An academic conference at the University of Ottawa was abruptly cancelled last month after permission for five key participants to enter the country was mysteriously withheld by the Canadian government.
The conference had planned to explore the resettlement of former prisoners into society.
The five Irish nationalists, former prison inmates jailed for their IRA activities, were to relate their experience in community reintegration and reconciliation to a group of Canadian academics, government officials and NGO representatives. They also hoped to learn more about Canada's highly-regarded "LifeLine" program that integrates long-incarcerated inmates into society. Two of the five had also been invited to address an event on peace and conflict resolution at Concordia University.
"The academic bona fides of this conference were above reproach," said University of Ottawa criminology professor Robert Gaucher, a conference organizer. "The work of these ex-prisoners towards peace and reconciliation in Ireland is a matter of public record."
Gaucher said the denial of entry, and the manner in which it was done, show an "absolute contempt" for everything that universities stand for.
"These ex-prisoners are participants in a peace process that Canada supports," he said. "They have been instrumental in developing an extraordinary model of prisoner resettlement. Two of them are academics with PhDs, one is a playwright, another a journalist. The conference itself was cosponsored by Correctional Service of Canada as a follow-up to a similar event held in Ireland that CSC also participated in. The mind boggles."
Gaucher admits he does not know how and why the decision to refuse entry was made. "The persons responsible have not had the courtesy to offer an explanation," he said.
The notice of rejection, issued under section 34 (1) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, simply stated that "It has been determined that there are insufficient grounds to merit issuance of a permit." Section 34(1) of the Act allows the government to prohibit entry to foreign nationals for a range of security reasons including engaging in espionage, subversion and terrorism, being a danger to the security of Canada or being a member of an organization that might engage, did engage or will engage in such acts.
Another event sponsor was the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, an organization that works with women in conflict with the law and advocates for changes in the criminal justice system. The association had invited two of the ex-prisoners, author Ella O'Dwyer and playwright Brenda Murphy, to address a group on women and imprisonment.
Kim Pate, executive director of the association, said the cancellation of the conference is an indication of how profound the intrusion of the state has been into the lives of Canadians following Sept. 11, 2001.
"The representation that these people are somehow a risk to our country is ludicrous," Pate said. "The only thing the ex-prisoners represent a threat to is the neo-conservative attitudes that pervade this country's political and economic elite."
Pate's interest in the contribution the political ex-prisoners could make is reflected in the correspondence between the Correctional Service of Canada and O'Dwyer.
"In learning more about corrections in Ireland," Pierre Allard, assistant commissioner of CSC's community engagement branch, wrote to O'Dwyer in December 2003, "I must say that I am particularly struck by the uniqueness and role of your ex-prisoner-based organization, and equally confident that the Correctional Service of Canada has much to benefit from a further exploration of the ExPac model." As a result of denied entry to Canada, the planned meetings between CSC and the exprisoners have been postponed indefinitely.
"This is not a gray area case," said CAUT executive director James Turk. "The cancellation of this event is an appalling violation of academic freedom. Universities are the place where exactly the kind of dialogue envisaged by the conference has to occur, not simply because academic freedom protects it, but because the resolution of human conflict depends on it. We are worried this is a foretaste of the kind of clampdown we will be experiencing as the Martin government tries to please the Bush administration."
Gaucher said he's considering rescheduling the conference for next fall, but will only proceed when a more open and transparent decision-making process for temporary resident permits for their Irish colleagues is in place.
"We do not have a clear picture of what happened," Gaucher said, "but information from Liberal MP Marlene Catterall's office suggests the Department of Immigration did not have a particular problem with the ex-prisoners. It was when the Department of Public Safety got hold of the matter that the roadblocks appeared."
Caroline Andrew, the dean of social sciences at the University of Ottawa and Sylvie Frigon, the director of the university's criminology department, have written with Gaucher to Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan, asking why the group was barred from Canada and seeking assurances the Ministry will adopt transparent procedures.
Gaucher is also keen to make the academic community aware of the circumstances of the conference's cancellation.
"As Canada bows to pressure to conform to American priorities and practices in the area of national security, this kind of absurd overreaction will become the norm," he said. "It has stopped cold a discussion of an extraordinary model of prisoner rehabilitation. It will do a lot worse."