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The fight against non-state torture



I want to introduce you to two heroes of mine.

Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald are two community health nurses in Truro, N.S.

Twenty-three years ago, they came to the aid of a woman who called their private practice helpline late one night.

"She said she was going to commit suicide. I had no idea who she was or had any way to contact her, so I just talked to her," Sarson said when we spoke.

The woman said she would call back the next day; it was near midnight when she finally found the courage.

"Linda and I had a discussion about what we were going to do... when she called she said, 'Why are you answering?'"

The three met and it turned out that this woman, almost 30 at the time, was being trafficked and had been subjected to horrendous physical and sexual attacks from many people. In her entire life, she could only think of one teacher who had been sincerely kind to her.

"She was being tortured. She didn't have that language initially. When she started disclosing the brutality, we knew that we were beyond abuse, that we were hearing descriptions of torture."

Sarson and MacDonald sought help for her, stayed with her and tried to do their best despite their lack of experience. It would take hours, sometimes all night, as she explained the attacks and processed the impact on her life.

This slow, laborious treatment is not unlike what torture victims in wartime go through to recover.

Currently, in Canada, the worst kind of physical and psychological abuse by private individuals falls into the category of assault.

The two nurses decided to try to change this to recognize that torture is not just something inflicted by an army, police or state; that non-state torture deserves to be on the statute books in its own right.

Sarson and MacDonald's attempt to legitimize the fight against non-state torture as a concept and law has had serious highs and lows for them. They have spoken at the United Nations on it and they have been ridiculed, called crazy, and even shunned in their community.

"We wanted to come at the subject as it was a human rights violation against women and children, and against men, too," Sarson said.

And it looks like they are nearly there.

A week ago, Liberal MP Peter Fragiskatos tabled a private members bill — Bill C-242 — in Parliament to amend the Criminal Code to have non-state torture recognized as a crime in Canada.

It must pass through two more readings; the next one is in April.

Fragiskatos told the London Free Press that he grew up with the UN Universal Declaration of Human rights on his wall, and Sarson and Macdonald have impacted him hugely.

It's a straightforward story and yet complex. It should be clear that many brutal attacks on women, children and men can be classified as torture — carried out in a time of war there would be no problem sending these cases to the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague.

But violence at this level by "ordinary people" is so pervasive, still mired in shame and secrecy.

Until I met Linda on social media, "non-state torture" wasn't a term that was in my vocabulary. The first time I heard it and understood what it meant, I thought, "Hell, yeah."

There are so many types of attacks that go beyond the common concept of assault; court cases with sickening details due to domestic assault, sex abuse or in organized crime.

The naming of it is so important, MacDonald said. If a person can understand that what is happening to them isn't just torturous, it is actual torture, it may be easier for them and others to see the wrongness of it, it may convince them to escape.

"It shows the whole reality of the suffering," MacDonald says.

Both she and Sarson are optimistic that the bill will pass in parliament. A similar law already exists in California.

And that first woman who reached out 23 years ago? She got out and survived; she still gets support from Sarson today when she needs it, mainly by talking on the phone. She knows their work and understands that it started with her.