Canadians shouldn’t be allowed to fight for other countries, no matter the cause, historian argues

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Smoke rises after what activists said was an air strike by forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the town of Morek in Hama province July 18, 2014. REUTERS/Rasem Ghareeb (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)

Three news stories are bringing into sharp focus the pull that conflict abroad can have on many Canadians in this multicultural country.

This week we learned the RCMP has laid the first charges under a new section of the Criminal Code that bars Canadians from leaving the country to aid a group the government has designated as terrorist.

Twenty-five-year-old Hasibullah Yusufzai of Burnaby, a suburb of Vancouver, has been charged under Section 83.201. The Mounties allege the young man, who apparently came as a child with his family from Afghanistan, left the country in January with plans to join an Islamist militia fighting in the Syrian civil war.

On Thursday, an Ontario judge sentenced Mohamed Hersi of Toronto to 10 years in prison for attempting to leave Canada to become a "terror tourist" under a different Criminal Code section. He was arrested at Toronto's Pearson International Airport in 2011 on allegations he was headed to Somalia to join the Islamist al-Shabab group, though he never actually did.

At the same time, the National Post reported more than 100 Canadians are serving in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) despite having no direct ties to the country. Other Jewish Canadians with family connections and dual citizenship have served in the IDF over the years but the so-called "lone soldiers" are simply drawn to defend the Jewish homeland. Two American lone soldiers were among those killed in the IDF's Gaza offensive this week.

[ Related: Mohamed Hersi sentenced to 10 years for attempting to join al-Shabaab ]

Hersi's lawyer, Paul Slansky, told Yahoo Canada News he intends to file an appeal to the conviction, which was made under an anti-terrorism law passed in 2001 by the former Liberal government in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.

Hersi was convicted in part because the Supreme Court of Canada, in a 2012 decision in the case of terror suspect Mohammad Khawaja, ruled essentially that even though elements of terrorism in his case were inchoate – not substantive crimes like theft or murder but more like conspiracy– they should still be treated that way.

The high court ruling allowed Hersi to be convicted and imprisoned even though he had not done anything except head to the airport for a flight.

The new law, which is tougher and carries a maximum 14-year sentence, is even more vague, the lawyer said. It reaches the level of a thought crime in that it punishes intent without having to prove someone had tried to carry out that intention.

"It's clearly unconstitutional," said Slansky. “Any competent lawyer who knows anything about constitutional law would challenge it and I would think would have an excellent chance at succeeding with such a challenge.”

Even if Yusufzai was headed to Syria, which some relatives deny, how will police prove he intended to engage in terrorism as opposed to fighting on the Syrian battle lines, Slansky wondered.

“Because somebody’s going to join a group that has both terrorist aspects and conventional civil war aspects doesn’t mean they’re going to join it for terrorist purposes," he said.

It raises a question of whether a double standard exists. What separates young Muslims who leave Canada in an arguably misguided desire to defend their faith from young Jews who leave to defend Israel?

One big difference is that Israel and Canada are close friends, while the Islamists in Syria are trying to overthrow an admittedly nasty regime but also gain control in other countries of the region such as Iraq and Jordan, said historian and commentator Jack Granatstein.

Authorities fear Canadian jihadis – it's estimated there are about 130 fighting in various conflicts – will one day return to foster terrorism at home.

“There’s no hard evidence jihadis going overseas and coming back and doing things, yet," Granatstein told Yahoo Canada News. "But there is a legitimate concern that they might.

“Sure, there’s a kind of double standard. But in my view no one who is a Canadian should be able to enlist in some other country’s military and keep his Canadian citizenship.”

[ Related: Hasibullah Yusufzai, of Burnaby, B.C., faces terror-related charge ]

Canadians have been leaving to fight in foreign armies since before Confederation, Granatstein wrote in a Globe and Mail op-ed piece earlier this month. That includes both sides of the American Civil War and the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

In fact, Parliament passed the Foreign Enlistment Act in a largely unsuccessful effort to curtail Canadians going to Spain to defend the Republican government from the ultimately victorious fascists under Francisco Franco. Ottawa was suspicious because the Communist Party was behind the recruitment. It tracked the returning veterans as potential subversives.

The law is still on the books, unenforced, Granatstein noted, though its wording suggests serving in the army of a friendly state is okay. Many Canadians joined the U.S. military to fight in Vietnam.

But even that should not have been allowed, Granatstein argues.

“If they’re going off to serve somewhere else, in some other army, they’re switching their allegiance," he said. "That is, in my view, improper."

Canadians, even those born here, should forfeit their citizenship if they join a foreign army, no matter how just the cause, Granatstein said. He'd apply that even to those who ended up on the right side of history in the Spanish Civil War.

“I understand the pull of the old country," the historian said. "That’s a large thing for a lot of people. We take in a quarter-million immigrants every year from all over the world. Of course they’re going to have ties elsewhere.

"But one of the beauties of this country is that you can come, be accepted, you can make it here, you can adjust to life in Canada and once you’ve been here it seems to me your allegiance should belong here, especially when you’ve acquired citizenship. That’s the key.”