Few in Canada, apart from his apologists, support the federal Liberals' secret $10.5 million payoff and formal apology to Omar Khadr.
Khadr, regardless of his relative youth at the time or the specifics of his engagement in a firefight that left a U.S. soldier dead, was widely viewed as having won a jackpot for fighting with terrorists against Canada.
However, while an Angus Reid poll showed three-quarters of ordinary Canadians think the Liberals made the wrong decision by settling with Khadr, for the men and women in Canada’s armed forces, particularly our wounded veterans, it was nothing short of abject betrayal.
Ottawa has spent years fighting a class action lawsuit by injured and disabled Afghanistan veterans seeking to overturn 2007 Conservative government changes to pension entitlements that for many, substantially cut their benefits.
So when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered a back-handed condemnation last week for his government’s shameful deal and apology to Khadr, saying “The Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects all Canadians, every one of us, even when it is uncomfortable,” those words stuck in the craw of many of our wounded warriors.
The insult wasn’t tied to whether the courts would eventually agree that Canada failed to protect Khadr’s rights, whether he was subjected to abusive, illegal and degrading interrogation and treatment — conditions that invalidate his guilty pleas before an American military tribunal to terrorism and murder.
Rather, the insult was tied to the fact that if the federal Liberals can do right by Khadr, compensating him for the violation of his rights following capture and imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay, then why have they taken so long to make good on a promise to do right by our veterans.
“Our outrage has nothing to do with Khadr’s rights,” said Marc Burchell, president of Equitas Society, the group supporting the six disabled Afghan war veterans fighting the government in court.
“All Canadians have rights,” Burchell said. “The anger is that the government moved quickly to satisfy Khadr’s rights but has failed to do the same after promising veterans they would reinstate their pensions.”
In 2007, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government changed Canada’s disability benefits for veterans, replacing lifelong pension payments with a “New Veterans Charter” that included a one-time, maximum $360,000 payout and complex pension entitlement system.
Major Mark Campbell, now retired and one of the six suing the government, was an infantry officer training and mentoring Afghan troops in June 2008 when he was targeted during a village sweep operation in Afghanistan.
Insurgents had buried an improvised explosive device (ironically similar to the ones Khadr made while training with al Qaeda) and detonated the bomb as Campbell walked by. His unit was then hit on three sides by rocket propelled grenades and machine-gun fire, a “complex ambush”.
In the dust and chaos, Campbell looked down and saw the blast had blown off one leg, shredded the other. He died, twice, on operating tables and was revived. He endured multiple surgeries, extended rehabilitation, was left permanently disabled, in permanent pain, with a host of life-long injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Trained throughout his career to overcome adversity, Campbell didn’t expect, then or now, betrayal from his own government.
“I served for 20 years before they changed the rules,” Campbell told the Sun. “They changed the rules in the middle of the war and they didn’t bother to tell us they restructured the benefit.”
For Campbell, the new “charter” meant a 46% reduction in lifetime compensation. With a wife, young son and daughter, it meant a reduced income and lifetime of significant disability-related expenses.
During the 2015 federal election campaign, the Liberals harshly criticized the Conservatives and promised to address veteran disability compensation.
“We have a social covenant with all veterans and their families that we must meet with both respect and gratitude,” the Liberals said on their website.
“Veterans who need crucial mental health services are waiting months, even years, to get help. Harper even left over $1 billion budgeted for veterans’ services unspent.”
“A Liberal government will live up to our obligation to Canada’s veterans and their families. We will demonstrate the respect and appreciation for our veterans that Canadians rightly expect, and ensure that no veteran has to fight the government for the support and compensation they have earned.”
During the campaign, Trudeau promised to “reinstate lifelong pensions and increase their value in line with the obligation we have made to those injured in the line of duty.”
Instead, Campbell and five other veterans continue to fight the government in court, and rightly question the priorities of a government that deals expeditiously to address the wronged rights of a convicted terrorist ahead of a promise to do right by the men and women harmed and broken in the service of this nation.
“They not only gave Khadr $10.5 million, they gave him a formal apology. Meanwhile we’ve got 20-somethings sentenced to life in a wheelchair, and they get $360,000,” he said.
During WWI, then-Prime Minister Robert Borden promised Canadian soldiers the country would look after them, particularly those injured in war.
“No man, whether he goes back or whether he remains in Flanders, will have just cause to reproach the government for having broken faith with the men who won and the men who died.”
Returning home after the war, to a fragile economy, returning veterans asked the government for a $2,000 payment to help them adjust and compensate them for lost wages during the war.
Although the federal government built a series of veterans’ hospitals across the country during and following the two great wars, inadequate services and pensions for veterans became a chronic problem.
By the late 1990s, a Senate committee on pension reform talked about a “common thread” on the pension process running through reports dating back to 1981.
“As veterans have aged, the frustration and anger over the years it could take to fully adjudicate a pension claim have mounted,” the committee reported. “Repeated efforts to ‘fix’ the system did not do away with backlogs of thousands of cases and waits of one to two years just to get a first level decision.”
The Ombudsman for the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces has written a number of reports detailing problems with pension compensation, and in 2007, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government tried to fix problems with a new “Veteran’s Charter” that improved benefits for some but replaced lifelong pensions with a complex, bureaucratic system that reduced benefits for many.