t’s a sweltering october day in logia, a remote desert town
in Northern Ethiopia, and Joe Magnet is patiently sitting – and
sweating – in a room packed with 150 chanting, self-styled freedom
fighters. The men belong to the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organiza-
tion, or RSADO, a paramilitary group supported by the Ethiopian
government whose job it is to defend the rights and well-being of
the Afar, a nomadic indigenous tribe that has existed in the Horn of
Africa for more than 2,000 years.
On most days this involves patrolling the contentious border
between Ethiopia and Eritrea or protecting against attacks by Al-
Though he looks uncomfortable, he’s not here against his will. In fact
he’s a guest of honour. That’s because for the past 18 months Professor
Magnet has been serving as legal counsel to the Afar, advising them on a
series of constitutional and human rights issues. A well-known authority
on constitutional law in Canada, he’s chosen up until now not to publicly
discuss his pro-bono work with the Afar back home. His clients, on the
other hand, have been decidedly less circumspect.
After his first visit to this vast arid lowland region in 2010, the Afar
wrote countless news stories about Professor Magnet, posted more than
a half-dozen videos of him on You Tube, and the Red Sea Afar changed
their name to better reflect his ideas. They even gave him his own tribal
name, “Madab-abba,” which translates into “Father of the Constitution.”
On this day last October, to mark the end of his second trip here, sol-
diers, executives and elders of RSADO have turned out for a going-away
party. After the tributes and testimonials are over, Professor Magnet gets
his chance to address the crowd. The audience listens intently and cheers
as an interpreter translates his words of praise and reassurance.
When he’s finished, an elder emerges from the crowd and presents
him with a gold-framed picture of the group’s logo. Moved by the humble
and heart-felt keepsake, Professor Magnet hoists the picture over his head
in an impulsive gesture of joy and triumph. The men are still cheering
when he exits the building with a broad grin stretching across his face.
A few minutes later in the open-air of the savannah, Madab-abba
pauses in front of an idling Land Cruiser and contemplates the bizarre
scenario that just played out. “What the hell am I doing here?” he blurts
out. “I mean, who the fuck do I think I am? The Jewish Che Guevera?”
It’s a good question, and typical coming from this man, who possesses a
deeply arch view of the world. After all, here he was: a 65-year-old vegetarian
Jew working for meat-raising Muslims in one of the hottest and most peril-
ous places on earth. His close friend, Ottawa lawyer Lawrence Greenspon,
would call this one of Professor Magnet’s “Woody Allen moments”– a time
when he is keenly aware of the human comedy and the role he plays in it.
For instance, Professor Magnet would be the first to admit it that he
makes an unlikely statesman for these tenacious, proud people. Until a few
years ago, he had no clue who the Afar even were. He first heard of them
in 2008, after a chance encounter with Warren Creates at a neighbour’s
Christmas party. A well-known immigration lawyer and old acquaintance,
Mr. Creates brought him up to speed on non-profit work he was doing
with a little-known Ethiopian tribe of pastoralists.
The story continued at lunch a few weeks later, when Mr. Creates en-
thused about Can-Go Afar, the charity he had founded that was building
water filters, funding schools, establishing scholarships and delivering
aid to Afar refugees (who have been subject to persecution inside Eritrea
ever since the country became independent from Ethiopia in 1991). Photos
were shown, stories were told, and before long the lunch had transformed
into a recruiting drive.
“It sounded very grand and adventurous,” Professor Magnet said re-
cently in his Ottawa home, “but I wasn’t really sure what he wanted from
me. Plus, I had real security concerns because I had a young daughter at
the time, so I wasn’t too sure about the whole thing.” Besides, Professor
Magnet was at a stage in his life where he says he “wasn’t looking to pad
out my resumé.”
As that resumé will attest, over the past 35 years Joe Magnet’s name has
become synonymous with minority rights and constitutional law in Canada.
The first of his 18 books,
Constitutional Law of Canada
, originally published
nearly three decades ago, is currently in its ninth edition and remains one
of the definitive textbooks on the subject.
Over the years, in addition to his work as a teacher and scholar, he has
served as counsel in more than 200 constitutional cases in Ontario, Quebec,
Manitoba and the Supreme Court of Canada. These included high-profile
cases involving religious minorities, women’s groups and francophone
minorities, the last a landmark case in Manitoba that earned him hate
mail and death threats.
Over the past two decades, most of his casework has shifted towards
Aboriginal populations; in 1999 he became general counsel to the Congress
of Aboriginal Peoples and he is currently involved in three major cases
for First Nations, one an important treaty case in Ontario that is ongoing.
“I knew he was respected in Aboriginal law circles in Canada,” Mr.
Creates says, “and these people, the Afar, were likely the original Aborigi-
nal people.” Despite some initial reluctance, the more Professor Magnet
researched the Afar, the more engaged he became.
The Afar can be found across the Horn of Africa, but the vast majority
(about 1. 25 million) reside in Ethiopia’s Danakil region, a difficult expanse of
desert and sub-savannah. Despite the Afar’s low profile outside Ethiopia,
they boast a rich pedigree that stretches back to Old Testament times –
and beyond, if ethnographers are correct. “Afar” literally means “people”
and linguists have posited that it may have influenced the naming of Africa
itself. What’s more, Lucy, a 3.2-million-year-old hominid believed to be
Earth’s first evidence of human life, was discovered in Ethiopia’s Danakil
Depression, the Afar’s ancestral land, in a region that has since been
dubbed the Cradle of Humanity.
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