By: Janice Dickson in Ottawa
Liberal MP Chandra Arya says he welcomes Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s suggestion to debate the Liberal government’s settlement with Omar Khadr.
Arya acknowledged that “it’s not just the Conservatives” who are against the reported $10.5 million payout to Khadr.
“Most Canadians … they’re uncomfortable, as the prime minister said.”
The Nepean MP was in the Centre Block Monday morning, delivering introductory remarks to summer school students who were touring Parliament. He spoke with iPolitics between tours.
“Most Canadians are a bit concerned,” he repeated, adding that sometimes the government has to make decisions that are unpopular.
Repeating what Justin Trudeau has said, it’s better than spending $30-$40 million down the road, Arya noted, admitting he too “is a bit concerned.”
He thinks it’s good that Scheer wants to bring forward the debate because the House of Commons is the right place for it and he’d rather debate the issue with his colleagues across the aisle than read their comments in a newspaper.
Arya’s passion for Parliament was evident in his brief talks to the tours.
“This is the most important institution in Canada. What happens here affects us all. This is what Canada is about,” he told the Nepean high school students.
“When I sit in the House of Commons and I look at all 338 members of Parliament I realize that I don’t have to go to every nook and corner of Canada because (the people) here, they represent Canada,” he said.
“I love (being an MP), I love every morning. Honestly I get up and feel I’m blessed.”
The former business executive, who moved to Ottawa from India about 14 years ago with his wife and son, said the highlight of his two-year political career has been seeing his private members bill C-305 pass unanimously in the Commons. Arya’s bill would expand the scope of hate-based mischief relating to places of worship to also include schools, universities, community centres, sports centres, senior residences, or any building or place used for educational, cultural, social or sporting events.
Currently, hate-based mischief against churches, mosques, synagogues and temples can result in a sentence of up to 10 years – whereas sentences for general mischief to other properties are up to two years.
Arya’s “quite happy” about the bill – which is currently stuck at third reading in the Senate – and expects it to pass and become law in the fall.
Given that only five per cent of private members bills become law, he picked this area to champion because he said it’s close to his heart.
“I’m from India, I’m a Hindu. We know the clashes between the religions and the discrimination that’s there … in other parts in the world, but this is Canada. Here we don’t tolerate that.”
After the Quebec mosque attack in February, Arya rose in the Commons and said the attack was a direct result of Conservative and PQ policies.
“The recent killings of Muslims praying in the mosque in Quebec City is not an accident,” he said. “This is the direct result of dog-whistle politics — the politics of fear and division.”
On Monday, Arya said Conservative MP Michael Chong has been more specific than he was on the issue and consequence of rhetoric.
“Words they are important and they can really hurt,” he said.
While all of the political leaders have “really good intentions,” what he was suggesting in February was that the rhetoric had to be toned down. Members of political parties may misconstrue rhetoric and some have extreme views, but he doesn’t think any current MPs have extreme views. Not even Kellie Leitch.
“She wants much more scrutiny of the Canadians coming in, but I don’t think she’s a racist.”
Arya used to publish a newspaper called The Ottawa Star before running for office. Initially it was weekly and then bi-weekly, but he started the paper for new Canadians because he found that the mainstream media was not covering new Canadians’ events well.
When he became the candidate for Nepean, he shut it down because as he put it, “You know, I was funding it from my pocket.”
Now, in the dog days of summer, the Nepean MP spends most of his time in his constituency office or at events.
He said he’s fortunate to represent the riding because the income is above average, unemployment is quite low and there are not many major issues, apart from public service employees who have had issues with the Phoenix payroll system.
“Ottawa-wide issues also affect us of course.”
When asked if he considers the summer a break at all, he laughed.
“No. No way. Last week there were four days I left at 8:15 a.m and was back home at 9:30 p.m.”
That said, for him it’s not a job where he puts on a suit and stares at the clock.
“This is life and I love it.”
By arrangement with ipolitics.ca.
Commentary By: Omer Aziz in Toronto
News that Omar Khadr would receive an official apology from the Canadian government along with a $10.5 million settlement of his civil suit elicited the predictable outcry from the Canadian media. Journalists and commentators questioned the wisdom of the decision and the amount of the settlement, and the narrative that has now taken form is of a convicted terrorist winning a taxpayer-funded lottery at the behest of a naïve prime minister.
The press has not simply questioned the wisdom of the apology and settlement—it has ignored or obscured the relevant facts that made an apology and settlement necessary in the first place. Opinion writers and pundits seem entirely uninterested in what, exactly, Khadr endured during his detention at Guantanamo Bay, and who he became afterwards.
Omar Khadr was fifteen years old in July 2002 when he allegedly threw a grenade at U.S. soldiers, killing Sgt. Christopher Speer. I say “allegedly threw” because the precise facts of what took place that day in the firefight have never been conclusively established: From 2002 to 2008, the official U.S. government story was that Khadr was the sole survivor in the compound after it had been bombarded and shot at—by inference, only Khadr could have thrown the grenade. In 2008, however, a report from the only witness to the firefight was inadvertently released to reporters. In it, the witness claimed that there were two men in the compound. The official government theory was weakened further when it was revealed that Lt. Col. Randy Watt, who had led the American battalion, wrote a report after the firefight describing how the grenade-thrower had been killed in battle. The report was later “updated” to state that the grenade-thrower was shot, not killed.
In normal circumstances, the factual inaccuracies would have been resolved at trial, except that the military commissions under which Khadr was tried were ridden with procedural and prosecutorial errors and deceptions. Khadr was interrogated without his lawyers present, and in the initial phase of the tribunal, could not even see the evidence against him. This was by design. The Bush administration had deliberately created a legal black hole: They argued that prisoners could be held in Guantanamo indefinitely, without charges, without the right to contest their detention, without even the right to know why they were there. The United States Supreme Court eventually found the first military commissions of the Bush administration to be in violation of the Geneva Conventions. As Muneer Ahmad, Omar Khadr’s first lawyer and now a professor at Yale Law School, wrote in 2008:
“The [U.S] government had sought to remove Omar and the other prisoners from the ambit of law, and in doing so, from the world. They chose Guantanamo because it was remote, then cloaked it in darkness, refusing to disclose the names or identities of those there, refusing access to the outside world. Legal erasure enabled physical erasure.”
Of the 780 detainees held in Guantanamo since 2001, 731 were eventually released without charges—often after a decade of incarceration.
The Canadian press has forgotten all of this, or perhaps they remember it but do not think it relevant. What about torture? At fifteen, Khadr was taken to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan where a bag was placed over his head. He was ordered to stand for hours. Dogs leapt at his chest.
At Guantanamo, and still a teenager, Khadr urinated on himself. The guards poured pine oil on him and dragged the shackled boy through his own piss, using him as a human mop. Khadr was sixteen when Canadian security officials interviewed him at Guantanamo, and then illegally turned over the intelligence to the Pentagon. “Promise me you’ll protect me from the Americans,” the boy said to the representatives of his government. And then he showed them his scars. He cried for his mother. He was beaten, choked, deprived of light, deprived of sleep, forced into harmful stress positions. Guantanamo guards threatened to deport him to Arab countries like Syria where, they claimed, he would be raped by other men. All of this was done to a Canadian teenager, with the Canadian government’s full support.
Under duress, Khadr eventually pled guilty. He agreed to the facts as presented by the Military Commission because he and his lawyers concluded that fighting an unjust system without due process or adequate protections for the accused was an unwinnable battle. Khadr can therefore be called a “convicted terrorist,” but not asking how that “conviction” came about is irresponsible at best, unethical at worst.
So this was the context of the $10.5 million settlement: A child soldier who allegedly threw a grenade at U.S. forces (or didn’t), who was held for thirteen years in an offshore detention center, who was repeatedly abused and tortured with his government’s assistance, whose Charter rights were violated, whose entire youth was spent in chains. Khadr asked for an apology and restitution. He has been treated as though none of this happened, as though he was just a spoiled child who should feel lucky he’s still not in gitmo. The press seems to think that reparations for Khadr’s maltreatment are a bonus that he does not deserve. But this is not about bonuses or windfalls. It is about this country’s past sins, and the moral necessity of acknowledging and atoning for those sins. That’s what enlightened, self-professed democracies do.
The saga of Omar Khadr, however, has never been about law or even policy. It’s been about how we see the crimes of people who do not look like us, and are therefore treated as conditional citizens. Radio host Charles Adler said Khadr was “technically a Canadian”—as if citizenship was subject to technical whims. Margaret Wente opined that “If there is a victim here, people feel, it’s not Mr. Khadr.” John Ivison wrote that “Khadr’s reputation is now tinged with the grubbiness of what many will consider unjust gain.” Who are the “people” and the “many” that Wente and Ivison are ventriloquizing here? They are the Canadian public, who along with the press, do not yet have the moral imagination to countenance that maybe—just maybe—Khadr was also a victim here.
A basic empathy gap has always existed between Canada and Khadr. The minute the label “terrorist” is slapped onto someone—regardless of their age, their circumstances, or even the facts—we begin thinking with the blood. We rush to violate our most sacred principles at the first whiff of anger. Our memories of others’ crimes are always long and detailed, while our own faults are extinguished with the legitimizing elixir of moral superiority. It might feel good to denounce Omar Khadr. It might be cathartic to condemn him as a confessed terrorist. But the rights of citizenship are not abrogated because a citizen has committed a crime. They are not abrogated because the government thinks you have no place in society. Those rights exist to protect all of us, especially the vulnerable.
Omar Khadr spent much of his youth being abused in an unlawful penal colony. He could have come out of this harrowing experience a bitter and spiteful man, hateful of the country who supported his torturers, and vindictive towards the citizens who applauded that decision. Instead, Khadr has conducted himself with the utmost dignity. “My past,” he recently said, “I’m not excusing it. I’m not denying it. We all do things we wish we could change. All I can do right now is focus on the present and do my best to become a productive member of society, a good person, a good human being . . . I want to finish my nursing program. I want to work as a nurse somewhere it’s needed. I want to be able to use my languages and my ability as a nurse to relieve people from pain.”
After everything that’s happened to him, Khadr is prepared to accept the ills of his past. Perhaps Canada might do the same for its own recent history.
Republished in partnership with The Walrus.
Originally published under headline: "Omar Khadr and the Shame of the Canadian Press".
Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa
Well, the inevitable has happened. We all knew it was coming. Canada’s most famous ‘child soldier’, Omar Khadr, is about to receive an apology and a compensation package from the Canadian government – i.e. the Canadian tax payer – ” for abuses he suffered while detained in the U.S. military prison for captured and suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.”
Cue the outrage.
There is so much to say on this case, far more than is reasonable to expect in a blog post, but I will try to distil what I think is important. Firstly and by far most importantly, Omar Khadr was captured on a battlefield while fighting, and trying very hard to kill, Allied forces in Afghanistan while in the employ of a recognised terrorist group. Full stop. He was fighting with a terrorist group that wants nothing more to re-impose its hateful, intolerant, pre-Medieval aberration of Islam on fellow Afghans and kill a lot of people in the process. Ergo, he was a terrorist.
[quote align="center" color="#999999"]We cannot continue to offer knee-jerked apologies to everyone who ‘palled around’ with terrorists or engaged in terrorist activity and then suffered as a result.[/quote]
We can argue forever whether Mr. Khadr was a willing member of the Taliban or coerced into joining by his deceased father’s warped sense of Islam. He may very well have had no choice, having been raised in a family sympathetic to Al Qaeda – by the way, Al Qaeda is another recognised terrorist group. But to call him a child soldier is an insult to all the real child soldiers who are ripped from the bosom of their families (and in many cases forced to kill or witness the slaughter of their parents and siblings) in conflicts around the world. No, Omar Khadr was not a child soldier: he was a (perhaps unwilling?) member of at least one group that the Canadian government has listed as a terrorist organisation.
Secondly, did Canada or Canadians send Mr. Khadr to Guantanamo? No, we did not, the Americans did. If anyone is to pay compensation, and I am not saying that such is warranted, it is Uncle Sam not taxpayers from Moose Jaw. We did not run Guantanamo, we did not subject Mr. Khadr to whatever treatment he suffered. We owe him nothing to ‘make up’ for what happened to him.
Thirdly, did Canadian officials (read: CSIS) act improperly when they were invited to question Mr. Khadr in Guantanamo? No, they did not. They were doing the very job we ask them to do, investigate terrorist threats to this country and keep us safe. Mr.Khadr was the son of a man well known to our spies for his terrorist links. He may have been privy to information about others he met in Afghanistan who could have posed a threat to all of us back here in Canada. CSIS would have been remiss, and professionally negligent in my view, if they had not run down every possible intelligence lead and elected not to talk to Mr. Khadr, even if it meant going to Cuba.
I have written it before and I will repeat it here. I do not know if Mr. Khadr is a reformed man. I do not know if he regrets what he did, the ideology he subscribed to, or the associations he made. Only he knows that. I do wish him well on his continued journey to ‘normalcy’ but Canada did not make Mr. Khadr a terrorist. He did that himself, with the help of his family. That, in the end, is something we must not forget.
The payment of compensation to Canadians who claim to have suffered ill treatment at the hands of other nations at our behest has become a mini-industry. We are doling out millions to people for reasons that are not always clear, at least not to me. This has to stop. We cannot continue to offer knee-jerked apologies to everyone who ‘palled around’ with terrorists or engaged in terrorist activity and then suffered as a result. And we should not offer money to those who were mistreated by other nations: those responsible for the ill-treatment should pay.
I am not a slippery slope argument fan but I do fear that if we don’t nip this trend in the bud we will see many more cases along these lines. What is next: someone sues CSIS because of a routine interview after which they felt ‘stressed’? Do we want CSIS to do its job or not?
I repeat, this merry-go round of apologies and money has to stop.
Phil Gurski spent more than 30 years in the Canadian intelligence community. His latest book "The Lesser Jihads" is available for pre-order on Amazon.