Why the UK could regret angering Canada by stripping IS suspect Jack Letts of British citizenship

Jack Letts was told by ITV News that he had been stripped of his British citizenship. 'Jihadi Jack' learns from ITV News he's no longer a British citizen via YouTube

The Canadian government is furious. Jack Letts, a British-Canadian man who travelled to Syria to join Islamic State (IS), has been stripped of his British citizenship by the UK government. The decision was taken by Sajid Javid, reportedly in one of his last acts as home secretary before becoming chancellor in Boris Johnson’s government.

Letts, who is currently in a Kurdish-run prison in northern Syria, is now left solely with Canadian citizenship.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has made no effort to hide its anger. Its minister of public safety, Ralph Goodale, who has parallel security powers to the UK home secretary, said in a statement:

Terrorism knows no borders, so countries need to work together to keep each other safe. Canada is disappointed that the United Kingdom has taken this unilateral action to offload their responsibilities.

In an interview with the BBC, Canadian MP John McKay, chair of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, described the British decision to strip Letts of his citizenship as “gutless.”

Campaign issue for Trudeau

On the surface, the source of Canadian irritation isn’t hard to understand. Letts is a Canadian citizen through his father, but his entire life has been British. He was born in the UK, grew up in the UK, went to school in the UK, converted to Islam in the UK, and left for Syria from the UK. He is a made-in-the-UK problem, but now the solution to his current situation is solely Canada’s responsibility.

The issue of citizenship has deep significance for the Trudeau government. During the 2015 Canadian federal election campaign, Trudeau made a campaign issue out of the efforts by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper to strip Canadian citizenship from dual citizens convicted of terrorism, espionage or treason.

During an election debate, Trudeau memorably told Harper that a “Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian” and that removing citizenship from some diminished it for all. Once in power, Trudeau’s government repealed Harper’s law while retaining the right to strip Canadians of their citizenship if they fraudulently obtained it.

How to deal with citizens who have gone abroad allegedly to support IS remains a pressing issue for a number of Western countries. The British government has now repeatedly tried to address the matter by stripping people of British citizenship where possible, most prominently in the case of Shamima Begum, a London schoolgirl who travelled to Syria and married a Dutch member of IS.

In that context, Letts’s treatment represents a win-win-win for the British government. The act demonstrates that it isn’t just non-white Britons such as Begum who are being targeted for such treatment. It also ensures that Letts won’t be a security issue in the UK in the future, and it plays well in some quarters of the media where Letts has been nicknamed “Jihadi Jack.”

Not the time to anger allies

With an eye on Britain’s post-Brexit future, however, the treatment of Canada has a wider significance that seems absent from debate about the Letts case in the UK. Canada is a colonial creation of the UK and the two have close historical ties that continue today. The apparent lack of consideration for Ottawa’s perspective in the Letts case represents a certain lingering colonial arrogance on the part of the British government.

We’re meant to be friends. Victoria Jones/PA Archive

At one time, London could have snubbed a close friend, ally, and former colony without consequences. But now, as it prepares to leave the European Union, Britain needs all of the friends and trade agreements it can get. One of Dominic Raab’s first destinations after becoming foreign secretary in the new Johnson government was to Ottawa to discuss the possibility of a Canada-UK trade agreement.

Ironically, given the revocation of Letts’s British citizenship, when Raab met with Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, Chrystia Freeland, her focus was not on a trade agreement but rather on the treatment of Canadian citizens currently imprisoned in China.

Canadian priorities are not going to be more favourably inclined toward the needs of the Johnson government for a trade deal given the Letts case. It may not just be members of the EU offering a frosty reception to Johnson at the upcoming G7 summit in Biarritz. Post-Brexit Britain will soon discover that loyalty is a two-way street.