Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is refusing to say if a Canadian man known as “Jihadi Jack” is welcome in Canada after Britain revoked his British citizenship over his alleged support for the Islamic State in Syria.
Jack Letts, who is currently being held in a Kurdish-run jail in northeastern Syria, told a British television network he hopes Canada will take him back. Mr. Letts said he has been to Canada seven times in his life and has always felt as though he is a “mix” of British and Canadian descent.
“I always expected Canada would help me and they didn’t," Mr. Letts said in a video posted to the ITV News website Monday.
“I hope Canada does take me from here. If they can take me to Canada that would be good.”
Speaking to reporters in Quebec City Monday, Mr. Trudeau was asked whether he would be open to repatriating Mr. Letts to Canada, but he did not answer the question directly.
“It is a crime to travel internationally with a goal of supporting terrorism or engaging in terrorism. And that is a crime that we will continue to make all attempts to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. That is the message we have for Canadians and for anyone involved,” Mr. Trudeau said.
The Liberal government has faced calls from families of Canadians trapped in Syria, including the Letts family, to repatriate their loved ones, but Ottawa has maintained it is too dangerous to send Canadian officials into the war zone to help. Families who have spoken to The Globe and Mail believe there is little political will from any Canadian politician to embrace the hot-potato issue ahead of October’s federal election.
Meanwhile, Official Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer said a Conservative government, if elected, would not make any effort to bring Mr. Letts to Canada.
“Jihadi Jack is in prison now and that is where he should stay. A Conservative government under my leadership will not lift a finger to bring him back to Canada,” Mr. Scheer said in a statement.
NDP spokeswoman Melanie Richer said it’s “deeply disappointing that the United Kingdom is offloading their responsibility and we hope that the PM will raise this disappointment to the U.K. Prime Minister next week at the G7 Summit.”
With his British citizenship revoked, Mr. Letts will now be the responsibility of Canada if he is ever deported from Syria.
Raj Sharma, a Calgary-based immigration lawyer, said Ottawa can’t legally strip Mr. Letts of his Canadian citizenship because it would make him stateless. As a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, Canada is obliged to prevent statelessness.
Leah West, a lecturer at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, said Mr. Letts “will be in Syria indefinitely because the Canadian government has made no real moves to repatriate Canadians.”
The government says it has no legal obligation to facilitate the return of Canadian citizens detained in Syria.
Ms. West said it will also be harder for Canada to prosecute Mr. Letts than it would be if he returned to Britain. She explained that the easiest offence for Canadians to be charged with and convicted for is travelling to commit an offence for a terrorist organization or to facilitate terrorist activity, but the accused has to leave from Canada.
“He left the United Kingdom, so automatically the offences that, at least I think are most likely to be successfully prosecuted, are off the table,” she said.
Mr. Letts’s case has refuelled a debate in Canada over dual citizens convicted of terrorism.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper passed a law in 2014 that gave Canada the power to revoke the citizenship of dual nationals who had been convicted of terrorism, treason or espionage. The Trudeau government reversed the law in 2017 after campaigning on the slogan “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”
Despite Mr. Scheer’s opposition to repatriating Canadian foreign fighters, his office said the Conservatives “would not re-introduce grounds for the revocation of Canadian citizenship that relate to national security.” The Conservatives did not explain why Mr. Scheer would not reinstate the law.
Legal experts say the former law, if re-introduced, would likely lead to a legal challenge on the grounds that it would create a two-tier citizenship system.
Audrey Macklin, a law professor and chair in human-rights law at the University of Toronto, said these kinds of citizenship revocation laws encourage an “arbitrary race to see who could strip citizenship of dual nationals first.”
“It’s hard not to recall that Canada had such a law inspired by the U.K. itself but now it finds itself on the receiving end of another state’s practice. It just reminds us that this is a parochial, unhelpful, kind of grubby response," Prof. Macklin said.