OTTAWA -- A humanitarian delegation was able to get proof of life from some Canadians who have been held without charge for years in prisons and detention camps in northeast Syria.

In a news conference, Senator Kim Pate, who led the delegation, told reporters the group was able to speak to two imprisoned men and four women whom the federal government suspects of having ties to the Islamic State.

The delegation has presented their new information to officials with Global Affairs to bolster the case for repatriating the remaining Canadians.

During their five day visit Pate says the Turkish military launched attacks in the region to root out remaining ISIS cells, while the Al-Roj detention camp was gripped by a tuberculosis outbreak.

“Nothing in my working life prepared me for the experience I would have over the last week,” said Pate. “Canada has not fulfilled its human rights obligations.”


There are at least 26 people with Canadian ties who remain detained by Kurdish authorities. Half of them are children.

Among them are nine Canadian men, one Quebec woman and her six children along with three foreign mothers of 13 Canadian children.

The husbands of the foreign women died during the Syrian civil war, or are missing or detained.

Although there were security concerns Pate says the group was assisted by “open and welcoming” officials with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) who helped mitigate the risks.

Global Affairs Canada has in the past argued that it was too dangerous for consular officials to visit the region.

Retired diplomat Scott Heatherington says the delegation’s experience shows that it is possible to send officers into the region with proper planning. He worries government officials have not fulfilled their responsibilities to the detained citizens because of assumed ties to ISIS.

“It was clear to us that there is no common storyline as to how or why these individuals ended up in northeast Syria at the time that the region was in the cruel grip of ISIS control, and many are now trapped in troubling and very compelling circumstances.”

The civil society delegation is also calling on the government to engage the Kurdish authority to immediately repatriate the Canadians.

The group says the government should also provide resources to help AANES carry out trials. Kurdish authorities say they only have 30 judges to try nearly 5,000 suspected terrorists in their custody.


The delegation spent the majority of their time listening to the concerns of four women who are worried about government imposed separation from their children.

The mothers have been told by Global Affairs that the government is willing to repatriate their children but not them.”

“We know well in Canada the impact of separating children from their mothers, of separating children and families from their communities,” said Pate who says the government should have learned from its treatment of Indigenous people.

Pate says the delegation has met with Global Affairs and immigration officials to demand that the women be granted temporary resident permits so they can travel to Canada with their children.

Pate says Canada also needs to contribute more funds to AANES to help the Kurdish authority provide basic necessities.

“They don't have sufficient medication. They don't have sufficient doctors. They don't have the infrastructure to feed and house and certainly not educate when it comes to the children,” Pate said.


The delegation wanted to meet nine Canadian men who had been held incommunicado for years but was only able to meet with two.

On the last day of their visit, the delegates were able to speak with Muhammad Ali and Jack Letts who are being held in separate prisons in Haskah and Qamishli. The men told the delegation they had not spoken to Canadian officials in more than five years.

“Our visit came as an unexpected surprise. And I think we can say a source of some degree of relief and hope,” said University of Ottawa professor Alex Neve.

Ali, who is from Mississauga, Ont. said that he had been interviewed at least 25 times by American officials he believed were working with the FBI but had not spoken with any Canadian consular staff.

The federal government alleges the men joined ISIS during the Syrian civil war, but has not brought charges against them, nor has it disclosed any evidence of their security threats in Canadian courts.

Neve said after hearing the men’s accounts he thought of Guantanamo Bay and CIA-style black detention sites.

“They are being warehoused with thousands of other foreign nations…beyond the reach of law far from outside scrutiny,” Neve said.

Neve said both Ali and Letts had health concerns they could not fully disclose in the interviews which were being conducted under the watch of Kurdish officials.


In their conversation with Letts, the prisoner told the delegation he has not been able to “truthfully” explain why he was in Syria and that he had previously spoken to media “under duress.” Letts was stripped of his British citizenship after telling reporters from the United Kingdom that he had joined ISIS. Letts told the delegation he had spoken to reporters in the presence of prison guards.

In an email to CTV News, Letts mother, Sally Lane says the visit by the delegation achieved in five days what the “entire government claimed it incapable of doing in six years - saying it was “too difficult” and “too dangerous” even to go to the region.”

Lane says updates from the delegation have revealed that her son “Jack is barely holding on.”

“Now that the government’s lies have been exposed, it’s time for them to drop their cruel campaign against families who simply want to end this nightmare and bring our loved ones home,” Lane said in her email.


In a response Global Affairs Canada said:

“The safety and security of Canadians is the Government of Canada’s utmost priority. Amid reports of deteriorating conditions in the camps, we remain particularly concerned about the health and wellbeing of Canadian children.”

The comment from Global Affairs was sent nearly eight hours after CTV News requested information and mirrors what the department has said in previous statements.

Lawyers representing the families of Ali and Letts are taking their cases to the Supreme Court after the Federal Court of Appeal ruled there was no breach of Charter rights.

Meanwhile, lawyers representing the Quebec woman and foreign mothers are suing the government in federal court for repatriation.