Those are the two words most often heard by Canadians planning to travel into Mexico: not “Dress warm!” or “Bon voyage!” but “Be careful!” They then often add: “Aren’t you scared?” (I wasn’t, I’m always tempted to say, until now. Thanks!)
Travel of any kind is inherently dangerous no matter where or how far you go.
Living in Labrador, for instance, the danger begins at your door, even if the trip is only meant to be a quick afternoon jaunt.
Small boats can flip their passengers into icy water or carry them over deadly cataracts. Snowmobiles can break down without warning, stranding less-than-prepared drivers many kilometres from safety and warmth. Skiers can break through thin ice and vanish utterly, never to be seen again alive or dead.
Danger is everywhere.
However, in Labrador, help is everywhere, too. In Canada if a traveller is in trouble and someone else knows about it, assistance will usually be rendered as quickly and effectively as humanly possible.
Not so for Canadians abroad, especially if a Canadian has run into some kind of legal problem.
The current Reformed Conservative government in Ottawa has a clear policy of rendering little or no help to citizens in peril of some foreign law.
The prime example is the case of child soldier Omar Khadr, who faced and was forced to plead guilty to dubious charges laid by the United States military. Federal lawyers even argued in court that the government has no obligation to protect any Canadian outside of the country.
That policy statement came as no surprise to anyone who remembered how quickly the then-Opposition Leader Stephen Harper was to condemn and dismiss Ottawa engineer Maher Arar as a dangerous terrorist when he was arrested by American authorities and sent to Syria to be tortured, even though there was no evidence supporting the accusations and he was ultimately exonerated.
Since Harper started forming his ineffectual minority governments, the list of Canadians abandoned abroad (until, in some cases, public outcries grew loud enough to force some kind of action) has only grown.
Here are only a few of the many: Abdihakim Mohamed was stuck in Kenya and almost rendered stateless because Ottawa refused for many months to recognize him as Canadian.
William Sampson was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia after being tortured into confessing to terrorism.
Abousfian Abdelrazik was left to endure six years of torture in the Sudan despite never having any charges levied against him.
Closer to home, a woman named Brenda Martin spent two years in a Mexican prison because of a highly questionable money-laundering charge, while Vancouver man Pavel Kulisek is still in a high-security jail even though the drug charges brought against him were all dropped.
Of course, Canadian citizens abroad don’t need to be in trouble with the law to be ignored by their government.
As it turns out, Canadians living in the danger zone following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan were lucky to get even a minimal amount of assistance from Ottawa.
They watched for a week while other expat nationals were quickly rescued (Brits were put up in luxury hotels) before our embassy in Tokyo was allowed to send a bus to fetch them — even then many were left behind to fend for themselves amidst the wreckage and chaos.
If all countries treated their overseas citizens with such neglect, Canadians would have nothing to complain about, but the Canadian government seems singularly negligent.
Other countries go out of their way to protect and support their citizens whether they’re at home or away, but apparently the Reformed Conservatives can hardly care less about their responsibilities to Canadians in trouble.
Why else would they leave a child imprisoned in Cuba for so many years after every other western detainee was rescued?
With this in mind, it seems the only thing Canadians can do when they go outside of Canada (if they are so unwise) is to hope for the best and to somehow avoid getting kidnapped, arrested or robbed, and — of course — to stay out of the way of any devastating natural disaster.
Be careful, indeed.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.