Errol Mendes

Errol Mendes

What Happened

After publicly criticizing the Conservative government for the treatment of Afghan detainees and for the prorogation of Canada’s Parliament on two occasions, Mendes, along with colleague Amir Attaran, was subject to two massive Access to Information requests on his teaching and economic activities at the University of Ottawa. Mendes, Attaran and fellow colleagues believe the requests were part of an intimidation tactic to dampen criticism of the Harper government and its policies.

The prorogations of Parliament by Prime Minister Harper took place on December 4, 2008, and again on December 30, 2009.

The 2008 prorogation was done to avoid the government losing a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. Mendes said this was “a most dangerous and unseemly precedent to force the Queen's representative to dissolve Parliament just so the Conservatives could avoid losing a vote of confidence in the House of Commons.”

The 2009 prorogation was done to avoid allowing a House of Commons committee to see more of the mounting evidence that the government knew Afghan detainees were facing a high risk of torture by Afghan security forces, and in spite of that the Canadian military was transferring these detainees to their potential torturers. Mendes charged that the Conservatives were trying to avoid scrutiny of their “willful blindness” in transferring Afghan detainees into a substantial risk of torture. “This is potentially a war crime and one of the most serious allegations any government has faced in the history of Canada … This abuse of executive power is tilting toward totalitarian government and away from the foundations of democracy and the rule of law on which this country was founded.”

In response, Conservatives accused Mendes of being a Liberal flack because, in 2005-2006, Mendes was Senior Advisor with the Privy Council Office of the Government of Canada, appointed by the former Prime Minister of Canada, Paul Martin.

In January 2010, two requests under Ontario’s Freedom to Information law were made to the University of Ottawa for massive amounts of specific personal and professional information about Errol Mendes, as well as his colleague Amir Attaran. The requests included records on his work history, performance reviews, expenses, and teaching records. The University refused to disclose much of the information requested largely for reasons of privacy. Mendes said that he was “stunned” when he received word from university administrators regarding the requests for information on him. In his case, the requested information goes back sixteen years in his records.

University of Windsor political scientist Heather MacIvor concurs that this incident is part of a wider campaign to silence university voices that may be critical of the Conservatives.

A spokesman for the Conservative Party said the information requests were “not from us.” A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister’s Office said that the law guarantees the anonymity of the requester, and she would not speculate on who was seeking the information on Attaran and Mendes.

Mendes and Attaran have both received anonymous hate mail and been targeted with vicious anonymous comments on pro-Conservative blogs.

Relevant Dates

  • December 2005: Chief of Defense Staff, General Rick Hillier, makes a covert agreement to transfer detainees to Afghan domestic and secret police forces.
  • December 4, 2008: The Harper government prorogues Parliament to escape a non-confidence vote, provoking strong criticism from Errol Mendes in the following months.
  • December 30, 2019: The Harper government prorogues Parliament again, this time to avoid the release of documents concerning the alleged torture of Afghan detainees, again provoking strong criticism from by Mendes in the ensuing months.
  • March 2010: Mendes and Attaran assert that Canadian officials are complicit in the torture of detainees because they knew that the prisoners would be mistreated, and gave their tacit approval anyway.
  • January 2011: Anonymous requests for massive amounts of information on Mendes and Attaran’s professional and personal records are made to the University of Ottawa. The requests are believed to be politically motivated.

Role or Position

Professor of Constitutional and International Law at the University of Ottawa; Editor-in-Chief of Canada’s leading constitutional law journal, The National Journal of Constitutional Law; author of several books on the Canada-China relationship, on global governance and on the International Criminal Court; expert on international business ethics, constitutional and human rights topics. Errol Mendes has been called to testify on numerous occasions before Canada’s House of Commons on a range of constitutional issues, was a visiting academic with the International Criminal Court in 2009, and as a human rights advocate has defended the free speech rights of right-wing commentator Ann Coulter (more of a “clown” than a “hate monger,” Mendes said).

Implications and Consequences

  • Free Speech: Both professors feel that the information requests are part of a wider campaign to silence academic voices that are critical of the governing party.  The professors, and others, fear that the chilling effect experienced by the federal bureaucracy is now making its way into the academic realm as well.
  • ​Free Speech:  Freedom of expression for all Canadians is undermined by the intimidation of academics who dare to say things that the government doesn't like.
  • Transparency: Transparency is undermined by the government's avoidance of public scrutiny into the Afghan torture scandal.