Thursday, June 21, 2007

Canada not willing to rock boat

Jun 21, 2007 04:30 AM
When it comes to aiding Canadians abroad, the federal government doesn't discriminate. As the case of Bert Tatham demonstrates, it prefers not to help anyone – particularly if doing so might prove politically inconvenient.

The word hero is overused when it comes to Canadians in Afghanistan. But if medals are to be awarded in that difficult country, 35-year-old Tatham would probably qualify. For the last year, he's been risking his life in Kandahar as part of a United Nations-sponsored counter-narcotics program.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, Afghanistan has reclaimed its place as the world's number one source of opium for heroin. It's a lucrative trade that funds both the Taliban and local warlords.

For countless Afghan farmers, it is also an economic necessity. Without the proceeds of opium gleaned from their annual poppy crop, they would starve.

The Western response has been contradictory. Sometimes, U.S. and allied troops turn a blind eye – particularly if friendly warlords control the crops. Sometimes, they make enemies of local farmers by destroying their poppy fields.

Tatham was engaged in the far more useful task of encouraging Afghans to grow something else. It was a risky, slow and frustrating job that involved travelling throughout the dangerous south.

It was also exactly the kind of work that the Canadian government claims to support in Afghanistan – winning the war against the Taliban by improving people's lives.

As well, Tatham oversaw the destruction of stockpiled drugs. When Afghan forces seized caches of hashish or opium, he had to make sure they were burned.

Which, he figures now, is why he had traces of hashish – 0.6 grams to be exact — on his clothes last April 23.

That was the day that Tatham took a routine flight to Dubai on his way back to Canada. Customs officials in that United Arab Emirates city found two dried poppy pods – the kind visible in many Toronto gardens at this time of year – and the hashish traces.

He was charged with drug smuggling. This week he was sentenced to four years in jail. Throughout, his parents, who live near Collingwood, have been models of discretion. "We're scrupulously not trying to annoy anyone by saying the wrong thing," says his father, Charlie.

They may be too kind. As in so many cases, the government that is supposed to represent their interests appears to have done nothing. Canadian consular officials didn't make it to their son's trial. Nor did they come to his sentencing. When Tatham was charged, Ottawa said it didn't want to interfere with a case before the courts. When Tatham was convicted, Ottawa said it didn't want to interfere while the sentence was under appeal.

In fact, Ottawa does have some levers. Canada lets a Dubai government company operate one of Vancouver's main container terminals – something the Arab emirate cannot do in the U.S. But no one has suggested that this be used as an argument on Tatham's behalf.

With some countries – notably China or Iran – the federal government is not so circumspect, but Dubai is an ally in the war on terror. Indeed, Dubai allows Ottawa to use its Minhad air base, rent-free, to house Camp Mirage – Canada's way station for troops travelling to and from Afghanistan.

As a result, Ottawa's rule of thumb seems to be don't rock the boat. Maybe the local emir will grant Tatham a pardon. Or maybe he won't. As in so many of these cases, it's not clear that the federal government cares. Not even for one of its heroes.

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