NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair met Gary Freeman and his wife, Natercia Coelho, for dinner last Monday in Washington, D.C. The Opposition leader invited The Globe and Mail’s Paul Koring to meet the group on condition that details of the meeting not be disclosed until Mr. Freeman had concluded his visit to the United States.
Mr. Mulcair has championed Mr. Freeman’s case for years.
Mr. Freeman, who lived in Canada for three decades, has been barred from returning by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney who has publicly called him a “cop shooter” and said he was associated with the Black Panthers. Mr. Freeman, whose wife, children and grandchildren are all Canadian citizens, denies ever being a Black Panther. After he was arrested in 2004, he spent four years fighting extradition to the U.S. He eventually pleaded guilty to aggravated battery in connection with the wounding of a police officer in 1969 and was sentenced to 30 days in jail. Since then he has been trying, unsuccessfully, to return to Canada.
The following is a partial transcript of the conversation involving Mr. Mulcair, Mr. Freeman and Ms. Coelho:
Gary Freeman when asked why Mr. Mulcair is taking a risk to support him: “I think Mr. Mulcair is interested in the truth. When the truth becomes risky in a democracy then you have to question whether you really have a democracy, so I don’t think he is very concerned about political risk, I think he just wants to get at the truth. ... It really matters to me because Mr. Mulcair is a very prominent and important politician in Canada and he represents a significant segment of the Canadian spectrum and to have his support is an honour because it also means we have the support of a significant sector of Canadians.”
On whether his faith in Canadian democracy had been shaken: “I felt that by leaving the United States I had extricated myself from the grasp of U.S. criminal law and I could afford myself the [protection] of international human rights law. It wasn’t until I went through the whole extradition process and [was trying] not to be victimized by lies and untruths [and I realized] that the person being extradited didn’t really have any rights, it was at that point that I began to wonder about the nature of Canadian democracy.”
On whether his rights have been infringed: “I’m still separated from my family and my family is still suffering. ... My family is there, my home is there, and I want to be where my family is and my home is. I don’t want to be told that I don’t have a right to be with my family because I do, I don’t want to be told that I don’t have the right to go back home because I do.”
On his choice of new name: “I picked [Freeman as my new name when I got to Canada] because of the symbolism and because many slaves when they would escape slavery, would take the name ‘Freeman.’”
On his assessment of Mr. Kenney’s motivations for barring his return: “The only logical reason, and it’s illogical, has to do with the colour of my skin. … I think he has a problem with my skin colour. I think he has a problem with people of African descent. I think he has a problem with African-Americans, and I would love to be proven wrong.”
On the possibility that he might never return to Canada: “I cannot even entertain [that question] … because I do not want to be thrown into the depths of despair beyond where I already am. That’s an ugly thought, I’m already living in a nightmare. I wake up in the middle of the night, wondering why my wife isn’t beside me and why I can’t hear my kids talk. When it snows and I know it’s snowing there in front of my house in Mississauga, I’m supposed to be the one with a shovel in my hand shovelling the snow for my family, not my wife, not my daughter but me. I’m supposed to be there looking after my family and that’s been taken from me. I think that’s cruel to do that.”
On Canada: “I’ve worked all my life, when I first went to Canada I used to work off the docks, unloading ships, to take care of my family. I lived to take care of my family. My family defines who I am. Nothing else. So when you take that away from me, you are taking away the very concept of who I am as a human being. And that’s been taken away for no good reason, for no legal reason. Canada is such a special place. ... We met in Montreal. … It’s a city for lovers. … There’s nothing I miss more than sitting in the cafs on St-Denis, in the summer, with a T-shirt on, with all the people walking up and down the street and hearing all the French, even though I don’t speak French. It’s like music, I miss the music.”
On Canadians: “I don’t feel betrayed by Canada. Canada didn’t betray me, the people of Canada didn’t betray me. The people of Canada are wonderful people. If it were up to the people of Canada, I’d be home. This has nothing to do with the people of Canada. This has everything to do with the people who are currently in control of making government decisions.”
On Mr. Kenney and the Black Panthers “He’s not telling the truth about anything regarding my case. I’ve never been a member of the Black Panthers and he knows it. ... It should not matter. The Black Panther party has never even been on anyone’s terrorist index. They are not a terrorist organization. They are not listed as a terrorist organization by Canada.”
Thomas Mulcair on Immigration Minister Jason Kenney: “Don’t forget, it’s the same minister who stood up in the House of Commons and said Gary Freeman was ‘a cop killer’ and that was a bald-faced lie, he’s the same minister who went on and told journalists, he must have blinded him or something and that wasn’t even true. ... The government admits that the Black Panther allusion is based on nothing. It’s something that’s been added on because it makes it more difficult for Gary to get back to Canada.”
On the political calculus of championing Mr. Freeman’s case: “There are values that guide you in what you do in your life and I will not allow Gary to be kept out of Canada without doing everything I can to get him back in. And you know what, sometimes digging in on something like that does cost you with a certain part of the electorate. Not everybody who’s around me was terribly pleased about the fact that I wanted to make sure that I met with Gary when I was down here because we have messages to deliver about the environment and climate change and the economy and the prospect of forming a government two years from now. But the guy who’s planning to form a government two years from now is the guy who’s talking to you now and I’m the guy who stood up for him three years ago when there was no question of me leading the official Opposition. But I’m the same guy and I’m motivated by the same values and I feel the same way.”
“Maybe people will get to see the belief and the passion and the values that have animated me throughout my political life. I’ve looked at this [case] as a lawyer. I’ve looked at this as an elected official. I’ve looked at this as a dad. I’ve seen a family that’s been torn asunder. Knowing I was coming to Washington, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to put [the Freeman case] back on the table.”
On the merits of Mr. Freeman’s desire to return: “The Canadian government even admits that he represents no risk whatsoever and he is fully rehabilitated. At some point you have to ask yourself, Why Gary Freeman is being told he can’t come and live with his family?”
On Mr. Freeman: “He’d done his time. He’s paid his debt. … Stop with the slurs. Stop with the personal attacks. Stop making stuff up about links to the Black Panthers, and let Gary Freeman back into Canada to be with his family. If the allegation of cop killer is the ultimate slur, you can just imagine how the allegation of terrorism in this day and age is the cherry on the sundae. … I know he is not [a terrorist]. ... It is a hoax perpetrated by the Conservatives.”
Natercia Coelho, wife of Mr. Freeman, on his forced exile:
“He’s the same person I met. He’s sadder. He’s heartbroken, but he has [a] tremendous amount of strength and it is his strength that has helped us get through this. So he’s really the same person I fell in love with. I love my husband very much. He’s my best friend, my soul mate. And I believe in Canada. We all believe in Canada. ... He’s coming home. … There’s no question he’s coming home.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Gary Freeman pleaded guilty to aggravated assault. In fact, Mr. Freeman pleaded guilty to aggravated battery. This version has been corrected.