Harper using Omar Khadr to posture as anti-terrorist protector

Government vindictiveness toward child soldier is latest chapter in Canadian history of state prejudice
Photo: Men's dormitory in Japanese-Canadian internment camp: City of Vancouver Archives

What politicians call patriotism today often turns out to be prejudice tomorrow.

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A few days ago, after more than 13 years behind bars and after more than a decade of torture, Guantanamo’s youngest detainee, Omar Khadr, was finally released. Everything about his arrest — the confusion surrounding the circumstances of his case, his eventual “confession” during a widely discredited U.S. military commission criticized by Amnesty International and the Canadian Bar Association, his detainment for years with no formal charges — raises red flags.

Retired Lt.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire has thrown his support behind Khadr, referring to him as a child soldier and not a terrorist. Khadr’s lawyer, Dennis Edney, recently said, “We left a child, a Canadian child in Guantanamo Bay to suffer torture.” He also brazenly called Prime Minister Harper a “bigot” who “doesn’t like Muslims.”

Despite ample evidence pointing to the then 15-year-old minor as a victim of his father’s Al-Qaeda fanaticism, both the Liberal and the Conservative governments failed to seek extradition or expatriation.

As the Harper government continues to describe Khadr as a convicted terrorist who has pled guilty to heinous crimes, one has to wonder. What would Khadr’s initial and long-term treatment have been were it not for the Western world’s rampant Islamophobia and current governments’ inclination to cash in politically by posturing as our anti-terrorist protectors?

Canada, like most countries, has the convenient ability to forget and fail to learn from the historical slights and injustices it has inflicted on minorities and migrants. When our political leaders suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of history, they simply pretend it didn’t happen, quietly sweep it under the rug, paint the walls with brightly coloured shades of patriotism, and decorate with a couple of throw pillows called political rhetoric and factual ambiguity.

Most people remain oblivious to the experience of Japanese-Canadians at the hands of our government during World War II. As part of Asian Heritage Month, I was recently reading about The Tashme Project – The Living Archives, a verbatim theatre piece from Montreal-based company MAI that documents real-life testimonials from Japanese-Canadians.

The play is a stark reminder that governments are not always arbitrators of justice. When it comes to politics, what’s popular isn’t necessarily right. In fact, decades later, it’s often proven to be the opposite.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbour and the Canadian declaration of war on Japan in 1941, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, fearing sabotage from within, rounded up all second-generation Japanese-Canadians and Japanese-born immigrants and deported them or shipped them off to internment camps in British Columbia. They stayed there until 1949 — four years after the war ended.

The RCMP and the Department of National Defence believed this action was unnecessary. And yet 27,000 adults and children were imprisoned in internment camps based on speculation, without ever being officially charged with any offence. Well-known Canadian climate change activist David Suzuki was one of them.

The Canadian government took possession of their homes, their businesses, their fishing boats (Japanese-Canadians dominated B.C,’s fishing industry at the time), and their personal belongings; auctioned them off; and used the money to fund the camps. On a smaller scale, Italian-Canadians were subject to similar treatment.

To deny that rampant racism and suspicion against Japanese immigrants played an instrumental role in what took place is to be wilfully blind. For decades, resentment had grown against Japanese-Canadians. They were perceived by the dominant society as job stealers, loyal to Japan and resistant to becoming “true” citizens.

Stripping them of the ability to survive was the government’s way of forcing them to leave. After WWII was over, thousands of Canadian-born Japanese were forcibly deported to Japan, a country they didn’t know, our government benevolently paying their tickets back “home.”

Like the internment of Japanese-Canadians during WWII, the imprisonment and torture of Omar Khadr will become a stain on Canadian history.

The Canadian government has treated people as collateral damage, seeing them as objects to demonize for political gain in order to sustain the illusion of shielding our security and our culture — things that can hardly be protected through a sanctified moral high ground and tenuous accusations.

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