A not-so silent night at the Toronto Refugee Jail

Carolers bring candlelight and songs of hope reports MATTHEW BEHRENS

TORONTO (24 December 2004) -- THE STRETCH of Rexdale Blvd. between Martingrove Blvd. and Highway 27 is one of the dreariest in Toronto. A desolate airport area strip with the constant roar of transport trucks and flights overhead is home to a nondescript government of Canada building, a converted hotel which is now a jail for refugees.

Run by the Corbel Management Group, a private security company, the 72-room Heritage Inn, replacing the former Celebrity Inn refugee jail, but without any particular signage, is just another building that thousands of people pass by every day, few knowing the purpose of the facility. And while we do not know the details of the contract with Corbel, one might readily assume that, as with other privately-run prison facilities, profits are made by keeping as many people behind bars as possible.

What used to be advertised as a "pet and dog-friendly" airport area hotel is now "home" to a range of people including young children, for whom there is a small token slide in the barbed wire-enclosed outdoor area. Some are detained awaiting deportation, others until someone can provide impossibly high bond for their release.

Few likely know when they are getting out, a form of indefinite incarceration without charge which the International Red Cross has condemned at Guantanamo Bay -- that criticism could apply equally here at home and in refugee detention facilities around the globe.

On Christmas Eve, while Prime Minister Paul Martin's Xmas message of respect for cultural diversity was released to the media, this prison for refugees was serenaded for 90 minutes by a group of carolers who brought a series of songs and placards to support freedom for those detained simply because they are refugees.

While Martin may be blissfully unaware of such injustices (indeed, his choice of vacation spot for the next two weeks is one of the world's worst human rights violators, Morocco), Immigration Minister Judy Sgro should certainly know better, her concern for the rights of women ringing hollow considering who is jailed here, and why.

Detention of refugees and immigrants is increasingly common in Canada, with upwards of 700 women, children and men behind bars on a daily basis because of minor paperwork screws-ups, "failure" to follow complex rules that are not understood without hard-to-access translation or support services, coming to Canada with a false ID (incredibly common, but recognized even by Canadian courts as a necessity for one's protection) and a black-booted immigration force which likes to play SWAT in the middle of the night, hauling people out of their beds and whisking them away to jail.

While it is bitterly cold this night, with a wind chill at minus 20, there is a certain warming, emotional pull towards this building and its inmates. Inside are hundreds of stories of folks who have escaped persecution in one country only to be re-persecuted upon their arrival in Canada or, in numerous instances, after spending several years here.

Our plan is simple. To light candles, to hold placards, and to sing holiday songs of hope and resistance, with updated lyrics to traditional favourites. About 15 of us huddle close to the back barbed wire fence, from where we can see a group of men in a far window. We launch into a version of The 12 Days of IRPA, a listing of the 12 reasons why, under the immigration and refugee "protection" act, some folks are likely to be detained. By the 12th verse, the songs goes like this:

ON THE 12TH DAY OF IRPA WHY DID THEY DETAIN ME?
For going to this vigil
Standing for our rights
Not speaking English
Being called Mohamed
Jokin' bout Bush-laden
Not owning millions
Having Screwed up Papers
Pro-test-ing War!
Taking flying lessons
Reading suspect books
Being born an Arab
All for your national security!

Sometimes solidarity can only be standing in one place and singing out loud, hoping one's voice and one's love can climb over the 12-foot high barbed wire fences that serve as a last line of defence for Canadian society against those "housed" inside. One by one individual refugee detainees come to their windows, noticing the small group lit by an outdoor light and the odd flicker of one or two candles which have resisted the cold wind and continued flickering, refusing to give in to the night.

One of the first to wave is a young man, probably no more than 13 or 14. We suddenly see two very young children peel back a curtain, their eyes filled with wonder at the site of the shivering singers and their placards. It's hard to tell who is more excited: us at seeing them, or them seeing us. They are blowing us kisses, some jumping up and down with elated surprise to see us there, others waving frenetically and giving us the peace sign. Others write messages in the window with their fingers: whatever their language, we feel a strong bond as we sing The Twelve Days of IRPA, Rudy the Racist MP and Away in Detention (see lyrics below).

It reminds us of similar trips to the back of the Metro West Detention Centre, where our presence is greeted by a pounding on the thick glass windows, an amazing sound which speaks of the inmates' desperate disbelief: there are actually people who care about them, who have not forgotten them, and it is a reminder of their own humanity in an institution which does everything to rob them of their human identity.

After a rousing rendition of Silent Night, we wave goodbye and move towards the front of the jail, where we are greeted by a second round of half a dozen latecomers, who will take up a later shift singing and waving to the detainees. The signs which read "It's not a crime to be a refugee," "Stop Jailing Refugees," "You are not Forgotten" and "You Shall be Released" stay behind, affixed to the barbed wire fences.

It's a small thing that we've done, but perhaps we've been able to inspire a bit of hope in some folks who could use some after the way the government of Canada has treated them. For even though it is the holiday season, and hollow entreaties to peace and human kindness echo through the halls of Canadian power, the deportation assembly line continues apace, with news a few hours earlier that a Somali man who has lived here for 15 years is set to be torn apart from his wife and four children.

As we warm up in our vehicles on the way back downtown, we hear the odd report about refugees flooding across border points in advance of the deadline for implementation of "Safe Third Country." The reports do not describe the true situation, though, of refugees without proper winter clothes shivering for hours on school buses, with others forced to wait in bathroom stalls which proved one of the few sources of warmth on the coldest day of the year.

The Canadian government has known about this last-minute rush of refugees who will try and come to Canada, but has done nothing to make sure there is room at the inn on this Christmas Eve.

It's yet another reminder that we need to continue challenging the government on its racist immigration and refugee rejection policies, its detentions, its secret trials, its two-faced approach to the issue. And that we need to continue reaching out a hand in friendship and solidarity to those struggling in this winter wonderland.

Our next vigil in Toronto is Friday, December 31, 12 Noon, at CSIS headquarters, 277 Front Street West. "Free the Five in 2005" will highlight the ongoing incarceration of five Muslim men detained indefinitely without charge or bail on secret evidence neither they nor their lawyers are allowed to see. All are at risk of deportation to torture.


STRUGGLING IN A WINTER WONDERLAND
(To the tune of "Winter Wonderland")

Immigrants for cheap hires
And their bosses, cheatin' liars
Failed Refugee Claims
On reasons that shame
Struggling in this winter wonderland

Try to come across the border
To this land of law and order
If your skin is brown
You can't go to town
Struggling in this winter wonderland

At the airport they will ask you questions
Have you ever been to Pakistan?
Are you hiding something in your suitcase?
Welcome to our democratic land!

Later on, in detention
Hopefully they'll pay attention
To your human rights
This season of lights
Struggling in this winter wonderland
Struggling in this winter wonderland


PJ, THE AGENT
(To the tune of "Frosty the Snowman")

PJ, the agent thinks the world is black and white
If your name's "Hassan", he thinks you're wrong
If it's George Bush, you're all right.

PJ, the agent fears a Muslim with a book
And a video of the CN Tower
will make him lock you up.

There must have been some trauma
When PJ was just a boy
Cause he never learned to trust or love,
Just to torture girls and boys.

PJ, the agent thinks ignorance is bliss
He knows nothing but what he's been told
By his bosses at CSIS

He'll never catch a terrorist
Cause he's blinded by his fears
He'll only torment innocents
with his spying and his jeers.

PJ, the agent has to hurry on his way
Cause Canadians don't want CSIS
And they've got to go away.

Bumpety, bump, bump
Bumpety, bump, bump
Look at PJ run
Bumpety, bump, bump
Bumpety, bump, bump
We've got CSIS on the run.


AWAY IN DETENTION
(To the tune of "Away in a Manger")

Away in detention, no crib for a bed,
The little child refugee lays down her sweet head.
The guards look at her through the cracks in the door,
The little child refugee asleep on the floor.

The airport is noisy, the baby awakes.
Her mother is sickly, she shivers and shakes.
We will not forget you, so please don't lose hope.
We're sorry that Judy Sgro has played this cruel joke.

We're near you child refugee, we're not far away.
We're working to speed up your new Freedom Day.
Bless all the dear children who are detained tonight.
You've called us to conscience for you we will fight.

Away in detention, no crib for a bed,
The little child refugee lays down her sweet head.
The guards look at her through the cracks in the door,
The little child refugee asleep on the floor.


RUDY THE RACIST MP
(To the tune of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer")

Rudolph, the racist MP
Had a crappy attitude
And if you ever heard him
You might even say he's crude

If you were not a white male
He would laugh and call you names
He'd call for closed up borders
And hope we'd all look the same!

Then one freezing Christmas Eve
Carolers came to sing
Rudy with your racist blight
You could be transformed tonight!

Rudy then saw the error
Of his narrow minded views
Rudy the refugee sponsor
Came to love all Muslims and Jews!


Report from Toronto Action for Social Change.
PO Box 73620, 509 St. Clair Ave. West
Toronto, ON M6C 1C0
tasc@web.ca, (416) 651-5800, www.homesnotbombs.ca

Updates

(31 Dec 2004) Year-end vigil to stop secret trials draws heavy security presence


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