On Omar Khadr and being Canadian since the summer of 2002

I do not remember where I heard that Omar Khadr had been captured. I doubt it was from the news, I was far too busy at that time to watch the news. It was just a piece of tribal knowledge that appeared somewhere, a new reality all Canadians woke up to one day. I don’t remember where I heard about Omar, but I do remember how it felt. It felt like a hand suddenly gripped my heart and for nearly 13 years I have never breathed as freely as I did before. Every day since this new knowledge arrived, there is a cloud that appears before I open my eyes and a part of my mind that knows, no matter what happens, Omar is still being abused and I am still complicit. This is what it has felt like to be a Canadian since the summer of 2002.

It is not that I ever had any illusions about the Canadian government being perfect. I was raised in one of the most isolated spots of Canada’s north, in a community destroyed by Canadian residential schools and Canada’s educational, religious and policing policies in indigenous communities. To leave my home, as so many felt they needed to, women and girls had to travel Highway 16, the Highway of Tears described by Human Rights Watch when they accused Canada of abusive policing and neglect in the region. My family has been hit repeatedly by the Canadian government’s human rights shortcomings, from the uninvestigated and rarely mentioned missing and murdered indigenous women, one every twelve days in Canada, to the resource corporations that use people as cheap and disposable machinery. I know that the Canadian government experimented on women with postpartum depression and others in partnership with the CIA, I know Canadian resource corporations are responsible for human rights disasters globally. I know, I know, I know. I have always known.

But it was Omar who changed the way I thought about us as Canadian people.

Omar’s lawyer and friend Dennis Edney has said of Omar that never has anyone been so abandoned by so many that should know better. I agree. From my experience, Canadians do feel guilt and strong concern about Canada’s role in human rights abuses, at least the ones close to home. The idea of human rights has always been an integral part of Canadian culture and Canada was always in the thick of anything to do with international peace treaties and international law. Canadian John Peters Humphrey wrote the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson defined UN peacekeeping. Two years before Omar was captured, Canada was the first country to sign the UN treaty to protect child soldiers. We know better. And I have never seen us abandon anyone as much as we did Omar.

Watching Canada ignore Omar for almost thirteen years has felt like living in The Truman Show. It has seemed impossible to get a reaction from people about the torture of a child. Well, we aren’t certain, people said through endless years of proof they refused to read, or Well, they did … as if this one Canadian child was somehow not us. In 2010, when I first got access to the US state cables leak from Chelsea Manning, Omar’s name was the first I searched. The cables showed diplomats congratulating themselves that “competing joys of the all-too-brief Canadian summer essentially have kept any genuine pressure off the government”. I had never before seen this dark side of Canadian apathy, the ability to say, It’s just war stuff, about the torture of a child.

“Oh, come on,” long time journalists on the case told me when I objected to their lies about Omar’s case. “Everyone says this,” as if the actions of a mob remove individual responsibility for the truth. “We are presenting a balanced view,” responded others, as though the duty of journalism lies in some popular grey area between truth and lies. “You are hurting your cause,” said many in power, telling me outright that they would write worse things about Omar and ignore him even longer if I complained of lies and inaction. NGOs talked about ‘proper channels’, officials talked about ‘those mandated’, and politicians talked about ‘due process’ as Canadian passive aggressive complicity dragged on and on and on. Canada’s brilliant legal voices, Dennis Edney, Nate Whitling, Gail Davidson, Audrey Macklin and others both in Canada and internationally, kept a continual stream of factual analysis available, but it could not reach as far as the fear-inducing libel from the government and press. Omar’s case is headed to the Canadian Supreme Court for the third time. Combined with a years-long stream of hearings in lower courts, this creates a string of legal victories and state persecution surely unprecedented for one person’s case, but all the legal decisions in his favour never changed his reality.

Years of complacent apathy dragged by, each day an unimaginable hell for this abandoned child. Year after year, we were told to let justice take its course, to sit down, shut up, and trust in the system. Year after year it became harder to breathe, to continue daily life in this charade. Finally we learned that not only was Omar not returning, he would be tried in a show trial with charges of crimes that didn’t exist, a step that had been considered too illegal to be conceivable even by most of us who had been watching this horror unfold since the beginning. And still we were told to sit down and shut up and submit to illegal process and those mandated by themselves. In exchange for the show trial, Omar was supposed to be returned to Canada the following year, but it was no surprise when he was not. And still we were told to sit down and shut up or we would ‘hurt his cause’.

After years of futile comments and articles and forum postings, I began to grow bigger platforms. Wikileaks, Anonymous, Occupy, and many other online collectives gave me volume to talk about this child. I would use my Twitter accounts to tweet all day about western men hackers to gain followers and then spend them all with unexpected tweet storms about Omar. I brought him into every interview humanly possible, no matter what the topic. During all the global events, the genocides, wars and horrific disasters that I covered, I would still ask my networks to amplify Omar as well. And people around the world were endlessly patient and understanding. Gazans under constant attack, Syrians living in horrific war, and Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya people all amplified Omar’s case as did others around the world. Guantanamo activists globally propped each other up in one of the most frustrating and endless human rights campaigns of our time. The tireless and uncomplaining support of global activists acted as water on stone.

Slowly, gradually, the tide of human compassion in Canada that had receded so far, for so many years, began to return. More and more people began to unravel the facts of Omar’s case and correct each other online. Eventually, people would amplify instead of unfollow me when I talked about his case. A global audience was forming which had no difficulty believing what was done to Omar, and Canadians could no longer avoid being asked about him. The people who had always spoke about him began to find more interest and more informed listeners. When Omar returned to Canada on September 29, 2012, it was as if he finally became real for many Canadians. The government propaganda against him escalated sharply, but so did the backlash from an increasingly informed audience. Finally, Canadians were not just interested, they cared and were starting to fight back.

On May 5, Omar Khadr will almost surely walk free. Dennis Edney will fulfill his long ago promise of taking Omar to the beautiful Alberta wilderness and the Edney family will welcome him to their home. The hand that has been choking my heart for 13 years has finally let go, the giant black weight of guilt that appears every morning is lifting. The entire country can breathe more easily and walk more freely because of Omar’s lawyers, Dennis Edney and Nate Whitling, and because of Omar’s own extraordinary resilience and good-heartedness. They have saved us from the consequences of what we have done. Omar will be a happy, strong, free and capable man; we have been spared the guilt of seeing him with a life destroyed.

A question many have asked: with all the human souls needing help right now, why have I devoted so much of my time and energy to Omar who is only one man? It is because, as Dennis said, he was abandoned by so many and because he was only one. Omar is not a member of any political group except the Canadian nation and he was a child, by himself. The experience of pain does not increase with more people experiencing it. One tortured life is as horrific as a million tortured lives, one death is as final and devastating as a million deaths. No life is a statistic, no life is collateral damage or acceptable risk.

All removal of human rights begins with their removal from one person. The actions taken against this one child changed Canada from a nation that did not torture children to one which does, from a nation which upheld international law to one which does not. As every pain and death is an individual experience, so is guilt. Each one of us bears individual responsibility for our actions and inactions of the past almost thirteen years. This is a stain that will not wash away. Collectively and individually, we can never forget the guilt which we now carry. The same voices which have insisted that we follow blind patriotism and trust in the state have taught us that our human response of guilt is a wasted emotion. It is not. It is guilt and empathy that keep us from becoming a nation of sociopaths, that tell us to protect each other from abuses we would not wish to suffer ourselves. It is guilt and empathy that create a nation and bring us together as humanity.

May we use our collective guilt to become much more protective of all of our rights and legal processes in the future.

With grateful thanks to all of those who have taken a moment from their own struggles to speak for Omar. There is no official body or person who will uphold our rights; there is only us.