I’m in a cab on the way to Abdoul Abdi’s hearing, and the driver asks me if I work at the courthouse. “Kind of the exact opposite, actually,” I say. We start talking. He knows about Abdoul’s case, and he offers his support. He tells me about being in the cells there years ago, how it’s like a dungeon down there. He says names are carved into the walls, with the date and “life” written beside them.

Photo: vm.newsandmediarepublic.org

During one of the first conversations I had with Abdoul after he got out of detention, he talked about being in his cell in Lindsay. All around him on the walls were names and dates. He reeled them off, a bunch of them, from memory. He realized that these were people who had got deported. But the way he told the story, he read these names and dates like gravestones, like it was the day they died. And sitting there, as though he were buried in his own grave, he imagined that his name would be next on the wall, that he would write it down there and then disappear forever.

Later, he asked me in a conversation if I would remember him if he got deported. He didn’t mean it like would I still have contact with him. He literally meant if I would remember him at all. To him, he experiences this deportation as being sent into a state of oblivion, something beyond death, where he will no longer exist anywhere, not even in memory.

Photo: CBC

I’ve been in court for a few murder trials. I happened to be there for a hearing once the same time Jimmy Melvin Jr. was on trial. When there’s big cases like murders, they usually make you put your stuff through the x-ray machine when you come in. But I’ve never seen security like there is for Abdoul’s hearing yesterday. Three border officers searched everyone at the door of the courtroom, and there were more officers patrolling the halls.

This wasn’t a criminal hearing: Abdoul has served his time. If you ever thought that the border was something benign, the security apparatus brought out and enforced on us just attending the hearing is a reminder of how the state polices borders, of the force brought to bear against people like Abdoul, who isn’t even here, yet we must all be searched, surveilled, and treated like potential threats.

Photo: National Post

This seems like a projection of violence. None of the “activists” present have ever threatened anyone, committed any acts of violence, or used any force. Yet the message seems to be that we need to be checked for potential danger, at the same time as the government is literally making a case to deport Abdoul to Somalia, a country they say is so dangerous our own Minister of Citizenship and Immigration fled for his life and claimed refugee status. A country the border agents won’t even land in for fear of their own safety.

We are a country that held Abdoul for weeks in solitary confinement, and that  argued during the hearing that nothing that is happening to him constitutes an “irreparable harm.” A country that took him into care, bounced him from home to home, subjected him to abuse, and never bothered to secure his most basic rights. All of this is violent, yet we’re the ones who have to be watched.

This is the Canada that is telling us constantly how the system is based in “compassion and empathy,” as the form letters sent by our MPs to people who wrote about Abdoul’s case all claim.

They really should have micced up the courtroom. Had it been a talk or a rally or a panel, people would have been yelling at the judge, “I can’t hear you! Speak up!”

The judge said he’s most interested in arguments about the prematurity of the motion asking him to “interfere” — it’s not a foregone conclusion if this goes to an admissibility hearing that a removal order will be issued. “It’s probably likely,” he conceded, “but not certain.”

Abdoul’s lawyer Ben Perryman was loud and clear, though. That’s Ben for you, he seems like he’s so quiet and unassuming but his words have force and they cut through everything.

Ben argued that there are three exceptional aspects to this case: factual, legislative, and procedural steps.

In the first argument, Ben talked about Abdoul’s history, and the fact that he was apprehended into permanent care. He wasn’t placed for adoption, so his only avenue for citizenship was an application on his behalf, and that didn’t happen.

Legislatively, Ben argued that essentially, what is required to show that a person is inadmissible is that if there is serious criminality, and if they are a non-citizen. Since Abdoul checks both of those boxes, the Immigration Act says the immigration division “shall” make a deportation order. Ben pointed out that most disturbingly, this process does not allow any discretion, and does not allow issues of human rights and international law to even be raised.

“There can be a pause button,” Ben said. He said that, despite the argument that a deportation order is not a certainty, by this process, once he checks those two boxes, they have no other option but to issue the order.

Ben argued that the damage done in the short term to Abdoul cannot be corrected by later remedies. What I was picturing during this argument was someone saying we should get a person out of the way of an oncoming truck, and the other side arguing that, after all, it’s not a certainty that the truck will run them over, and even if it does, you can get surgery on your broken bones or sue the driver, so no need to act prematurely.

Photo: Halifax Examiner

Regarding procedure, Ben pointed out that when Abdoul’s case has been heard in federal court, he has been successful. Ben emphasized that in this process, issues of the Charter of Human Rights and international law can’t even be heard. “If you were an alien,” Ben said, “and you read this submission, you would have no idea the Charter even exists.”

Ben pointed out procedural issues with the submissions made by Canadian Border Services. He described how they used information from Abdoul’s youth record that violates the Youth Justice Act. When he challenged the use of this material, they took a black marker and crossed it out, leaving lines of the black marker visible. Ben suggested this is prejudicial. He also raised points about the danger of Somalia, and the fact that the Minister never considered the statements of the Correctional Service who have decided Abdoul is safe to live in the community.

Ben then addressed the harms that are being suffered by Abdoul. Ben said this process is a disruption to Abdoul’s rehabilitation at a crucial time, and that he will lose his right to work and healthcare if he is stripped of his residency. Ben pointed out that Abdoul is not at the hearing because he is at work — where he is helping kids who are in the care system, and helping to make better policy so that other children don’t suffer what he did. If Abdoul can’t work, he can’t meet the conditions of his release from prison, which require him to work. Through no fault of his own, he could be returned to prison.

Ben pointed out that suggesting you can just undo harmful decisions later doesn’t erase the harm that has already been experienced.

Abdul’s sister Fatouma and his nephew. Photo: CTV

There was another shocking moment for me in the argument: Ben pointed out that the case law the government has cited about the issue of public safety all deal with cases like former Nazis who committed war crimes and terrorists.

Ben ended by suggesting that public interest is also served by the government taking some responsibility for what happened to Abdoul.

The argument by the lawyer for the minister was quite short. She emphasized that since no removal order has been issued, the hearing asking for the admissibility hearing to be paused is premature. It’s a well-founded case, she said, and there’s no basis to support a withdrawal. She suggested that, in fact, there was a duty for the case to be heard without delay, and Ben’s motion was inhibiting the proceedings.

What struck me in these arguments was the casual cruelty of Canadian bureaucracy. Harsha Walia made this point before, about how people in the system will acknowledge the paperwork didn’t get done, but throw up their hands and continue to inflict harm on people. The system just keeps grinding on. Even though we all know that Abdoul will lose his residency at the admissibility hearing, since it can never be certain, we’re just supposed to let it happen. To put in bluntly, we’re supposed to let Abdoul get fucked and then scramble to fix it.

An example of this kind of faceless cruelty: the lawyer suggested that losing his job isn’t an “irreparable harm.” Once he loses his rights there’s lots of things he can do, she said, like get a refugee permit, appeal, a judicial review of the process. She suggested that pursuing a work permit would probably count in Abdoul’s parole conditions as “looking for work.” She didn’t, of course, say if she is going to clothe and feed Abdoul while he waits months for a work permit. Abdoul has a job he loves, a job where he’s working to fix the very policy issues that affected him — work the government is neglecting to do — but I suppose if he loses that job and has to, say, clean toilets instead, it’s all the same. It feels like what they were also saying is Abdoul has no right to be building more than a bare life — that things like purpose, love, or dignity ought to be beyond him.

To clarify the lawyers representing @JustinTrudeau @RalphGoodale don’t believe thrusting someone into poverty is a problem…yet you and your systems use poverty to construct the standard of “neglect” and then be snatching up Black children and youth.

— BLC X University (@BLC_XUniversity) February 15, 2018

It’s like this system is a monster, and even if you can see how wrong it is, you’re not allowed to get out of its jaws. You’re just supposed to get eaten, and then do something about it later. It’s the inhumanity of it that gets me, how the process itself seems to have more value than any human being caught up in its belly. We have to proceed because these are the proceedings so they have to go on. It feels like being crushed, like being broken by something that you can’t even get a hand on.

Photo: CBC

The judge asked if Abdoul applied for citizenship on his own: Ben explained that it wasn’t legal for him to do so as a youth, and that since any criminal conviction, including as a youth, creates a time bar, Abdoul was never eligible to apply.

The judge said he’s reserving judgement and the hearing was over.

After, in the hallway, brave Fatuma, who faced down Prime Ministers and is never shaken, is swarmed by the media. Here she was again, standing strong and tall, speaking once more for her brother. Fatuma has a humanity, a ceaseless resilience and well of love that this system can never match, and can never overwhelm. Ben came to join her, kind, compassionate Ben, who stood in the courtrooms against the highest odds, and made Abdoul be seen.

I was invited to go to the Black History Month celebration on Monday at the Canadian Museum of History. I didn’t go. On social media on Monday, I saw the pictures roll in, the politicians standing on stage, Minister Hussen among them. Trudeau was there speaking about anti-Black racism, words he couldn’t find when Fatuma faced him and asked about the deportation of her brother.

I can’t imagine myself standing there watching. I can’t imagine a situation where I wouldn’t have ended up dragged out by security, because I cannot attend a party on Monday and listen to the government try to deport Abdoul on Thursday.

I saw links posted about how Trudeau “acknowledged anti-Black racism,” and in my head I crafted responses, thought about telling them about Abdoul in that cell, about all those names of people disappeared. I thought of writing to them about how when you walk down the street with Abdoul, he gives all his money away to people on the street, how he says he knows what it’s like to have nothing or no-one. How he talks about the good things he wants to do with his life, the reparation he wants to make.

I raged inside about how Abdoul’s case represents Canada’s anti-Black racism in all systems — child welfare, youth justice, criminal justice, education, immigration — and I composed 1,000 rants about how you can’t say you care about anti-Black racism and see Abdoul as disposable. There is no Black future I care about or that I am fighting for that doesn’t have Abdoul and people like him in it. He is not expendable for some other project of recognition.

Standing there with Fatuma, and her child, and with Amina and Masuma, and the people from ADAM (African Diaspora of the Maritimes) who have declared Abdoul their child and vowed to stand with him, with Todd and Reed and Brad and the 30 people who came to sit in the courtroom, with Ben, with Idil and Melayna and Desmond and Rania and Sandy and Yusra and so many others in Toronto texting and messaging, who have closed a community of love around Abodul, I was glad I was standing with them.

We are not nameless or faceless, and our humanity, our solidarity, our belief in each other will sustain us. We are reclaiming compassion — we will not accept that it looks like that courtroom. Today, and all days, we will have to believe that is powerful enough, that we will win.

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. The UN International Convention on the Rights of the Child includes the Child’s right to a country and citizenship. Canada accepted Abdoul Abdi as a child refugee in good faith, then abdicated its responsibility to provide him with citizenship. If he is deported, Canada will be responsible for breach of trust and making this man stateless.

  2. I have long felt that the Canada I’ve lived in since I was 15 is not the beacon of tolerance and fairness and a supposed exemplar of how it’s possible to have multiculturalism. The cases of Colten Boushie, Tina Fontaine, and Abdoul Abdi should make that abundantly clear to everyone.
    But of course it won’t.