Omar Khadr remains a prisoner of partisan politics

Omar Khadr has reportedly reached a settlement with the Canadian government—but he remains caught in the crossfire of years of political point-scoring

If media reports are to be believed, Canada’s government is set to pay Omar Khadr and his lawyers a settlement somewhere north of $10 million to atone for its role in Khadr’s treatment during his detention following his wounding on an Afghan battlefield in 2002.

To give an idea of how controversial this decision will be, and how divisive the Khadr file has become, let’s parse that lead paragraph.

Conservatives, by and large, will be upset the words “convicted al-Qaeda terrorist” and “traitor” aren’t affixed to the front of Khadr’s name, as they will be outraged at the omission of the death of U.S. medic Christopher Speer, killed by a grenade loosed by Khadr’s hand.

Liberals, meanwhile, will be angry that “child soldier” and “Canadian citizen” are nowhere to be found, as they will be distressed at the omission that Khadr was detained illegally for years in Guantanamo Bay, under tough conditions and subject to extreme interrogations.

And both sides would be correct. Omar Khadr was fighting on behalf of al-Qaeda, as a 15-year-old, against a coalition that included Canadians, where he did kill Speer (although some dispute this fact), for which he was detained and interrogated at Guantanamo Bay, with Canadian government operatives participating at various points in the proceedings.

MORE: Scott Gilmore on changing his mind about Khadr

Further complicating matters is the fact that Liberal and Conservative governments presided over Khadr’s treatment by successive Republican and Democrat governments in the United States. What was started under Jean Chrétien’s Liberals and continued under his successor Paul Martin, and later inherited (and partially resolved) by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, now comes to a bitter end under Justin Trudeau.

It will be the most controversial money Trudeau ever spends, no matter how long he’s in power.

The point of exhuming all this complexity is to have it serve as a counterpoint to the “clarity” you’ll hear from partisans responding to the news who see Khadr as either an unrepentant terrorist, or an innocent child corrupted by a bastard father. If only it were that easy. He’s a combination of both.

But politics doesn’t like to be afflicted by complexity; it is best practiced in black and white, which is why Omar Khadr has lived the past 16 years of his life as a political pawn, subject to the partisan dynamic of the day.

MORE: From 2013, why a settlement was inevitable

I pushed Khadr around the chessboard too, in my time in Stephen Harper’s PMO, although by then the game was a stalemate. Jean Chrétien’s first move was to judge that sticking up for Khadr wouldn’t wash in George W. Bush’s post-9/11 America. Paul Martin did little to challenge that assumption. And with the die already cast, Harper didn’t want to challenge it, and only changed course with the arrival of the Democrat Barack Obama and his desire to close Guantanamo. Even then, it took years of foot-dragging and a string of losses in court for us to accept the reality and repatriate Khadr. After all, bringing him home willingly would have caused fury with the Conservative base; for them, we couldn’t be tough enough on him. We, like other political parties, were guilty of turning Omar Khadr into a talking point, instead of treating him like a (grossly flawed) human being.

As a spokesman (with no input to the decision-making), the government’s position was hard for me to defend. It’s not because I’m soft on terrorism; I supported George W. Bush and the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I think the death of Christopher Speer deserves sanction, and I think it’s tosh that Omar Khadr was some wide-eyed innocent. I also think Khadr’s family of convenient Canadians are an abusive, wretched stain on our noble citizenship.

But that doesn’t mean I have to feel comfortable about Khadr’s treatment at Guantanamo Bay, or the indifference of successive Canadian governments to his fate. No matter your opinion of him, Khadr was a citizen trapped in a machine none of us would equate with Canadian justice. It’s okay to think he was a terrorist and that he’s been treated shamefully. It’s okay to think that Khadr has served his time, but that he doesn’t deserve a single cent of taxpayer money for his troubles. Governments should have fought for a fair process, if not defend the merits of the man caught in it.

MORE: The uncommon friendship between Khadr, Amanda Lindhout, and Rinelle Harper 

Had Khadr been brought back to Canada after his capture in Afghanistan and locked up on Canadian soil, I would have been quite happy. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option. Just as it isn’t an option to resuscitate Christopher Speer and return him to his widow and family.

And while it would be nice to imagine an ending where Omar Khadr takes the settlement money and confounds his critics by giving it to Christopher Speer’s widow, this isn’t Hollywood. The news of the settlement—and the polarized reaction to it—just confirms there is no happy ending to be had. For anyone.

Andrew MacDougall is a London-based columnist and commentator. He was a director of communications to Stephen Harper.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post suggested that Khadr was detained after he was wounded in 2011. He was detained in 2002.

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