The anticipated return of Omar Khadr to Canada brings with it the heated debate over his innocence and treatment by the Canadian government. The case of the Canadian citizen who has been called a child soldier by the UN and a terrorist by the US military brought forward some uncomfortable questions about the Canadian government's treatment of it's own citizens—questions that remain unanswered. Omar Khadr, Oh Canada is a new anthology by University of Alberta Professor Janice Williamson that attempts to highlight the questions and impacts of the Khadr case
“The portrait we have of ourselves as a nation that values democracy, that values human rights—that sense of ourselves—we really have to look in the mirror to see how we aren't living up to that promise,” Williamson advises. She argues that the imprisonment of Khadr is unlawful based on his child soldier status and the torture he received at Bagram and Guantanamo.
The book was born from a gathering Williamson attended a few years ago, which was hosted by King's College, the Al Rashid Mosque and Amnesty International in attempt to raise awareness about Khadr. “The combination of these three groups: human rights activists, Muslims and a Christian based university was very moving … and I was struck by it and realized it was an issue I had ignored for too long.
“But not only that,” Williamson continues, “the Government was ignoring him, and was ignoring the fact that the Supreme Court of Canada, the Federal Court of Canada and the Federal Appeal Court of Canada had all indicated that Omar Khadr should be transferred to Canada and was unjustly imprisoned in Guantanamo.”
Khadr's detainment and trial by controversial military commissions has been challenged by human rights activists and lawyers around the country and internationally. A recent report by the UN Committee Against Torture condemned Canada's “complicity” over the handling of Afghan detainees and called for the immediate transfer of Khadr to Canada. But as the international community calls our bluff, Canadians, says Williamson, are not speaking up.
“There's a terrible silence. There is something so tragic about the silence in Canada around Omar Khadr. And I think part of it is that after 9/11 people were traumatized by this idea of terrorism,” she says, citing the language of terror that permeated the media after the attacks in New York. Williamson explains that there was a shift in consciousness in Canada where people turned fearful of “the stranger,” skewing our thinking towards immigrants and paralyzing our ability to discuss matters like Khadr's unjust circumstance.
In what Williamson deems “the fog of post 9/11,” some see Khadr as deserving the treatment he has received at Guantanamo rather than an example of our government's failure to uphold justice and human rights. “Those are frightening times when that happens,” she says, “because that's when a government can very easily abuse the rights of some people because people aren't alert or on guard for that sort of abuse.”
Calling on expertise from all disciplines, the book is a compilation of thoughts from academics, lawyers, government officials, journalists and human rights activists. Williamson felt the book would be better received using a variety of voices, drawn from a diverse set of disciplines and genres (essays, plays, poetry and art) due to the contentious subject matter.
“I want it to be a book that's like a house with many rooms—in each room you find out more information, you have a different way of feeling and thinking about the Omar Khadr case,” says Williamson.
At the core of the book is the belief that Khadr deserves to be brought back to Canada, and to be provided the fair legal process that he has yet to receive after 10 years of imprisonment—a remedy for the blemish this case has put on Canadian policy and human rights record.
“It's a book that brings the reader up to the moment about the case of Omar Khadr,” says Williamson. “It brings you up to the moment in terms of the legal case. Brings you up to the moment in terms of what is the social context of this and in terms of what is Omar Khadr's relationship with other Muslims who were sent away and tortured.”
A plea bargain in which Khadr pled guilty to the murder of Sergeant First Class Christopher Speer, was settled last October and guaranteed Khadr's repatriation to Canada to serve the rest of his sentence, but his return continues to be delayed.
“He should be in Canada now,” Williamson reminds us.