“We have a great neighbour in Canada and Justin is doing a spectacular job in Canada. Everybody loves him and they love him for a reason. So congratulations on the job you are doing.”– Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Hamburg , Germany, on Saturday.
So there you have it – a ringing endorsement from the president of the United States. What prime minister could ask for more?
Of course, there is no doubting Trump’s sincerity. He always means what he says – until he doesn’t mean it. Until he wakes up in the wee small hours and remembers what someone said to him about softwood lumber or free trade, or something he heard on Fox News about climate change. Or until he starts tweeting about immigration and realizes he has not gotten around to building a wall to prevent all those refugees living in Canada from pouring into the United States. Or until someone reminds him that Trudeau is a liberal, you know, sort of like Barack Obama.
Trudeau can take Trump’s compliments with good grace, as he does, without taking them seriously.
One wonders whether Trump has heard of Omar Khadr, the Canadian who, at 15, was arrested in the death of an American soldier in Afghanistan in 2002, was held for 10 years and tortured at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Khadr maintains his confession of murder was made under duress. The Harper Conservative government was perfectly aware that Canadian officials had participated in his interrogation, but it washed its hands of responsibility.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously that the government had violated Khadr’s civil rights, and he sued Ottawa for $20 million. Last week the Trudeau government settled the suit, paying Khadr $10.5 million in damages and issuing a formal apology.
Canadian public opinion has long been divided on the Khadr affair. To many Canadians, Khadr was a terrorist and murderer who deserved whatever he got at Guantanamo. To others, he was a child soldier, a boy of just 15, who was mistreated by the Americans and abandoned by his own government.
If Trump were aware of the Khadr settlement, chances are his reaction would be close to the outrage expressed by the Washington Examiner, a conservative magazine and website that presents itself as a counter-balance to the liberal Washington Post.
“So Trudeau chose to enrich a terrorist and betray the widow of a fallen American soldier,” the Examiner declared. “... This is evil. Khadr should have eaten a hellfire missile, not a fat, juicy payday.”
Canadian Conservatives do not employ such dramatic language, but they share that sentiment. “Disgusting,” was the word chosen by Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer to describe what he termed a “secret deal” to hand over millions of dollars to a convicted terrorist. “This payout is a slap in the face to men and women in uniform who face incredible danger every day to keep us safe,” Scheer said.
I don’t think the Kadhr controversy is going to go away any time soon. The Conservatives are going to hang that apology and $10.5 million payment around Trudeau’s neck like an albatross. If the Commons were not on summer recess, they would be pounding him every day.
The Prime Minister made a fair point when he told reporters in Hamburg: "The Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects all Canadians, every one of us, even when it is uncomfortable. This is not about the details or merits of the Khadr case. When the government violates any Canadian's Charter rights we all end up paying for it."
Statements of constitutional principle are dandy in their place, but their place is not on the battlefield of public opinion. As his new admirer, Donald Trump, could attest, emotion will overwhelm principle every time.
Trudeau is going to have to get out and sell the justice of Khadr deal to an ambivalent public. If he doesn’t, the albatross could drag him under.