Urinals, Mona Lisa and Canada’s Mustachioed Vic Toews

When entering Chile, disembarking at the Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, I was separated from my family and taken away by Interpol. I was questioned, fingerprinted and photographed for over an hour. Between questioning, I excused myself to use the washroom. While scrubbing the black ink off my fingers, I noticed with some amusement two urinals that had been installed upside-down.

Marcel Duchamp, the French artist whose work challenged conventionality, was most often associated with subversive artwork such as turning a urinal upside-down and labeling it a fountain. He is also known for drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa with the title “L.H.O.O.Q.” – when pronounced in French, “Elle a chaud au cul,” colloquially translated as, “She is hot in the arse.” Duchamp forced the observer to view ordinary objects from a new perspective. His mustachioed Mona Lisa defaced that which is valued – a famous art piece brought down to the offensive levels of vandalism.

Vic Toews has a mustache. Currently, Toews is Canada’s minister of public safety. What the mustachioed Mona Lisa is to the pristine original, Toews is to the humanist ideals enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Toews has, in fact, publicly dismissed the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a philosophy modeled on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, by declining an invitation to speak at an event marking the Charter’s 25th anniversary.

In 2011, Toews appeared before a government committee to support Bill C-42, a controversial amendment to the Aeronautics Act. Bill C-42 would force Canadian airlines to provide passenger lists to American authorities. Toews was asked by Senator Meredith at the Committee Meeting: “How will we protect Canadians that are flying into the United States? How are they notified, and how do they clear their name?”

Toews responded: “The Canadian government could not set up a mechanism to assist a Canadian citizen in clearing his or her name. Other than the general assistance that is provided through consular services or through your member of parliament or your senator, there is no system.”

He went on to quip, “In your case, senator, I would make my cell phone available to you” – joking, should the senator ever need his political clout.

The average Canadian does not have access to cellphone numbers of high-ranking officials. Unlike their Canadian counterparts, the American Department of Homeland Security (DHS) offers a Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP) providing US citizens a single point of contact – a phone number – for any American seeking resolution for difficulties experienced at airport security screenings. Canadians, in comparison, are told under the Passenger Protect Program that Public Safety Canada will only determine whether individuals pose a threat to aviation security. Only those Canadians who have received an emergency directive at the time of screening may apply to the Office of Reconsideration for a review. From my experience, I can assure that airport personal will never provide emergency directives. Public Safety Canada also directs individuals denied boarding to file complaints with any of the following organizations: The Security Intelligence Review Committee; The Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police]; Canadian Human Rights Commission; and the federal courts. Toews should note: I have systematically approached these organizations over the course of eight years – all to no avail.

People whose names show up on no-fly or selectee lists have no recourse in Canada. Air Canada settled with me at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 2010. The settlement package ensured Air Canada would remedy systemic problems within a seriously flawed aviation security system. This was a first in Canada. The airline could not, however, remove my name from federal no-fly or selectee lists. My problems have been complicated with this latest Interpol incident – illustrating the disregard this current government has shown in protecting the privacy of Canadian citizens.

Sen. Nancy Ruth asked Toews during Bill C-42 deliberations: “I am curious. What kind of regulation do we have in Canada such that Air Canada cannot transmit information to some other agency within the country?” Toews replied, “If an airline were to transmit such information to anyone without informed consent, the airline would breach our privacy laws. The law in place severely restricts the ability of airlines to share that information for any purpose other than a purpose specifically authorized by the passenger.” What Toews failed to communicate was that the Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC) was actually pushing to merge Canada’s Passenger Protect Program with the American Secure Flight Program. This new merger would match all watch list data into a single North American database. The Canadian government would actually share citizen information across the border – disregarding Canadian privacy laws and those practices that respect Canadian civil liberties.

Duchamp’s title for his Mona Lisa, “She Is Hot in the Arse,” implies the woman in the painting is in a state of sexual availability. There is no difference between Duchamp’s Mona Lisa and the Canadian government’s shameless pandering to remain Uncle Sam’s preferential trading partner. “Canada and the United States have long cooperated on trade and security measures at the border,” said Toews. “The Beyond the Border Action Plan demonstrates our shared commitment … by identifying security threats as early as possible and to facilitate the legitimate flow of goods and travel.”

It seems to me the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has been mustachioed and, were it up to Duchamp, re-titled, “Hot in the Arse.”