Service Agency, a division of the newly created Department of Public Safety Emergency Preparedness, said Fahim was not detained as a flight risk and insisted that Fahim's detention was just part of regular deportation procedures.
Sherazee, Fahim's lawyer, said the government's actions amounted to entrapment and described the incident as gratuitous and malicious.
"It's symbolic and it exemplifies the conduct Immigration Canada has shown [Fahim] from day one."
Nanglu would not comment on whether the Monday morning sit-in at Sgro's Toronto constituency office was related. Nanglu said the privacy act prevented immigration officials from discussing the specifics of deportations. But during his deportation officials interrogated Fahim on what he knew about the sit-in and questioned him on his involvement with Project Threadbare.
Late Monday, on the eve of his deportation, a group of his good friends and I were resolved to visit Fahim and try and cheer him up. I don't recall much of the conversation that night but I remember the feeling: Fahim, at least outwardly, seemed at ease. Not resigned to his fate but accepting that this difficult chapter was ending.
He had had just enough time to frame four photos of his friends from Project Threadbare that he planned to give to them: one of Amandeep, one of Mohan, and two of Farrah.
He asked me to take a picture of him with the framed photos. He hovered over the framed pictures while I prepared to take the photo.
"My angels," he called them and then the shutter snapped.
He wanted to give those pictures himself to his friends and he had other photos he wanted framed and given away. But the immigration authorities had other plans. Fahim was never able to say goodbye to any of his friends. He was scooped away and deported as crudely as he was first detained.
The last time I saw Fahim was a few minutes after taking the picture — it was 4am Tuesday morning, and he escorted us down to the car. He waved and then went back inside as we turned onto Lawrence, heading west, away from him, not knowing it would be the last time we saw him.