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Detained: Islamic Fundamentalist Extremism and the War on Terror in Canada

by Daniel Livermore

Almost two decades after 9/11, career foreign affairs officer Daniel Livermore (a former director general of security and intelligence for Foreign Affairs Canada) delivers what he calls an insider’s reflection on terrorism and the litany of human rights abuses committed by Canadian government agencies in the name of national security. While much of Livermore’s study is based on materials that are already part of the public record, it’s a potent catalogue of homegrown arbitrary detention, repressive legislation, racial profiling, and Canadian complicity in torture. The stories of some Canadians rendered to Syrian dungeons –
Maher Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati – are well known, while others still fighting for justice, such as Abousfian Abdelrazik (detained and tortured in Sudan and now suing the Canadian goverment), receive a welcome accounting.

Written in a clinical style that unfortunately leaves out the voices of survivors, the book is at times uneven and repetitive. A more serious issue is the use of careless phrasing that can lead to dangerous guilt by association. Livermore’s prose can be sloppy: he introduces harmful allegations against individuals that are not shown to have been dismissed until much later. He also uses the incriminating language of intelligence agencies in describing individuals with certain “associates,” as opposed to the more accurate “acquaintances,” leaving readers with suspicions where none should exist.

While his section on the controversial secret hearing security certificates (under which largely Muslim men were jailed without charge for years in Canadian solitary confinement cells) is undermined by inaccuracies, Livermore nonetheless presents a welcome, sober view of the infamous Khadr family, making a strong case that the so-called first family of Canadian terrorism in no way deserves the sobriquet.

Livermore is justifiably unsparing in his critiques of spy agency misbehaviour and the deficiencies of judicial inquiries investigating torture cases, but his narrow framework – viewed through the lens of what he insists on calling “Islamic fundamentalist terrorism” – prevents him from situating these abuses within a lengthy Canadian history replete with similar examples well known to Indigenous people and Canadians of Japanese, Ukrainian, or South Asian heritage. His framework also ignores threats posed by white supremacist and neo-fascist groups that flourished in recent years but which have been downplayed by Canadian intelligence agencies.

Ultimately, Livermore’s fairly weak conclusions about tweaks to the state security system reflect his continued allegiance to his former employers, who come off lightly despite a damning public record. In his naive and self-serving estimation, Canadian officials had their trust betrayed by the bad boys of the CIA and made errors and mistakes (as opposed to taking logical actions based on standard operating procedure). This rather flimsy conclusion ultimately renders this book far weaker than it could have been.