Opinion within the Canadian military community on whether the federal government made the right call issuing an apology and a $10.5-million settlement to Omar Khadr is as divisive as it is among the public.
Two retired Brandon soldiers demonstrate just that — one, a veteran with 25 years of service under his belt, supports the settlement 100 per cent, while the other, a formal corporal injured in Afghanistan, is disgusted with the government’s decision to compensate Khadr.
Public backlash and division on the settlement also haven’t quieted. An Angus Reid survey this week showed 71 per cent of Canadians believe the government made the wrong decision, and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation delivered a petition to the Prime Minister’s Office on Thursday, signed by more than 133,000 Canadians opposing it.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week he understands why Canadians are angry, but insisted that letting Khadr’s lawsuit — over the abuse he suffered as a teenager while detained at Guantanamo Bay — go through the courts could have cost taxpayers $20 to $30 million more.
The justification is little comfort to Glen Kirkland, who described the settlement and apology as deplorable.
"(Khadr) is a murderer. He killed one of our allies … a medic, it wasn’t even someone trying to cause him harm. He committed the worst sin and what we’re doing is compensating him," Kirkland said. "The guy is the epitome of a terrorist, his only compensation is that he has his life."
Kirkland was wounded in Afghanistan in 2008, when the tank he was driving was bombed. He was the only survivor.
What is hardest to understand, he said, is why the Canadian government didn’t want to fight Khadr in court, but it is fighting veterans in court over financial compensation.
"I was on fire and sprayed with shrapnel — I was pulling pieces of shrapnel out of my body. I’m blind in one eye. I have to inject between 12 to 14 needles every day or else I will die, and I don’t get a disability pension, I don’t think a lot of people realize that," Kirkland said.
"To see this terrorist — which is what he was — get compensated multimillion dollars … it’s sickening."
For Marc George, who served as an artillery officer for 25 years and spent four years in the National Defence Headquarters, the treatment of Khadr since his capture in 2002 felt like it "tarnished" George’s service to Canada, he said, adding he’s glad to see they made it right.
"The problem for me is that you either stand for something or you don’t. We say that Canada stands for human rights, the rule of law, democracy, and that it gives us a moral responsibility to intervene in places where those values are not being upheld," George said.
"But we certainly cannot, with any legitimacy, demonize our opponents as being lawless terrorists if we then ignore our own laws and terrorize them once they’re captured. It completely erodes any position of moral right that we claim to hold …We always have to walk the walk, and this is a case where we clearly failed by our own standard to do the right thing … we were complicit with torturing someone and illegally incarcerating them."
As a soldier, George said he also had "severe concerns" about Khadr’s treatment in captivity and how it could impact Canadian soldiers, should they be imprisoned by the enemy.
"We cannot demand the highest ethical standards of treatment for people that our enemies capture from us if we do not in turn adhere to those standards with people that we capture from them," George said. "By not following the rules, (the government was) potentially placing a great risk on Canadians or coalition soldiers who may fall into the hands of these organizations … justifying their bad behaviour toward our own soldiers."
Canadians who fought in the Second World War set clear standards for dealing with war criminals in a legal way, George said.
"Nazi Germany is one of the most evil regimes in the history of the world responsible for the deaths of millions of people — murdering millions of people — and yet at the end of the Second World War, (Canadians) treated them fairly," George said.
George used the example of Kurt Meyer, a high-ranking member in the Waffen-SS of Nazi Germany convicted of war crimes for his role in the Ardenne Abbey massacre, the killing of Canadian prisoners of war in Normandy.
In Meyer’s closing statement before sentencing, he said the Canadian Army had treated him as a soldier, and the trial was fairly conducted.
"If Canadians who fought against the Nazis can treat fairly an SS general who they had found guilty of murdering 18 Canadian soldiers, surely we could have treated a 15-year-old child soldier — who only confessed to having killed someone as a result of torture — surely we could have treated him fairly," George said.
The difference for Kirkland is that he believes Khadr wasn’t a child soldier, but a terrorist, he said.
"They called him a child soldier, but he wasn’t a child. Under the NATO rules, you have to be 14 years or under to be a child, and (Khadr) was seven days away from turning 16 years old. If he would have committed those same crimes in Canada, he would have been tried as an adult," Kirkland said. "The definition of a soldier is a uniformed soldier, part of an organization with a proper chain in command, which he wasn’t. He was building IEDs and killing civilians and soldiers … Now he has his life and a life of luxury. It’s so inappropriate that we as Canadians are paying for that."
Khadr’s hand in building IEDs is especially bothersome to Kirkland, he said, as he has lost a lot of friends to IEDs over the years.
"So many Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan due to IED strikes … and this guy made them. I have lost sleep over this, it really bothers me," Kirkland said.
Kirkland is also skeptical of the torture Khadr experienced in Guantanamo Bay, and to what extent the Canadian government is responsible for it, he said.
"He was committing a crime in a foreign country, so who are we to be the judge and jury on that? If he wants to sue the United States for his treatment, then by all means," Kirkland said. "As far as I’m concerned, he was arrested (by the United States) and we have to let their core process dictate. That’s their rules … If you did the crime, you’ve got to do the time."
In the same vein, Khadr’s experience in Guantanamo Bay also raises questions surrounding his confession, George said, which he believes was false.
"I worked for military intelligence for four years, and there’s no question in my mind that any information you obtain as a result of torturing someone is not going to be valid or reliable. They’re going to tell you whatever they think you want to hear to stop the torment … I don’t think there’s a shred of evidence that would stand up in a real court," George said. "Now there would have been a way to erase that doubt in my mind, and that would have been to treat him properly and have him tried in a proper court."
Both George and Kirkland share similar sentiments, however, when it comes to Tabitha Speer, the widow of Sgt. Christopher Speer. They believe the U.S. special forces medic’s death was a tragedy that no family should have to live through.
"I feel great sympathy for the widow of Sgt. Speer … It is a terrible thing to lose a member of your family in war," George said.
"Khadr says he just wants to go live a normal life, well what about the widow and the two children who don’t have a dad anymore? What about their normal life?," Kirkland said. "It’s incredibly disheartening."
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