Disgusted with Foreign Affairs: The Mohamud ordeal Part 1

John GoddardThere was a time when reporters enjoyed a friendly relationship with the Department of Foreign Affairs, writes the Toronto Star’s John Goddard. But those days are over and telling the story of Suaad Hagi Mohamud showed the “rude, arrogant side” of the department.

Telling the story of Suaad Hagi Mohamud this summer left me disgusted with the Department of Foreign Affairs.

There was a time when reporters enjoyed a collegial relationship with the department. In the 1970s, you could still drop into any Canadian embassy, ask for a “briefing” and somebody — sometimes a first secretary, sometimes even the ambassador — would give you the lay of the land. “Where can I find so-and-so?” “Who do I ask about such-and-such?” “What are the hot issues?” It would be a friendly, useful chat often generating story ideas.

Those days are long gone. Three years ago, I applied for an Africa Media Fellowship awarded by the Canadian Association of Journalists and sponsored by CIDA, a branch of Foreign Affairs. To get started, I asked CIDA for a “briefing.”  A media-relations officer rounded up four CIDA people specializing in southern Sudan and put them on a speakerphone for an hour. “What’s unusual?” I asked. “What’s working?” “Who stands out as a personality?” Without exception, the answers were dry, cautious, formulaic and statistics-based. After 20 minutes, I cut the meeting off. I won the fellowship but wrote nothing on CIDA.

In December, I witnessed the rude, arrogant side of Foreign Affairs. I was in Addis Ababa to cover a concert tour by Kemer Yousef, an Ethiopian-born Toronto singer whose latest album had scored an enormous, national hit. One night at a club, I got talking to a woman next to me, who turned out to be a high official at the Canadian embassy. When I said I was from the Toronto Star, she recoiled and snapped, “No comment!” She said it brusquely, not as a joke. Then she asked why the embassy had not yet received invitations to Yousef’s concerts.

In late June, when a Somali-born friend called to say he knew of a Toronto woman getting only grief in Nairobi from the Canadian high commission, I listened.

A Kenyan KLM airlines employee had stopped Suaad Hagi Mohamud at the departure gate, saying she didn’t look like her passport photo. He also said, “I could make you miss your flight,” code for, “Slip me $50 and the problem is solved.” She thought if she showed confidence, the agent would let her pass and, if not, the Canadian high commission would help her.

She could not have been more wrong. Before two impervious Canadian officials, Mohamud produced a ream of personal identification cards and other documents, including a receipt from her Toronto dry cleaner. Holding up the LCD screen of her digital camera, she also displayed time-stamped photos of herself drinking coffee at the Eaton Centre in Toronto days before her trip, and riding to the airport along the city’s Gardiner Expressway. She asked them to phone her employer and take her fingerprints.

Nothing worked. Instead, the Canadians authorized the Kenyans to throw her into jail. Eventually, prompted by court action by Toronto lawyer Raoul Boulakia, Ottawa agreed to take the woman’s DNA and after three terrible months Mohamud made it home.

Some people say Mohamud’s treatment sprang from racism. All I know is, for seven weeks, Foreign Affairs treated me — and, by extension, the Canadian public — with the same arrogance and dismissiveness as it treated Mohamud.

When readers asked, “What if I got stuck like that?” no ambassador, no consular official, no diplomat of any kind and no Foreign Affairs desk officer offered reassurances. The department issued no information. The only public statements came from department spokesperson Emma Wellford, who restricted herself to non-answers verging on the sadistic.

After Mohamud sent the Star scans of all her personal ID and was begging Ottawa to take her fingerprints, Wellford said the government could not comment on the case out of respect for the woman’s privacy.

After Mohamud’s lawyer went to federal court to have Ottawa take her DNA, Wellford said the government could not comment because the case was before the courts.

Reporter friends tell me that Wellford is “a nice person” just doing her job. I don’t doubt it, but how is she serving Canadians who have a legitimate interest in what happens to somebody stranded abroad? And how does stonewalling the public best serve the interests of the Department of Foreign Affairs?

Suaad Hagi Mohamud can feel proud for refusing to pay an airport bribe, for maintaining her integrity under pressure and for asserting Canadian values. Nobody who touched her file at Foreign Affairs, from Minister Lawrence Cannon on down, can legitimately feel the same.

Toronto Star reporter John Goddard acted on a tip at the end of June to
write the first story on Suaad Hagi Mohamud’s ordeal in Kenya. Over the
next seven weeks, he and others at the paper wrote dozens more.

See also “The best job in the world: The Mohamud ordeal Part 2” by Toronto Star reporter Michelle Shephard.