Almost 30,000 copies of the Know Your Rights guide are already in circulation across the country and demand is growing among Muslims left shaken by sensational headlines following recent anti-terrorism raids.
The blue and black soft-cover booklet is smaller than a credit card, and the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations Canada is encouraging Muslims on its website to “keep it in your wallet – you may need it when you least expect it.”
“We’ve received a number of complaints of tactics and techniques used by primarily CSIS, but also the RCMP, in visitations of Muslims and Arabs in Canada,” said CAIR-CAN director Riad Saloojee, in an interview from Ottawa.
“Most people just don’t know what to do in that situation.”
The 12-page guide is a layman’s legal primer, offering counsel on Canadian legal and human rights. One section advises Muslims they are under no obligation to talk to CSIS or the RCMP.
It also directs them not to meet with security agents without a lawyer, assuring that such refusal will not imply deception.
Moreover, unless there’s a search warrant, people can refuse entry to their homes or offices, the guide says. And even then, they don’t have to answer questions, it states, while cautioning that lying to investigators is a crime.
“We’ve been encouraging people to speak to CSIS and the RCMP because they should have nothing to hide, but we’ve also been telling them to do so with a lawyer present so that the questions are not intrusive, offensive or sort of witchhunt-type,” said Saloojee, who is himself a lawyer.
Kent Roach, an independent legal expert at the University of Toronto, confirmed the advice was generally accurate, but highlighted one rare exception to the rule of silence.
“One exception under the Anti-Terrorism Act is that the police and the Crown can apply to have an investigative hearing before a judge, in which case, a person would have to co-operate,” Roach said.
A CSIS spokeswoman stressed that CSIS interviews are conducted on a “voluntary basis” under strict guidelines.
“And certainly our representatives do so in a non-threatening fashion,” said Nicole Currier, adding that CSIS does not engage in racial or religious profiling.
And neither do the Mounties, said RCMP spokesman Staff Sgt. Paul Marsh.
“The RCMP is aware of concerns that have been expressed by certain members of the Muslim community concerning interactions with the police and/or security agencies,” Marsh said. “The RCMP has a zero-tolerance policy toward racial profiling and racially biased policing.”
But not all Muslims are convinced that such policies work. Mustafa, 26, an Islamic school official in Ottawa, has memorized the guide and says it’s a handy tool for his students. He didn’t want his last name published.
“It’s very important given the (political) climate we are living in,” he said.
The guide is free and available upon request, but an abbreviated version can also be downloaded from the CAIR-CAN website. It is part of the group’s Ottawa Raid Community Kit, a larger education campaign dealing with the fallout from the RCMP raid on the Khawaja family home in Ottawa last month.
Canadian-born Mohammad Khawaja, 29, faces two terrorism-related charges. Details of his case remain secret, but it’s the first time a charge has been laid under Canada’s Anti-Terrorism Act.
“It’s been a huge shocker for the community,” he added. “In this case, it is a family well-known in the community.”
“So there is certainly this fear that if it can happen to someone who is so run-of-the-mill in the community, then it can happen to me.”
That’s provoked CAIR-CAN to organize Know Your Rights workshops across Canada. There have been 27 to date, with upcoming meetings slated for Saskatoon on May 15 and Winnipeg on May 19. The Ottawa workshop last weekend attracted about 140 people.
“People fear that they may be tied to terrorism and even if it is a mistake, it doesn’t matter. Life is over as you know it,” Saloojee said. “It leaves a stain that is almost impossible to transcend.”
Complaints the group says it received about treatment of Muslims and Arabs by RCMP and CSIS prompted CAIR-CAN to launch a national survey on the topic last month.
Some reported being bullied or humiliated by agents, while others were discouraged from seeking legal advice, Saloojee said.
But CSIS spokeswoman Currier refuted claims of alleged abuse.
“We recognize that there may be some anxiety at the prospect of meeting with a representative from an organization like ours, but we certainly make every effort to properly explain the reasons for our meetings and to put the person being asked questions completely at ease.”
Individuals who feel they’ve been mistreated are encouraged to file a complaint with Canada’s security watchdog, the Security Intelligence Review Committee, she said.
The same goes for the RCMP, added Marsh, pointing to the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP.
But one Muslim man, who did not want to be named, said he was “harassed” and humiliated at his Ottawa workplace by two CSIS agents last month because of his loose connection to the Khawaja family.
The 31-year-old customer service agent says he’s too frightened to file a complaint with the security watchdog because he wants no further contact with the agency.
“They were very forceful,” he said.
“So I said that I wanted to talk to a lawyer or something and they basically dissuaded me saying ‘Why would you want to spend that much money?’ “
Some highlights from the free Know Your Rights guide published by the Council on American Islamic Relations Canada:
- Your right to be politically active and to hold different beliefs is protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
- If you are visited by CSIS or the RCMP remember: You have no obligation to talk to CSIS or the RCMP, even if you are not a citizen.
- Never meet with them or answer any questions without a lawyer present. Refusing to answer questions cannot be held against you.
- You do not have to permit them to enter your home or office without a search warrant. If they say they have a warrant, demand to see it before allowing them to enter.
- Even if they have a warrant, you are under no obligation to answer questions.
- Never lie or provide false information to CSIS or the RCMP. If you fear misunderstanding, it is better to refuse to answer questions.