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Freed diplomat castigates Ottawa for official veil of silence

Robert R. Fowler is photographed at 444 Front Street W. in Toronto, Ont. Nov. 1/2011. Fowler a former Canadian diplomat was taken hostage Niger in 2008.

Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Ottawa is bungling rescue missions by not telling families in Canada whether their loved ones are alive or dead, a Canadian diplomat once held hostage overseas says.

Robert Fowler says that Ottawa's mission to free him is tarnished by the fact that his wife, Mary, was kept in emotional limbo for much of his 130-day ordeal. She got so frustrated by official silence in Ottawa that she went to the United Nations complex in Manhattan to demand answers.

"Mary stormed down to the UN headquarters in New York, where she had arranged to meet UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon," reads Mr. Fowler's new memoir. The world's top diplomat told Ms. Fowler what the Canadian government had not. "'We have good and explicit reason to believe they [the hostages]are alive and in good health.'"

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In some scathing criticisms, Mr. Fowler says the Mounties should not be trusted to be in control of Canada's negotiations to free hostages abroad. Officials from the national police force "never understood the extent to which West Africa was not Western Canada," he writes in his memoir. He adds that "the RCMP seemed to have decided that our families could not be trusted with the knowledge we were alive."

The December, 2008, kidnapping of Mr. Fowler and fellow Canadian Louis Guay brought Canada's attempts at rescue missions to the fore. The two men, abducted in Niger while working as UN envoys, spent four months in the clutches of an al-Qaeda faction. Dozens of Mounties, intelligence agents, soldiers and diplomats were dispatched to Africa to negotiate their freedom, but precisely what Canada might have bartered for it has never been made clear.

Mr. Fowler spent decades shaping Canada's military and foreign policies as a senior civil servant in Ottawa, and his wife had access to top UN officials because she had worked for the agency.

He says he appreciates that many Mounties worked "selflessly and tirelessly" on his case, and that his core criticism is institutional. The memoir argues the RCMP likely lacks the sophistication – and sensitivity – necessary for such missions.

Mr. Fowler says RCMP officers arrived in Africa in the quixotic hope of arresting some of the world's most elusive terrorists. That meant, he says, "proof-of-life" footage shot by terrorist captors was withheld from his family for long periods in hopes the videos could one day be used as evidence in a prosecution.

The feeling that Canada's hostage-rescue missions are disjointed is not new. In fact, U.S. documents show that during the hostage crisis in Africa, the Conservative government dispatched a group of officials to Washington in hopes of ironing out Canadian policy.

"Canada is for the first time planning on … a formal national policy to respond to the kidnapping of its citizens by terrorists or criminals," reads a 2009 U.S. State Department cable about the Canadian delegation. Obtained by WikiLeaks, it relays that Ottawa felt its agencies needed to learn from Washington, given that police, spies, diplomats and soldiers were too often trying to work together "on the fly."

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Mr. Fowler says he finds it disturbing that his former colleagues at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade appear content to take a back seat to security agencies on hostage files. "Where was DFAIT in all this?" he writes, adding that department could have at least done better at consoling the families.

Government agencies did not respond to Globe and Mail questions about the issues raised in the memoir.



A Season in Hell: A four-part series

Wednesday: Abducted

Thursday: The Call Home

Friday: Captivity in the Desert

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Saturday: Freedom

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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