Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

"Skyservice Refuses to Discuss the Worst Kept Secret in Canadian Aviation," Caravan to End Canadian Involvement in Torture.

[Strange as it may seem, even the activists in this case don't mention that these torture charters and the secret Iacobucci "inquiry" are under way at a time when the CBC is grinding on China about its human rights record and Prime Minister Harper has suddenly found it convenient to start posing as a human rights champion.

While the slightly more open inquiry into the Maher Arar affair suggested that Canada was complicit in an interrogation that many chose to believe was probably initiated by the Americans, "complicity" and "involvement" appear to understate Canada's role in these other cases--and possibly the Arar case as well.

If, as the videos suggest, Canadian authorities were sending questions to the Syrian interrogators, then it is the Syrians who are complicit, Syrians who are the accomplices, and their Canadian clients who are the lead criminals. It appears that Canada initiates the torture of Canadian citizens as a matter of unwritten or euphemistically worded policy.

It is clearly not in either the national interest or in the interest of national security to withhold information that would hold the guilty to account in these cases. The public would have to be both blind and stupid to ignore the implications, especially as long as they are only based on rumours and speculation.

To withhold potentially incriminating information puts every Canadian at risk of retaliatory attacks, especially those who fly. And for what? To prevent Canadians from learning that their government has already earned a reputation for torture.

If the actual truth were all it took to remove the cloud of suspicion, you would think the authorities would be quick to make the relatively small sacrifices that are necessary.

But the truth is that human rights are won by the people working against the natural authoritarian tendencies of even democratic governments. Governments only defend human rights as a last resort when the people are successful in demanding it of them. -jlt]

(Pictures at

Drivers trying to use Fasken Drive in Northwest Toronto were in for a surprise on Monday, August 11 when they discovered that a sizable stretch of the road was shut down in both directions by police barricades, complete with lights flashing atop patrol cars and a large “Road Closed” sign.

This was all in honour of a planned vigil by members of Stop Canadian Involvement in Torture at the offices of a company called Skyservice. The vigil was called for after the company had ignored six months of correspondence seeking a meeting to discuss our concerns about their possible contracts to deport Canada’s secret trial detainees to torture in Syria, Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco.

Such flights are illegal. Indeed, the Convention Against Torture states unequivocally that “No State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”

But such illegality has not prevented the Government of Canada from proceeding with its deportation efforts in these five and, indeed, numerous other cases where there is a risk of torture.

As seven (yes, 7) of us admired the finely choreographed police performance, it was an opportunity to reflect on the day when our journey to Skyservice began. On February 13, 2007, Eugenie Hébert, Manager for Investigations and Removals at Inland Enforcement at the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), testified in Federal Court about arrangements then being made to forcibly remove secret trial detainee Mahmoud Jaballah to Egypt, even though he would likely face a substantial likelihood of torture or worse upon his arrival there.


“We will arrange for a charter to remove the individual, on a commercial flight or a charter,” Ms. Hébert explained under oath. “In the case of Mr. Jaballah it will be a charter. That will have to be done with a private company...For the charter, we have used a company called Skyservice in the past. I have contacted them, and they say between 48 hours and a week they could organize the flight.”

With the news, we sent numerous letters to the company expressing our concerns and requesting a meeting, but all went unanswered. A surprise visit to their Etobicoke offices on May 1 was met by a nervous company representative who claimed we had the wrong company (see a video of that demonstration, led by high school students, at

We found that response strange, especially since on June 14, 2007, the Globe and Mail quoted Sandy Buik of Skyservice as saying such deportations are “absolutely the nature of some of the work that we do,” and added that CBSA had engaged their services 8 times since September, 2005.

Generally, the term “absolutely” sounds like the kind of language that inspires a kind of unquestionable certainty, one that can be easily confirmed in a listing of government contracts worth over $10,000 for the CBSA. Indeed, Skyservice has often transported “non-public servants.” If CBSA is composed of public servants, would this refer, then, to refugees who are being deported? Typical 2008 Skyservice contracts have charged the government figures such as $195,415 and $182,453.


It was because of the wall of silence that had greeted our increasingly urgent one-way correspondence that we called for a public vigil.

But then something happened. While calling for the vigil, we also asked people to write letters to the company’s executives urging that they meet with Stop Canadian Involvement in Torture. This seemed to work, since less than 48 hours after our appeal went out, the number of letters flooding Skyservice inboxes seemed sufficient to force their first official response and to change the email addresses of two of their executives (many of our supporters reported that their letters were returned as “failure to deliver.”)

On August 1, we received a phone call from the company’s Vice President of Legal Services and General Counsel, who pleasantly explained that due to a major reorganization of the company, Skyservice was no longer what its website made it out to be. In fact, she said, “Skyservice Airlines” was a wholly separate entity from “Skyservice Investments Inc.” and “Skyservice Business Aviation,” and that it was the last entity (which shares a name, a website, and an email system, with the latter two relationships supposed to wither away eventually) that took on the deportation flights. Why this was not explained to us on our May 1 visit is unclear.

The counsel also wrote us a letter that ended by stating “we trust that you will cancel or relocate the ‘public vigil’ currently intended to be held at our offices at 31 Fasken Drive.”

That same day, a letter also arrived in our PO Box from the privacy officer of Skyservice Business Aviation in Montreal thanking us for our correspondence and asking us to “kindly note that we are a private business aviation entity, bound by confidentiality and privacy obligations, and as such, we cannot legally discuss any matters relating to our clients or our business with them and with third parties.”

While we understand the corporate veil is often employed to avoid public scrutiny of controversial business relationships and practices, we found it a curious argument given that both the client (CBSA) and the company itself have publicly acknowledged the nature of their work, and their contracts are publicly available on Government of Canada websites. Indeed, it must be the worst kept secret in Canadian aviation that this is the go-to company for rendition to torture flights.

While we did not want to protest at the wrong location, we did feel a responsibility to pick up individuals who may have decided to get there on their own steam. But before doing that, five of us set out from downtown Toronto for the offices of Skyservice Business Aviation, located in the heart of the airport grounds.


We decided we would simply walk into the building without signs or placards and request a meeting with Russell Payson, the President of the company. Nervous reception workers sensed something was up when people NOT wearing business suits and carrying fancy leather briefcases entered the elegant “Avitat,” a fancy name for the corporate hub where business travellers using Gulfstream jets await their boarding call. It is a funny looking area where you can see the jets outside the window and there are no long lineups with individuals being checked for what is in their shoes. It looks as if one can simply go out on the runway and board one’s jet. The benefits of wealth....

One tried to imagine what it might be like in this pleasant waiting area should the day eventually come that Canada’s courts order the secret trial detainees deported to torture (an issue that has yet to be decided in the Canadian courts, though the security certificate process that marks the first step of judicially-stamped rendition to torture is slated to begin anew this fall for all five individuals). Would the detainee be offered coffee or tea, or would he be the odd-looking one in the corner with an orange jumpsuit and hood over his head, generating nervous chatter amongst the bankers on their way to an important discussion on raising credit card interest rates?

We were told this fine August 11 that Mr. Payson’s appointments secretary was off until Labour Day (at least the company appears to have a decent vacation policy) and that the Prez himself was in an all-day meeting, but we took a card with the hope that maybe this time we could bag that prized meeting.

We returned to the old Skyservice location on Fasken Drive, only to find the road blockade set up in our honour. Two individuals who had travelled to join our vigil were standing on a curb, having been told they could not sit on the grass because it was “private property.” They had been told that the road would be closed for three hours.

As we picked up our two friends, explaining the corporate confusion over which was the right Skyservice, a man who had been hiding in the bushes suddenly jumped out and started taking our pictures. By the time we figured out what was going on, he jumped back behind the trees. We were disappointed that the undercover photo man disappeared so fast that we did not have time to smile for our file, and were ever so grateful that he ducked out again to take a few more snaps, this time catching our friendly waves and smiles.


We then headed to our final destination, the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, described as a “private, not-for-profit corporation responsible for airports in the Greater Toronto area, including operation, construction and maintenance.” As part of their corporate vision, they plan to “develop and adopt a corporate social responsibility program,” so we figured a vigil at their headquarters would be an appropriate close to the day’s journey.

While another undercover officer eventually showed up across the street and hid behind the bushes at the excess snow dumping site, we pulled out our orange jumpsuits and black hoods and banners and set up shop on the lonely sidewalk. Eventually, three of us went inside and asked if we could speak to someone to determine whether the GTAA had any policies with respect to the grounds of the airport being used to commit a criminal offence (complicity in torture via allowing a deportation flight to take off from the grounds).

After explaining our concerns to three separate security managers, we finally spoke to someone in corporate affairs who certainly knew Canadian aviation’s worst kept secret – that indeed, he confirmed, Skyservice Business Aviation does deportation flights.

We asked whether, given the high profile nature of rendition flights, the news that Canada has hosted almost 100 known CIA flights, and that the issue is so well known that even Hollywood stars like Reese Witherspoon are starring in movies about the issue, the GTAA had a policy with respect to them.

The gentleman was honest if nothing else. No.

Had the GTAA discussed the ethics and legalities of the issue? Not to his knowledge.

Was the issue of deportation to torture on their future agenda? Not that he knew of.

In essence, anything goes at Canada’s largest airport if, in his words, it is “safe and legal.”

Given that the Canadian government has a very slippery definition of what is legal (especially when it comes to human rights violations), the statement was a concern, but the GTAA rep did say, however, that he would be interested in receiving material with respect to our concerns ( a far sight better than our response thusfar from Skyservice).


While we prepare materials for the folks at the GTAA, we are now renewing our efforts to meet with Russell Payson, the President of Skyservice Business Aviation (not to be confused with Skyservice Airlines), who seems like an amiable enough gentleman. In a January 17, 2007 Globe and Mail profile, Payson, a pilot and engineer, reveals that he flies well over 100,000 miles a year and that he has a very specific packing routine: “I travel with carry-on only, period. With the time it takes to check in and then pick your bags up off the carousel, you're saving yourself half an hour on each leg, forget the possibility of losing your bags. I went carry-on to Greece a few years ago, and the people at the check-in couldn't believe it.”

Payson also appears to be a pretty button-down kind of guy, explaining his travel philosophy thusly: “I generally stay in three- or four-star hotels. Usually on business you're staying for a night or two, so all you want is a good bed and a TV that works.”

While it is unclear if the secret trial deportees to torture will be fretting about suitcases versus carry-on, we DO know that most Egyptian, Syrian, Algerian, and Moroccan torture chambers do not have good sleeping arrangements, and certainly no TVs.

We would ask that those who support the idea of getting us a meeting with Skyservice Business Aviation contact Mr. Payson and politely ask that he meet with representatives of Stop Canadian Involvement in Torture. Perhaps express your concern that Skyservice would consider taking part in a deportation to torture flight. Their office can be reached at (905) 677-3300 or, in Dorval, QC, at (514) 636-3300. Last we checked his email still seems to be

Those concerned about Canadian involvement in torture are welcome to join us on the Fall 2008 Caravan to End Canadian Involvement in Torture, October 17-22, throughout southwestern Ontario. A three-minute promo for that caravan is available at

More info: Stop Canadian Involvement in Torture,

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