Brenda Martin’s two years and two months at the Puente Grande women’s prison near Guadalajara, Mexico, were no doubt a punishing and emotionally damaging ordeal. She was placed on suicide watch last March, and her despair was apparent to anyone who listened to her speak to the media from prison.
But Martin, who was charged and eventually convicted of money laundering by Mexican authorities, was also the subject of an unprecedented and highly publicized campaign by Canadian politicians to have her released. Liberal MP Dan McTeague repeatedly called for government intervention in Martin’s case. Jason Kenney, secretary of state for multiculturalism, twice visited Martin in jail. Conservative MP Rick Norlock joined him on one of those trips. Prime Minister Stephen Harper called Mexican President Felipe Calderón to ask for his help on the case. Even Paul Martin, the former prime minister, visited Martin while he was in Mexico for a conference. When a deal was eventually negotiated for Martin’s transfer to a Canadian prison, the government sent a private jet to retrieve her, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $80,000. The Canadian government also agreed to pay her $3,441 fine. She was released on parole from Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., last May, about a week after arriving, and is now free.
Canadian politicians had cause to intervene in Martin’s case. That she was jailed for more than two years before her case was judged reflects flaws in the Mexican judicial system. But the fact remains that in Mexico the rule of law prevails to a greater extent than it does in much of the world—including countries where incarcerated Canadians languish in worse conditions, anonymously. Canadian politicians don’t mention their names, let alone fly across a continent to see them.
Last February, Maclean’s toured the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince, Haiti—a country that receives more than $100 million worth of aid from Canada every year. The prison stinks of the human waste that overflows from latrines in the open-air yard. Men and boys are crowded into spaces so small, in such large numbers, that there is not room for everyone to sleep at the same time. Inmates fight, bribe and do anything necessary to get a space near one of the windows high on the cell walls. Once there, they tie themselves to the bars with scraps of cloth that form hammocks and sometimes prevent them from crashing to the floor when they fall asleep. During the day they stare through the bars into the prison yard with eyes drained of hope.
Few have been formally charged, and it would hardly matter if they were. A United Nations mission, with significant help from Canada, is working to reform Haiti’s justice system. But it is still broken, and lacks everything from police who can read and write well enough to fill out reports and compile evidence, to judges, and vehicles that might transport prisoners to court.
When Maclean’s visited the prison, three Canadians were among the more than 3,000 inmates. “Drugs and other crap,” a prison official explained. There have been others. In April, Maclean’s filed an access-to-information request with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, asking for information on Canadians incarcerated in Haiti since 2006. Foreign Affairs responded at the end of September with more than 600 pages of documents, mostly memos from Canada’s embassy in Port-au-Prince. Because the names of all prisoners have been deleted, it’s impossible to know exactly how many there have been. But more than 12—most of them black—is a safe estimate. One had been jailed for 27 months without receiving any clothes. Another, a woman, had been jailed for 18 months but had not been formally sentenced.
The documents reveal that Canadian diplomats in Haiti are actively engaged in the cases of Canadians jailed there. They regularly meet with and petition Haitian political leaders and officials in the Haitian National Police and ask that cases involving Canadians be dealt with quickly and with due process. Sometimes they can get jailed Canadians moved to less crowded prisons. But their influence is limited. One memo notes that all of the Canadian ambassador’s interventions with the Haitian minister of justice have had no effect.
Still, the embassy avoids pressuring the Haitian government. Claude Boucher, Canada’s ambassador until July 2008, in a letter to relatives or friends of a jailed Canadian, said Canada cannot “impose” decisions on Haiti. Another diplomat writes that the embassy cannot ask Haitian authorities to deport a jailed Canadian “because that would be interfering in the legal processes of another country.”
Diplomats are in direct contact with the Canadians held in Haitian jails. Officially, visits are scheduled every three months. This didn’t happen in the summer of 2007, according to one memo, because of staff shortages and preparations for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s visit. The embassy also corresponds with relatives, friends, and employers on prisoners’ behalf. On occasion, the embassy pays for prisoners’ food and basic medical supplies—although a July 2006 memo said this could only be done if the inmate has exhausted all other options and promised to reimburse the money. Many inmates cited in the embassy memos felt Canada wasn’t doing enough to help them.
“I then met with . . . who alternated between speaking calmly and bursting into tears throughout the visit,” reads one memo from January 2006, referring to an incarcerated Canadian whose name is deleted. “Health-wise he said that he was fine but that he was now in his fourth day of detention and did not have enough to eat . . . He further expressed that he wants to return to Canada and do prison there. I explained that there is no transfer-of-prisoners treaty between the two countries and told him that it would be up to his lawyer to work for his freedom or deportation.”
But competent lawyers are often not available. A memo from December 2007 describes a jailed Canadian as “extremely depressed” because he had no money to hire one: “He doesn’t understand why the embassy cannot hire a lawyer on his behalf. It was explained that this is not a service that is provided by the Canadian government for any Canadian citizen whether in Canada or abroad. He grudgingly accepted that we contact legal aid and it was carefully explained that this lawyer has little or no experience. However, with no funds this is all he’s entitled to receive.” Other reports describe despondent prisoners, without money to buy food or clothing, sick from prison food and lonely because their family and friends in Haiti won’t come to see them. One alleges abuse by Haitian police.
It appears that Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger called the embassy in November 2006 to inquire about a detained Canadian, and the office of Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh was also in touch. Jason Kenney made numerous inquiries, and he had planned a meeting with Haiti’s ambassador to Canada to discuss a particular detainee. Maxime Bernier, when he was foreign minister, raised the issue of Canadian detainees with Haiti’s minister of foreign affairs during a trip to Haiti in February. But there is no evidence that a politician actually visited a prisoner in a Haitian jail. And not once did Canada charter a jet to fly a released prisoner home.
It is difficult to consider why Canadian politicians were so eager to help Brenda Martin, but comparatively less so to aid Canadians jailed in Haiti, without concluding that political grandstanding played a role. Canadians detained in Haiti are arguably more deserving of government intervention than are those in Mexico. Conditions are as bad or worse, and the judicial process that got them there is weaker.
But Brenda Martin, a white woman, had friends who publicized her plight, and journalists put her story on the evening news. After that, public attention from politicians was inevitable. Canadians jailed in Haiti are mostly black and, judging by their lack of funds for lawyers, food, and clothing, poor. Canadian politicians can safely ignore them. Most do.