OTTAWA — The federal government is looking at helping to secure the release of 19 Canadian women and children being held in northeastern Syria, a newly filed court document says.
The move comes just as family members of the six women and 13 children get set to argue in Federal Court that the Liberal government's long-standing refusal to repatriate them — as well as some Canadian men — amounts to a breach of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
A document filed this week in the court case says Global Affairs Canada has determined the 19 Canadians have met a threshold under its policy framework for providing extraordinary assistance.
As a result, Global Affairs has begun assessments under guiding principles of the framework to determine whether to provide that assistance, says the agreed statement of facts, dated Dec. 1.
A handful of women and children have returned to Canada from the region in recent years, but for the most part, Canada has not followed the path of other countries that have successfully repatriated citizens.
The Canadian citizens are among the many foreign nationals in Syrian camps run by Kurdish forces that reclaimed the war-torn region from the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
As of last July, a total of 26 Canadians were part of the action against the government being argued in Federal Court next week.
The agreed statement of facts says that a woman and two children included in the case "are no longer detained in any of the camps in northeastern Syria, and their current whereabouts are unknown."
In addition to the 19 women and children who may receive government assistance, a few Canadian men remain in the camps — including Jack Letts, whose parents have waged a public campaign to get the federal government to come to his aid.
Kimberly Polman, one of the women in the case, was repatriated to Canada in October.
The others in the court action are unnamed.
Lawrence Greenspon, a lawyer for all of the applicants but Letts, said in an interview Friday that the government's consideration of help for the remaining 19 Canadian women and children involved in the court case who are still detained in Syria is potentially very welcome news.
Greenspon has been invited to provide comments and supporting documentation in relation to the Global Affairs assessment of these cases.
However, the court proceeding is still slated for Monday and Tuesday in Ottawa.
In a filing with the court, the families of the detained Canadians argue that the process by which the government has determined whether or not to repatriate its citizens "constitutes a breach of procedural fairness."
It says no applicant was informed of the federal policy framework put in place to determine whether to extend assistance until November 2021, some 10 months after it was implemented and about two months after the court application began.
"The fact that the policy framework was not provided to the applicants, at best, demonstrates a lack of sufficient information to know the case to meet."
They also argue that the lack of action by the Canadian government in repatriating its citizens runs afoul of the Charter.
In its submission to the court, the federal government says Canada has provided consular assistance to the extent possible, adding there is no legal obligation under the Charter, statute or international law for Canada to provide such assistance, including the repatriation of its citizens.
Federal lawyers say the duties that the applicants seek to impose "conflict with the principled reasons for taking a restrained approach to the application of the Charter outside of Canada."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2022.
Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press