Why Hassan Diab’s ongoing incarceration in France is Canada’s ‘Dreyfus Affair’

Published in the Ottawa Citizen on: November 27, 2017


Hassan Diab as he looked in 2010, before his extradition hearing in Ottawa. (Tony Caldwell, Postmedia) Tony Caldwell / Tony Caldwell/Ottawa Sun

The Hassan Diab case is beginning to reek of the late 19th-century “Dreyfus Affair “now that a fourth French judge’s order for Diab’s release for lack of evidence has been quashed at a higher level, and this Canadian academic and father of two small children begins his fourth year in solitary confinement in a French prison, without charge or trial.

Moreover, the reek of a gross miscarriage of justice, which the term “Dreyfus Affair” connotes, implicates Canada and what Canadians stand for as much as it does France and the values defining that society. That’s because, under the previous (Stephen Harper) government, Canada extradited Diab despite specious evidence linking him to a 1980 bombing outside a synagogue in Paris.

Briefly, what pulled Diab from his settled life as a respected sociology professor at University of Ottawa in November, 2008, when he was first arrested, was a hand-written note (in block letters) purported to having been penned by one of the people implicated in the synagogue bombing. The French government used this as grounds to have Canada extradite Diab.

The handwriting experts consulted rejected this note’s credibility and any resemblance to Diab’s handwriting. Moreover, there was documented evidence that Diab was writing his university exams in his then-home city of Beirut at the time of the bombing. The extradition judge described the French Government’s case for extraditing as “suspect,” “illogical” and “very problematic.” So Diab’s lawyer, Donald Bayne, along with the considerable support group that continues to seek justice for Diab and support his wife and children here in Canada, were mystified that the Canadian government extradited Diab anyway.

Worries that political pressure is at work, obstructing justice, have only deepened as time has yawned between the date of Diab’s extradition in 2014 and today. A total of eight release orders from French judges have now been overturned at an appeal level, and the French press recently reported that Israeli officials met with the French judges on the case in September. This is why remembering the Dreyfus case is so important.

Worries that political pressure is at work, obstructing justice, have only deepened.

Dreyfus was a Jewish officer in the French army who was falsely accused of treason and convicted in the l890s, a period when anti-Semitism was rife in French society. The clear evidence of his innocence was consistently ignored, and the affair unfolded over more than a decade while “love of your country for the principles it stands for” was eclipsed by “love your country, right or wrong.”

Those who dodged doing the right thing bowed to fears at what this might do to the reputation of France and the French army. In the end, principle triumphed over politics – thanks to French writer Emile Zola’s open letter to the French President of the day, beginning with “J’accuse.”

I am no Zola. But over the course of my career as a writer, I think I have gained a reputation for integrity. From my first book, an oral history of Canada during the 1970s’ national unity crisis, I have also engaged myself in the narrative of values, rights and responsibilities by which we like to define ourselves as a country. Every breach of these – from the residential school policy to the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War to, more recently, the treatment of Maher Arar, Omar Khadr and, now, Hassan Diab – challenges Canadians.

If each of these injustices is not addressed and rectified, it weakens our credibility outwardly and our self-confidence inwardly. As Zola wrote in his famous letter, letting politics trump principles “will destroy a freedom-loving France.”

I therefore salute those many in the Canadian media who have been keeping this case in the public eye. And I join my voice with fellow writers such as Naomi Klein and Yann Martel in calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to intervene and bring Diab home now! Otherwise, Mr. Trudeau, you force me and all other Canadians to be implicated in a 21st-century repetition of the terrible Dreyfus affair.

Portrait of Alfred Dreyfus at his retrial Photos.com / Getty Images

Heather Menzies is a two-time winner of the Ottawa Book Award, an adjunct professor at Carleton University and a member of the Order of Canada.

Land and Power

Two books – Is Racism an Environmental Threat by Ghassan Hage and As We Have Always Done by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson – explore the personal in the political.

To read my reviews of these book see my article Land and Power in the Nov 15, 2017 edition of Watershed Sentinel.

These fine books speak to the deep healing in people’s relations with each other and with the earth that’s needed if we are to meaningfully address the damage being done to both our social and natural environments.


We have a historic opportunity to consider alternatives to Site C

Heather Menzies
Contributed to The Globe and Mail
November 5, 2017


With the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC) questioning the economic logic of the Site C dam in Northern British Columbia, a window now opens to consider factors other than narrowly economic ones on whether the project should proceed. It’s also a chance to consider perspectives other than those of the urban south, which has long regarded the north as a resource hinterland at its service.

In Northern British Columbia, where the Peace River has sustained life for millennia, economic concerns like jobs are certainly important; though at the moment, these seem sufficient for local needs. However, as I learned when paddling the river this past summer, the focus is more on the land and what it is to live on it. For Treaty 8 people, especially the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations, this means the extensive living heritage of wild animals, fish and berries that have fed their people since the beginning of Aboriginal time, and to a certain extent still do.

The rivers flowing into the broad Peace River valley, including the Halfway River and Cache Creek, constitute a network of highway lifeways for the deer, elk, moose and bear which range across this vast tract of interconnected land. That network would be flooded if the Site C dam were built. For local farmers, including a younger generation getting into market gardening on the rich alluvial soil of the valley floor, the land means local food security. This sometimes feel-good concept became a lot more real this past summer as wild fires in the B.C. interior cut off transportation from the south into the north.

Moreover, these two groups, farmers and Indigenous people, are trying to work together. In January 2014, a coalition between the Treaty 8 Tribal Association, Peace Valley Landowner Association, Peace Valley Environment Association and Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative presented an alternative vision for the valley to the Joint Review Panel considering the Site C project. Representing extensive relationship and trust-building in its formation, the coalition laid out two guiding principles for future “development” in the Peace: First, to keep the valley with all the rivers and creeks flowing into it intact; and second, to ensure that all future developments will be in harmony with the natural functions of the valley’s ecosystems and its beauty.

If this coalition and the beginnings of its locally determined vision are given a chance, they could set an example of reconciliation between Canada’s Indigenous and settler populations. Their dialogue and what emerges from it could also help point the way toward a post-150 re-conception of Canada. In his latest book, Canada’s Odyssey, University of Toronto historian Peter Russell describes his view of this as a “multinational … civilization” where treaty obligations between the first founding nations are embraced and fulfilled. Among other things, this means the healthy sustainability both of the land and its original inhabitants.

It’s a lot to hope for, but Canada has a unique government in British Columbia, with the Greens supporting the NDP. The BCUC’s findings give the new government a chance to make history by backing alternatives to Site C coming from the less-populated and less lobby-powerful north, and embracing a vision of development that is ecological, economic and just.

The realities of politics in this age of controlled messaging and self-interested supporter bases would suggest that it’s not all that likely the government will do this. Still, the window of possibility for bold new visioning is open, and it’s a hopeful sign that B.C.’s Energy Minister Michelle Mungall has announced her intention, along with Scott Fraser, the Minister for Indigenous Relations, to meet with relevant Treaty 8 First Nations this month.

Reclaiming Common Ground: past and present, part 2

Based on Heather Menzies’ presentation at Camp Gabriola on August 26, 2016.

Part 2 of 2

I won’t go into what killed the commons. Nor will I risk being a romantic and nostalgic by suggesting that it always worked out well.  And I certainly don’t want to suggest that we try to ‘go back.’ But we can learn from it. Because its practices and its ethos were distinctive – they  are both alive and relevant today.

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Reclaiming Common Ground: past and present, part 1

Based on Heather Menzies’ presentation at Camp Gabriola on August 26, 2016.

Part 1 of 2

A politics of hope can prevail over a politics of despair if it’s guided by a vision that itself is grounded in what has worked in the past…  when the so-called unseen hand of the common good was not only seen but attached to people like you and me.


John Capon, Grace McInnis and other CCF Campers in 1945.

1945 CCF Camp Woodsworth, with the young Gabriolan John Capon (seated left centre) with a number of CCF luminaries, including Grace McInnis. Photo credit: Gabriola Museum Archives.

A politics of hope can prevail over a politics of despair if it’s guided by a vision that itself is grounded in what has worked in the past. It can inspire if people see themselves as more than a part of a narrative that merely got lost on the road to empire and globalization. They will put their faith into some of the emergent economic and social alternatives of today if they can see these as linked to an historical legacy – when the so-called unseen hand of the common good was not only seen but attached to people like you and me. At least that’s what I think.

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