By Marg Land
As you read this editorial, the holiday season has come and gone and the new year is in its early days.
As you read this editorial, the holiday season has come and gone and the new year is in its early days. Our belts are probably a bit tighter around our waists after all that wonderful feasting and some of us will be struggling with resolutions that always seem to end up being broken.
Meanwhile, in a jail cell thousands of miles away, a New Brunswick potato farmer has missed out on his Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. Henk Tepper’s belt is giving him some trouble too but in the opposite way. According to Sen. Pierrette Ringuette, also from New Brunswick, Tepper’s lost 40 pounds in the past nine-plus months he’s been detained. And while he may be resolute in his need to be home for the 2012 growing season, Tepper’s probably having a hard time remaining optimistic. He’s been locked in that windowless cell for almost a year.
The saga of Drummond, N.B.-area potato producer Henk Tepper has gone on way too long. It’s time the 44-year-old father of two teenaged daughters came home.
Tepper has been held in a detention centre at Beirut’s Justice Palace since March 23, 2011. He was arrested by the international police force, Interpol, as he entered Lebanon on a trade mission for Potatoes Canada. Algerian officials allege Tepper sold them a bad boatload of potatoes back in 2007. Despite being inspected and meeting Algerian standards, the shipment, which contained both P.E.I. and Quebec tubers, was allegedly infected with bacterial ring rot. Or so the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) informed Algeria. A second test showed the potatoes were only “suspected” of having the disease, but, according to Ringuette, the CFIA never bothered contacting Algeria about those results. Instead, the shipment was refused by Algerian officials, sat in dock for months, was retested and eventually purchased by Syria.
According to Tepper’s family, Algeria never paid for the shipment. Even so, the Algerian government requested a “red notice” be placed on Tepper, alleging he forged documents and tried to sell tablestock potatoes “that were dangerous for human consumption.” (Right. Any literature I’ve read mentions nothing about BRR being dangerous to humans. Of course, BRR-infected potatoes should never be used as seed potatoes. But these were tablestock potatoes, not intended for seed. Right.)
Despite travelling from and to Canada via the Caribbean and Europe multiple times in the years after the “red notice” was issued, Tepper was never detained until the day he tried to enter Lebanon. It’s a fact that bothers Ringuette, who, according to the Toronto Star, wonders if Tepper’s detention in Lebanon may be retribution for a 2008 lawsuit he filed against the CFIA for the role it played in inspecting the Algerian shipment.
It’s an interesting theory, especially when considered in conjunction with the federal government’s apparent lack of effort to get Tepper released. Despite repeated appeals from Tepper’s family, including a heartfelt letter from his youngest daughter, Kimberly, to Stephen Harper asking that her dad be brought home in time for her birthday (he didn’t make it), Canadian officials have done little.
According to reports, federal Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Diane Ablonczy has said the government has been advised to keep a low profile on the Tepper issue, as a form of “quiet diplomacy.”
I find it hard to keep quiet about Tepper’s plight when I read how his oldest daughter, Stephanie, graduated from high school this fall without her father there.
“This made me very sad,” she wrote in an open letter to Queen Elizabeth II and Gov. Gen. David Johnston, begging for help in her father’s release. “This should have been the happiest time in my life. When I arrived at the school, I looked in the crowd but could not find my Dad. During the graduation, I heard many fathers calling out their children’s names. I was listening to hear my father but there was nothing.
“Every day we ask ourselves: is our Dad okay, has our Dad changed, does our dad eat well, is our Dad safe?” Stephanie wrote. “We have so many questions but the biggest question still remains why is Canada not helping to bring our Dad home? All that Canada is telling us is that our Dad is safe. Every night before we go to bed, we pray and ask for a miracle. We look at a picture of our Dad and we cry ourselves asleep. Life without our dad is lonely and sad.”
Life without her father is also very uncertain. The Tepper family farm, Tobique Farms, is $11 million in debt. While the operation has limped along under at least five different creditor protection extensions, Tepper’s father, Berend, is hoping to reorganize, including selling off 750 of the operation’s 1,900 acres. He plans to reduce the farm’s potato production to 570 acres.
Meanwhile, Hank Tepper continues to sit in a Beirut jail, hundreds of miles away from Algeria – the instigator of this mess – and thousands of miles from Drummond, N.B., were he really should be. It’s time this saga ended. Bring back this potato farmer, husband and father. Let him come home.