Liberals defend and Tories attack Omar Khadr payout, both citing principles

"The settlement that was announced today has to do with the wrongdoing of Canadian officials with respect to a Canadian citizen," Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said. Put that way, the $10.5-million settlement almost sounds simple.

Ralph Goodale and Andrew Scheer trade accounts of the $10.5M settlement

Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould stands with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale. The two senior cabinet ministers announced an apology and settlement with Omar Khadr. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

After three days of anonymous leaks and partisan outrage, it fell to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to make what is surely the least flattering announcement of government funding in Canadian political history: an unspecified sum paid to the order of Omar Khadr.

Even viewed in the best possible light, it is an admission of gross failure.

Appended to that payment — reportedly $10.5 million, but officially confidential per the terms of the settlement — was a delicately worded apology in the name of Goodale and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.

"On behalf of the government of Canada, we wish to apologize to Mr. Khadr for any role Canadian officials may have played in relation to his ordeal abroad and any resulting harm."

Goodale would be slightly more definitive in response to subsequent questions from reporters.

"The settlement that was announced today has to do with the wrongdoing of Canadian officials with respect to a Canadian citizen," he said.

Put that way, it almost sounds simple.

But responding in Calgary, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer ventured his own simple summation. 

"I believe that there is value in fighting for that principle that we don't pay convicted terrorists compensation," he said, vowing that he never would have settled.

Goodale on Khadr settlement

6 years ago
Duration 1:51
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale explains why Ottawa settled with Omar Khadr

Of course, Scheer's principle is not enshrined in law as a fundamental right.

And therein lies most of the current conflict, with Khadr subject to competing claims about principle and law, rights and politics.

Goodale's explanation

Square and stolid, Goodale parsed the situation carefully, building to an argument that made this settlement seem almost inevitable.

First, he moved to separate the circumstances of Khadr's capture in Afghanistan from the issue now at hand.

There was, Goodale explained, "heated debate" and "deeply divided views" about what transpired on that battlefield in 2002. Those events, he said, "can only be described as painfully tragic, including for U.S. armed forces personnel and their families."

"But the legal settlement that we are announcing today deals with a civil lawsuit launched by Omar Khadr against the government of Canada on a very precise question," he said. "Long after the firefight in Afghanistan and while he was in custody, did the behaviour of Canadian government officials contribute to a violation of the human rights of a Canadian citizen?"

To answer this question, he turned to the 2010 ruling of the Supreme Court. In short, that ruling established that Khadr was tortured and his rights unjustly withheld and that the Canadian government was complicit.

Practicality and principle of settling

Goodale thus deferred to both practicality and principle.

The government, he said, had already spent $5 million in legal expenses related to Khadr. Fighting the current suit would have incurred further costs, and Khadr was seeking $20 million in compensation. And the government, Goodale argued, had "virtually no chance of success."

Though opinion on that might not be unanimous, there are legal minds who support that contention.

"But equally important," Goodale concluded, "is the core issue repeatedly identified by the Supreme Court of Canada. In the pursuit of justice and national security, governments must respect charter rights and human rights and the rule of law."

Scheer on Khadr deal

6 years ago
Duration 0:59
Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer tells reporters in Calgary that the compensation deal for Omar Khadr is wrong

Later, when badgered by a reporter, Goodale hit this last point harder.

"You may want to dismiss the rule of law and the Constitution," he said, leaning forward, "but if you do that, you are fundamentally undermining the integrity of the country."

In broad strokes, there were similarities to the explanation of the United Kingdom's justice secretary — a Conservative — when the British government decided in 2010 to compensate citizens who had been detained at Guantanamo Bay. In that case, £20 million ($34 million Cdn) was reportedly set aside for 17 individuals.

Shifting responsibility

In making his case, Goodale blamed the previous Conservative government for the situation. But it was the previous Liberal government, in which Goodale was a minister, that was responsible for the breach of Khadr's rights.

Had that Liberal cabinet successfully demanded his repatriation in 2003, this Liberal cabinet wouldn't have been trying to explain a settlement in 2017.

Asked about that government's role in all this, Goodale countered that the Supreme Court rulings in 2008 and 2010 were delivered when the Conservatives were in power, as if a government should need the court to clarify its responsibility to protect its own citizens.

Responding an hour later, Scheer said Canadians were "shocked" to hear of a "secret payout" to a "convicted terrorist," the last a phrase that invites questions about the process that resulted in Khadr's confession.

Scheer said it was "one thing to acknowledge alleged mistreatment," but that this payment had been "rushed" (a charge the Liberals later denied). He said the settlement was a "slap in the face" to members of the Canadian Forces. And he said Trudeau had a "choice."

Scheer apparently would have fought the lawsuit and risked spending perhaps more than $20 million for the chance to avoid spending $10.5 million.

Of course, being ordered to pay $20 million by the court would allow a government to plead that it had no choice.

Scheer's legal analysis was that the Harper government's decision to allow Khadr to return to Canada in 2012 was a sufficient response to the breach of Khadr's rights. But that version of events seems to defy both the Harper government's own statements at the time and the fact that 32 months passed between the court's ruling and Khadr's repatriation.

What Trudeau once said about Khadr

The government's announcement about the settlement came when Parliament was not in session, which doesn't help the claim that this is all defensible. And the prime minister's only response so far has been to dodge a question shortly after the settlement was leaked.

Conservatives, of course, would be shouting regardless.

Liberals might now just hope that Khadr isn't soon photographed behind the wheel of a newly purchased Mercedes-Benz. 

Nearly four years ago, when he was in opposition, Trudeau addressed the possibility of compensating Khadr. He ventured that "Omar Khadr needs to be treated the way we treat Canadians according to the rules that exist, according to the laws and principles that govern."

That is easier said than done.

But in principle, it might provide some solace, even to critics of the settlement.

Here is a prominent reminder that should your rights be so violated, you too would be in line for redress, possibly even a multimillion-dollar settlement, no matter what else you are believed to have done in your life.

WATCH: Omar Khadr's full interview with CBC's Rosemary Barton

6 years ago
Duration 10:10
WATCH: Omar Khadr's full interview with CBC's Rosemary Barton


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.