Omar Khadr. Image: Khadr family/Wikimedia Commons

In an unfortunate bit of timing, Canadian torture survivor Omar Khadr has been forced to surf the wild wave of Canadian racism and white fragility that marks so much of the gloating Canada 150 party. Indeed, while the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into the sesquicentennial were ostensibly designed to create a space where diverse voices would be heard and celebrated (although only at a surface level), ultimate control of the message was directed by an unspoken but obvious white supremacy.

Just days before the confidential Khadr settlement was leaked to the media — no doubt by those very agencies responsible for his demonization and torture, from the Justice Department and Global Affairs to state security agencies CSIS and the RCMP — armed agents of an “acceptable” Canada 150 message were arresting Indigenous people attempting to erect a teepee and conduct sacred ceremonies on the unceded, unsurrendered Algonquin territory that is illegally occupied by Parliament Hill.

Just as Indigenous people continue to be subjected to the ongoing continuum of racism that has always criminalized their ceremonies (more appeared in court last week in Labrador facing criminal charges for conducting sacred ceremonies at the dreadful Muskrat Falls project), Muslims in this country continue to face similar criminalization. They also face shadowy extralegal procedures that leave them in the limbo world of no-fly lists, incessant coercion to spy on their community, sudden closure of their bank accounts, listing of their charities as terrorist entities, infiltration of their mosques, indefinite detention, and deportation to torture. And that’s all before one factors in the newly legalized criminal acts authorized under C-51 that provide state security agencies free reign to abuse the human rights of anyone they deem suspect.

Indeed, C-51 was designed in part to address feelings of white fragility and its close cousin, spy fragility. Behind the thick walls of the bunkers of Canada’s secretive state security agencies there lies a deep resentment of any effort to name their acts of complicity in torture as violations of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The powerful, secretive bodies whose agents have consistently violated the rights of a long list of individuals and communities — including Omar Khadr — have long hated Canadian courts to the point where they’ve named themselves victims of a “judicial jihad” whenever said courts have noted that the actions of CSIS and the RCMP, among others, have violated rights.

Former CSIS director Jim Judd openly complained that secret trial detainees who had been held for years without charge on secret allegations the detainees were never allowed to see were being turned into “folk heroes” because thousands of Canadians were demanding due process for them. In the course of making those demands, many got to know the detainees and their families not as sketchy black and white passport photos in newspaper clippings, but as real human beings who loved and are loved. Hearing those real cries of pain — from years in solitary confinement, never being allowed to hug one’s children, the horror of not knowing why one was being held, the threat of deportation to torture — made these detainees very human at a time when CSIS needed them to be terrorist objects to be feared and segregated from civil society.

And so it was and remains with Omar Khadr and members of his family as well, the number 1 punching bag for homegrown Islamophobia. They are painted with the brush of “Super Muslim,” these all-powerful creatures with a thirst for terror so strong that they will overcome any obstacles to create chaos.

It’s the same as the creation of the old Red Communist bogeyman (although in the latter instance, there were more anti-Semitic overtones), the Japanese saboteur syndrome (or have we forgotten the concentration camps Canada created during the Second World War?), and any number of other enemies-du-jour throughout this nation’s history.

Khadr’s family and any Muslims who ever met them have suffered the same fate of being demonized — called terrorists, jailed indefinitely, and threatened with deportation to torture. Indeed, in almost all the secret trial security certificate cases, even having a brief chat with a member of the Khadr family while at a mosque, or having an obligatory social tea, was enough to go into one’s surveillance file and become part of the basis for plans to deport them to torture.

Here is where the shield of white privilege enters the picture. As someone who has worked with many of the Muslims in Canada who have fallen under the targeting scopes of state security agencies, I have met most members of the Khadr family. I have driven in vehicles with some of them, gone to their home, and spoken on the phone with them (my own CSIS file, still unreleased to me for reasons of national security confidentiality, will no doubt confirm this). Yet because of the remarkable privilege my white pigmentation allows me, I have never suffered judicial sanction for doing these things. But other Muslims with whom I have worked and who did the exact same things with the Khadrs — in fact, far less than I did — have landed in jail for years. Guilt via alleged association with someone who is pinned with our worst fears is a potent, deadly phenomenon.

Liberal racism

In this context, the Liberal face of Canadian racism is trying its best to have it both ways. They want to co-opt and dampen down the anger at centuries of racist oppression by “acknowledging” that “certain things” that they refer to as “mistakes” and “regrettable errors” undertaken by “well-meaning” folks took place “in the past.” The strategy is very clear: it deflects from the fact that such policies were not mistakes at all, but rather very clearly stated genocidal goals of governments trying to eliminate all Indigenous presence, for example, or seeking to keep Canada a “white man’s land” by shuttering the door to immigration from anywhere but white Europe. The Liberals also hope that by quietly apologizing for torture that took place under the watch of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, they can also divert attention from their torture-enabling C-51, supported in opposition and now defended in power.

The Liberal approach also fails to address the fact that such deeply rooted racism — stitched into every thread of the Maple Leaf — is not an “unfortunate” thing of the past but, in fact, continues to underlie much of Canadian society.

By making it sound like they’re listening, caring and understanding, it also buys the Liberals a certain “credibility” and, they hope, prevents the kinds of empowering direct-action organizing by targeted communities that is needed to confront such crimes. Hence, Trudeau speaks of his love of Muslims, but the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act that he supported while in opposition (and which is clearly aimed at Muslims) remains on the books, unrepealed. Trudeau says refugees are welcome here, but he refuses to lift the Safe Third Country agreement that is killing and disabling refugees struggling to make it across the border.

In this pathologically derailing approach to reality, Trudeau spoke of “senseless violence” when a mass casualty terrorist act was committed against worshippers earlier this year in a Quebec mosque. This depoliticized the act and made it the work of a “mad” or “sick” individual instead of the logical outcome of an Islamophobic hysteria that Trudeau himself contributed to.

And so it was that as Trudeau took the stage for Canada 150 with his carefully choreographed multicultural message (we love your food, we love your dances, but we don’t like it when you criticize our racism and our capitalism!), the guardians of smug white supremacy found it unacceptable to include any notion that such racist policies continue to serve as a basis for contemporary policy and discourse (especially regarding Indigenous people, refugees and immigrants, Muslims, anti-Black racism, and the targeting of specific communities under repressive laws like C-51).

Indeed, the only ones accompanying Justin Trudeau on the Canada 150 stage were individuals who represented the armed agents of colonial violence who have trespassed everywhere from Turtle Island Indigenous territories to the illegal invasion and occupation of Afghanistan: the RCMP and the Canadian military. The message could not have been more clear: Tearduct Trudeau will fill your ears with wonderful, saccharine platitudes, but if any of you get out of line, our ceremonial soldiers will kick your derriere all the way to the penitentiary and the torture chamber.

It is within this very toxic stew of white fragility — well represented by the howls of white outrage when a CBC reporter was famously and justifiably called out for being disrespectful to Indigenous women — that Omar Khadr’s name continues to be kicked around by far too many people who know precious little both about the traumatic life he has endured and the cloud that will unfortunately always hang over his head.

Khadr has always been subjected to a continuum of xenophobic loathing and Muslim hatred that prevents people from seeing him as a human being who has suffered unimaginable acts and spent more than half of his life behind bars for an alleged act that the record shows he could not have committed. In our ahistorical culture, we forget that Khadr was in one of a group of earthen residential structures in Afghanistan that was attacked for hours with cannon fire, bullets and 500-lb bombs. (Imagine what 500-lb bombs would do to your home built of concrete or steel, and recall that Khadr was in an earthen hut).

When American soldiers found him buried in the rubble, with severe wounds threatening his life, this was not the Super Muslim that he has always been made out to be, but rather a traumatized 15-year-old kid who was just beginning his long nightmare of indefinite detention and torture. After being sent to the torture centre at Bagram (which early on was recognized as one of the worst dungeons on the planet), he was transferred to Guantanamo, the home, according to U.S. officials, of “the worst of the worst.”

Of course, that too was a lie, and of the over 700 original occupants of Gitmo, 41 remain, still held without charge on dubious grounds. Khadr himself is blamed for wanting to get out of that torture centre as well, agreeing to plead guilty under a military tribunal process that resembled a medieval kangaroo court (without which he might still be there). Canada’s Supreme Court has recognized what happened to Omar Khadr at Guantanamo Bay as torture, and that Canadian officials were complicit in that torture. The acts of those officials — which violated Khadr’s rights — are now more or less legalized by C-51, and Trudeau refuses to repeal them.

The impossible lightness of apology

The apology to Khadr itself was a bit of obfuscatory nonsense that distanced Canadian officials from their role in his torture and their utter failure to stand up for his rights while he was detained at the torture centres. Similar to the almost non-apology issued to other Canadians tortured with the complicity of their own government — Abdullah Almalki, Maher Arar, Ahmad Abou Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin — this one briefly declared “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.”

What were very specific actions of Canadian officials get reduced in the apology to a matter of supposition: what “may” have occurred as opposed to what “did” occur. While there are legal reasons for using such language, there are also political ones. Many Canadians still are unwilling to acknowledge that the actions of Canadian government officials are no different than those of the Americans or British in the so-called war on terror. We prefer to see anything wrong that’s been done as part of an unfortunate past and not a present reality.

Needless to say, media coverage of the Khadr case continues to perpetuate the myths and lies that are told about him. The Liberals wrap their defence of the compensation around the flag of respecting Charter rights, and some pundits praise Canada by stating that when compensation is awarded even to the likes of Khadr — again, unfairly putting him into that box of dubious company — this shows Canadian respect for rule of law. Instead of allowing us to see Khadr the real person, this approach turns it back on the self-promoting greatness of white Canada and its generosity and goodness when it pulls a boo-boo. Hence, the largely white, powerful media, politicians, and state agents — as well as the laws they create and selectively enforce depending on skin colour or religion — become the focus, and not the very real suffering of Omar Khadr.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould claims that the lessons are clear: “Our rights are not subject to the whims of the government of the day, and there are serious costs when the government violates the rights of its citizens.” While noble sounding, this is coming from a minister whose lawyers are fighting 165,000 Indigenous children in court. Those children are seeking — but being denied — the same rights as other children in this land, and their mistreatment has been labelled by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal as racially discriminatory. Despite four compliance orders to end that violation of their rights, the whims of the Liberal government are clear: this group will not enjoy the same rights as everyone else.

Nor will a bunch of other Canadians and refugees on this land enjoy the same rights as everyone else because those, too, are very much subject to the whims of this government.

The Liberal government has failed to bring home imprisoned Canadian Muslim Huseyin Celil, all the while boosting friendly ties with the country that continues to imprison him: China. There is a similar failure to bring home Canadian Bashir Makhtal, long jailed in Ethiopia. And then there’s the refusal to have the prime minister meet with the family and supporters of wrongfully jailed Canadian Hassan Diab, held almost three years behind Paris prison walls despite being ordered released by French investigative judges on half a dozen occasions. All are victims of the whims of the Liberal government.

Then there’s Ottawa’s Mohamed Harkat, fighting deportation to torture in Algeria, and Mohammad Mahjoub of Toronto, fighting deportation to torture in Egypt. Both have suffered long-term detention and house arrest under secret trial security certificates for almost two decades, in large measure because of the same Islamophobia that demonizes the Khadrs.

Last month, a Federal Court judge reminded us how deeply Islamophobia runs in the judiciary. Mr. Mahjoub, for years subject to a humiliating regimen of house arrest and restrictive bail conditions, sought changes that would make his life less burdensome. In a decision that rejected those changes, the judge wrote that “CSIS no longer considers the Applicant a threat to national security, as well as the fact that CSIS has advised domestic and international agencies of this and requested they take appropriate action.” Despite CSIS no longer recognizing Mahjoub as a threat (and the grounds for which he was deemed an alleged threat were pretty threadbare in the first place), the judge says, “[t]he evidence leads me to conclude not that [Mahjoub] has ceased to be a danger, but that the danger remains.”

What explains that disconnect? It is similar to the findings of a recent poll that found 71 per cent of Canadians are not happy with the Khadr settlement (including large numbers of Liberals and NDP supporters). And yet “74 per cent of Canadians agree that when Khadr was captured by U.S. forces as a 15-year-old, he was a child soldier and should have been handled like one in the first place.” So why the disconnect here? Once again, it seems the discriminatory lens of Islamophobia continues to dominate how most Canadians view this case. Shocked and white fragile NDP-ers have engaged in the “surely, not us!” line of reasoning, because when you’re progressive, you just can’t be racist, but every time members of the Mulcair team go on about “radicalization” (the euphemism for “bad Muslims”), they are contributing to the very Islamophobia they say they oppose.

The racism goes on

Unfortunately, the much-deserved compensation and apology for Omar Khadr is not the end of the story. Nothing has changed in the systems and structures that led to the torture of Omar Khadr. If anything, the Liberals and Conservatives have enabled such illegal behaviour with a slew of legislative changes. And much as state security agencies tout the importance of diversity, the presence of women, Muslims, and people without the privilege of white skin in these institutions will not end the misogyny and racism on which they are built and operate daily.

Indeed, the Toronto Star reported last week that a new lawsuit by five CSIS employees seeks $35 million in compensation for acts of Islamophobia, racism and homophobia. “Careful your Muslim in-laws don’t behead you in your sleep for being homo,” a CSIS manager allegedly wrote in a 2015 email to an intelligence officer, among the many allegations contained in the lawsuit. According to one female Muslim intelligence officer, “a director general asked her if she was frustrated being a second-generation Canadian Muslim. ‘With tears in her eyes, Bahira listened to the Director General explain that he perceived security threats emanating from second- and third-generation Canadian Muslims — clearly referring to her — despite the fact that she was a CSIS Intelligence Officer and subject to the same rigorous security clearances as non-Muslim officers.'”

How do those of us with privilege address the unrelenting waves of Canadian racism in a manner that goes beyond the platitudes? In the excellent anthology Surviving Canada: Indigenous Peoples Celebrate 150 Years of Betrayal, Aaron Mills suggests that all of us need to explore and understand what it means to be in relationship with one another and that simply “making space” for certain voices is “woefully inadequate. Beyond making space for our voices, I want you to live as if what we say matters.”

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. ‘national security’ profiling for many years.

Photo: Khadr family/Wikimedia Commons

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Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate.