Lloyd Axworthy recently retired as president and vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg; he is a former minister of foreign affairs
An Alberta court ruling on Tuesday in the case of convicted terrorist Omar Khadr is a reminder of a basic trust that Canadians should expect from their government: To have their rights protected when abroad. One of the most difficult but necessary expressions of that responsibility to protect Canadians is when a citizen of this country is sentenced and jailed in a country that doesn’t share the same legal or custody practices applied in Canada. Whatever the nature of the offence, the Canadian government must exercise its constitutional duty to protect its citizens.
I learned how difficult that can be in the late 1990s, when, as foreign affairs minister, I had to deal with the controversial case of Christine Spencer and David Lamont. These two young Canadians had been arrested in Brazil on charges of being involved in the abduction of a wealthy businessman by a terrorist group. They were jailed and were subjected to harsh penal measures.
Our diplomatic entreaties to let them serve their sentence in Canada were rebuffed, as were the efforts by parents and friends to reduce sentences. Finally, we negotiated a treaty with Brazil on prisoner exchange which resulted in an eventual return to Canada, where they served time in a provincial jail and were eventually able to be freed on parole. At no time did we condone their actions, but simply affirmed their right to be treated as any other Canadian.
The reason I recall this case and the inherent principle it established for the treatment of Canadians is because of the unacceptable decision by the present government to reject the findings of the Alberta court in the case of Mr. Khadr. It is going against all precedent, and is replacing its own political judgement with that of the Court, which is upholding both the law and practice of Canada. This is not the first time this confrontation with the courts has happened. But this is the first time its actions have betrayed a fundamental trust that Canadians should expect from their government in the international sphere.
Not only should we be a country of laws at home, but we need to ascribe the same protection of Canadian laws in our treatment of Canadians enmeshed in legal systems outside our borders. Mr. Khadr’s case is another test on how we as a nation uphold the law.