Thomas Mulcair wanted to lay down a marker, to publicly dine with Gary Freeman as a show of support for the African-American vilified as a cop killer and barred from Canada because of links to the radical Black Panther party – an accusation he flatly denies.
So the New Democratic Party Leader brushed aside aides' warnings not to risk meeting with a felon. On his first visit as Opposition Leader to Washington, D.C., Mr. Mulcair said he had principles to act on, not just messages to deliver.
And he wanted it witnessed. So in the din of the gaudily ostentatious lobby of the hulking Renaissance Hotel on Monday, Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Freeman met and talked candidly about race and victimization and justice and whether Canada is still the refuge it was when the young black man who shot a policeman in Chicago fled there more than four decades ago. Mr. Mulcair invited a Globe and Mail correspondent to join the group on condition that the details of the meeting not be disclosed until after his three-day visit.
"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," Mr. Mulcair said. "And you know what? Sometimes digging in on something like that does cost you with a certain part of the electorate."
For more than three years, Mr. Mulcair, who went to high school with Mr. Freeman's wife, Natercia Coelho, has championed the case. The public show of support will attract attention, but for all the poignancy and heartbreak, whether Mr. Freeman has any right to return to Canada is in dispute.
In the hotel lobby, emotions brim over. Ms. Coelho cries. Mr. Freeman speaks softly of living a nightmare of forced separation. Mr. Mulcair's usually strong voice quivers. He chokes up. If the meeting causes a stir and costs some votes, so be it, he said, adding he hoped Canadians will understand that principles trump political expediency. "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," he said.
The mostly undisputed facts stretch back decades. On March 7, 1969, Joseph Pannell shot a Chicago police officer in the arm during an arrest. Mr. Pannell jumped bail, lived in hiding, fled to Montreal in 1974, adopted the alias Gary Freeman, and met and married Ms. Coelho. The couple had four children and lived in Mississauga, Ont. Both worked for the Toronto library system. Mr. Freeman was arrested in 2004. He spent four years in a Canadian prison fighting extradition, and was deported in February, 2008. He pleaded guilty in Chicago to aggravated battery, received a 30-day sentence, two years' probation and a $250,000 fine. His request to return to Canada was rejected. Since then he has lived in his childhood home in northeast Washington.
In an exchange about Mr. Freeman's case in the House of Commons, Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney referred to the former fugitive as "a cop killer." He corrected himself last year. "I should have said cop shooter," he declared, then accused Mr. Mulcair of political interference for his efforts to win "special permission for a violent convicted cop shooter and a former member of the criminal Black Panther movement to be permitted into Canada."
Slim, soft-spoken and wearing hearing aids, Mr. Freeman speaks quietly of the despair at not being allowed to return to the country he called home for more than 30 years. He believes Mr. Kenney has barred him because he's black, not because of his record.
"The only logical reason, and it's illogical, has to do with the colour of my skin," he says. "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."
The explosive touchstones of race, criminality and terrorism lie like political grenades in the conversation.
"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," Mr. Mulcair says, adding that Mr. Freeman is not a terrorist and was never a Black Panther. "It is a hoax perpetrated by the Conservatives."
No publicly available evidence links Mr. Freeman to the Black Panthers, and he denies he was a member.
Mr. Freeman has asked the Federal Court to order Mr. Kenney to allow him back into Canada. Although he is a U.S. citizen and a convicted felon, he believes Mr. Kenney has ridden roughshod over his basic human rights. His wife, children and grandchildren are Canadian.
"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," said Mr. Freeman, 63, who added that he chose the surname because fleeing slaves often used it.
"He's sadder, he's heartbroken, but he [a] has 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," Ms. Coelho said.
It's a hopeful if somewhat inconclusive gathering. Ms. Coelho heads home to Mississauga. Mr. Mulcair carries on the political business of his visit. And Mr. Freeman lives in limbo.
His assessment of the Opposition Leader's support may be optimistic. "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," he said.
But many, perhaps most, Canadians have never heard of Gary Freeman, and it remains unclear how many would back his return.
The minister is "not telling the truth about anything regarding my case," said Mr. Freeman. "I've never been a member of the Black Panthers and he knows it."
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.