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October 15, 2012

Khadr remains political wedge issue

Omar Khadr may be back in Canada, but his political propaganda value remains undiminished.

The Conservatives, their hand forced, will continue to paint him as a hardened al-Qaida terrorist, a war criminal who should not return to the streets of Canada.

Their opponents will paint him as a child soldier whose rights have been serially abused and who has endured years of mistreatment as Ottawa turned a blind eye.

Khadr, of course, has not been allowed to paint his own portrait, but over the years, Canadian politicians have rushed with brush and palette to fill the canvas with their own artwork.

Whatever the truth about Khadr, and it is likely to be found somewhere in the middle of these warring poles, he will remain a political piñata.

The Conservatives have long worn the Canadian-born man as a badge, an emblem of their avowed tough-on-crime and tough-on-terror agenda, dragging their feet as long as they could, using their reticence to repatriate him as a steady drum beat for their base.

They, in fact, didn’t so much repatriate him as hold their nose and receive an offensive package from the U.S.

They could hold out no longer without causing a rupture in relations.

Even as they blamed the U.S. for delays in the transfer process, the tenor of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’ grudging statement Saturday made it clear the Conservatives will continue to play Khadr for his political value as he is held in Canada, whether he receives parole next summer or serves his entire sentence to 2018.

Toews made it clear he has concerns about Khadr’s idolization of his late father, his family’s support for his actions, his tenuous links to Canada despite his birth here, his terrorist training and meetings with senior al-Qaida leadership and whether he was “radicalized” during his time in Guantanamo.

In his statement, Toews ignored that Khadr was 15 years old at the time of any meetings or training and had been indoctrinated into a lifestyle before he had a chance to make any independent decisions, and his government may have aided and abetted any “radicalization.”

Liberals, who ignored Khadr as he languished in Guantanamo while they were in power, still had the gumption to criticize Conservatives for taking so long to bring the “child soldier” home.

It was an argument formulated by the opposition Liberals only after they had lost government and lapsed into their particular form of knee-jerk criticism.

New Democrats, who have never held power and had to deal with an issue as thorny as this, were free to take what they consider the high ground, saying Conservative foot-dragging tarnished relations with the U.S. and our reputation worldwide.

Was this a sop to U.S. President Barack Obama, as many claimed this past weekend?

Certainly, ridding himself of the only westerner at a prison camp he had vowed to close in an Obamaesque flourish right after his inauguration, will not hurt the incumbent.

That was clearly a promise unkept, but Obama has not been belled on that and Guantanamo, where 166 detainees remain, is a non-issue in the campaign.

The Khadr case is much more of a domestic story in Canada than an international tale at this point.

The New York Times on Sunday played the story on page 27, behind the review of a Jay-Z concert in Brooklyn.

The Washington Post, on its home page, had merely a headline link to the Khadr story, a straight up piece of reporting with no reference to the presidential campaign.

On CTV’s Question Period Sunday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird gave the most measured response.

He said there was pressure from Washington to bring Khadr back and he acknowledged his government “didn’t have much of a choice.”

But it is a stretch to refer to it as a gift to the Obama administration — it was much more, as Baird stated, the case of a government that finally had to act to provide the rights it should to a Canadian citizen.

Now that he’s home, Khadr will continue to be whatever Canadian politicians and their echo chambers choose.

He may be a terrorist, he may be a victim, but he will always be a wedge issue.

Tim Harper is news services columnist who writes on national affairs.

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