Over the past two weeks I’ve been getting several Google Alerts in my inbox with updates about my friend Omar Khadr. I’ve been following his case since I was studying at The King’s University in Edmonton in 2008. It all started when Dennis Edney, Omar’s pro-bono lawyer, spoke at the University’s semi-annual interdisciplinary conference on topic of human dignity. Edney outlined the history of the Omar Khadr case (then) and all the ways that the Canadian government had been complicit in this child soldiers’ abuse in Guantanamo Bay. After the conference I became very engaged in the case. I was deeply disturbed by the story.
For a lot of people this story is new because it’s bigger in the media now than it has ever been. I’ve been reading, writing and singing about it since 2008 when it should have been brought to Canada’s attention as a major human rights issue. I wrote “Bring Me Home” produced by Stew Kirkwood in Edmonton and released on yes alright ok my first album in 2011. I’m so glad Omar is home and free and has been given this long overdue apology in the form of 10.5 million from the Canadian government.
Omar Khadr was accused of having thrown the grenade that killed American Sergeant Christopher Speer in 2002 when Omar was 15. He was incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay for ten years. The Governments interrogation of Omar at Guantanamo “offend[ed] the most basic Canadian standards [of] the treatment of detained youth suspects,” according to a 2010 ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada. He eventually pleaded “guilty” to the “crimes” of which he was accused in exchange for an 8-year sentence and a transfer to a Canadian prison in Edmonton. A Canadian child who had been caught in war, captured, tortured and imprisoned in an illegal prison for 8 years coerced to take a guilty plea in order to have any kind of future in his country.
Omar is a Canadian citizen who is my age and our shared government was completely complicit of his torture and confinement in Gitmo. The Canadian government not only ignored him when all other Western countries had repatriated their citizens, Omar was also denied the protocols used for children in combat. This is ironic given that Canada played a large roll in writing those protocols. Instead, the Canadian government sent representatives to Guantanamo Bay to try and trick Omar into a confession. With the help of his American captors, the Canadian interrogators tried to improve their chances of manipulating Omar by depriving him of sleep for three full weeks. According to one soldier, this sleep deprivation was usually enough to make grown men fall apart.
In 2008 I wrote several letters to politicians with the reasons why Omar should be repatriated and received empty responses back saying there was a “due process.” So I wrote to Stephen Harper asking him to meet me for coffee when he was in Edmonton to discuss the Khadr case. I wasn’t surprised that he declined.
As I got to know Dennis Edney and others who were following the case, I was able to exchange letters with Omar while he was in Gitmo. From the letters, I got to know Omar as a gentle, kind, young man who loved to learn and grow and just wanted to be back in school in Canada. When Omar was finally brought to Canada after taking the guilty plea deal, I was able to visit him in the prison just North of Edmonton. I was so excited to finally meet him in person albeit through glass over the jail phone. We had a two-hour conversation that was light, serious and thought-provoking all at the same time. My memory of him being escorted away after that conversation is vivid and I cried about it on the drive home. It felt so unfair to me that eight years after the incident in (young man) Afghanistan, he was still literally trapped in this disgusting political game. And then the awful things people would say about a perfect stranger online, my friend who I admire, seemed unbearable.
Dennis always said that Omar had nothing negative to say about anyone and as I got to know him I found that to be true. Considering all the terrible things done to him I was and still am fascinated and perplexed by Omar’s kindness and strength.
So when I woke at 1am on July 4 to this headline “Ottawa to offer Omar Khadr apology, $10.5-million in compensation” I was both surprised and ecstatic. I didn’t even think about the $10.5 million, I just thought it was finally a step in the right direction by the Canadian government. Since then I’ve been reluctantly reading the politically charged pushback opinions regarding the payout and apology. I can’t help but feel both discouraged and disgusted by the lack of compassion and understanding from fellow Canadians. There is an undeniable greed inherent in those opposed to the payout. My thoughts are:
That $10.5 million is just a number symbolic of a long overdue public apology.
*Would people say the same awful things about Omar receiving money and an apology if they had the privilege to get to know him like I have?
*And do they realize all the unpaid work that was done by fellow Canadians trying to hold our government accountable to the charter of rights and freedoms so that the same thing wouldn’t happen to one of their loved ones?
*Contrary to the evidence of capitalism, one person’s financial gain does not always mean anothers’ loss. In fact, I think that well placed money can reverse the destructive cycles we see everywhere.
*It’s a long overdue apology and clearly, based on the pushback, money talks.
I recorded and released a song called “Bring Me Home” back in 2011 while Omar was still unjustly imprisoned. I wrote it in 2008, almost 10 years ago now, while thinking about his story. There will continue to be Canadians caught in unfortunate circumstances abroad and I want to continue believing I live and give to a country who stands behind the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and protects and values its citizens, especially its children, regardless of race or religion and brings them home.
I believe the recent statement by Lt. Gen Roméo Dallaire and Dr. Shelly Whitman on Omar Khadr describes the situation best:
”An apology and compensation is just the first step in a long healing process that has only begun for this young man. An apology does not absolve Canada for its many years of inaction, but does give it an opportunity to finally lead once again on issues of children. When Khadr was finally released on bail on May 7th of 2015 he stated, “there is nothing I can do about the past, but there is something I can do about the future”.
Canada can and should find resonance and continued action in these words.
We applaud the action of the Canadian government in issuing this apology as a critical step to demonstrate a children’s rights upfront approach. It is time for us to break the cycle of violence that so many children are vulnerable to around the world.
We have finally seen the light.”
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