Growing up and righting wrongs

This week, I’m going to revisit a youthful lapse of judgment to illustrate my feelings about the $10 million settlement the federal government recently awarded Omar Khadr.

In the summer of 1990, shortly after graduating high school, I was the editorial cartoonist for this newspaper. My editor at the time chose from two cartoons I submitted weekly, and in early July, one of those submissions spotlighted Donald Marshall, Jr.

A brief history lesson: Marshall served 11 years in prison for the 1971 murder of fellow Sydney resident Sandy Seale. Granted a reprieve in 1982 and formally acquitted of his alleged crime a year later, Marshall subsequently became a symbol of the Nova Scotia justice system’s shabby treatment of the province’s Mi’kmaq residents.

A government inquiry castigated the police that arrested Marshall, the Crown prosecutors that sought to imprison him, and even the judge that granted his reprieve, who infamously declared that Marshall may have been “the author of his own misfortune.”

The Progressive Conservative government of John Buchanan awarded Marshall a lifetime pension of $1.5 million. Not fully understanding the case and being blinded by Nova Scotia’s multi-billion-dollar debt load, the hyper-partisan 17-year-old version of me couldn’t grasp the concept of a government handing over a million-plus dollars to anybody, even someone so obviously wronged by a system he had previously trusted to protect him.

So I drew a cartoon of Buchanan in a judo uniform, delivering a high-kick to a character meant to represent a Nova Scotia taxpayer, and gave the whole disaster the title “Marshall Arts.” Astonishingly, it was published. (I suppose that helps to frame the low quality of the other cartoon I submitted that week.)

A week later, one of The Reporter’s early-‘90s newshounds used his weekly column space to blast my “detestable” cartoon. He argued that Marshall did indeed deserve every penny of his compensation, and likely much more, and described my work as being designed to appeal to the most bigoted, small-minded members of our community.

That certainly wasn’t my intent (I definitely wasn’t anti-Mi’kmaq, only anti-debt), nor do I suspect it was the intent of The Reporter’s then-editor, who told me – when I thanked him a couple of weeks later for running that cartoon – that he wouldn’t have published it if he didn’t think it was acceptable.

I still have the column lambasting “Marshall Arts.” At the time, I think I kept it out of a perverse satisfaction that I had created something so edgy and provocative. Today, it’s a sobering reminder to carefully examine all sides of an issue before I present it in any form, including humour or satire.

So, let’s fast-forward 27 years to the Omar Khadr settlement.

Well, not so fast. First, let’s remember why that government payout is happening. Khadr was born in Toronto but brought to Afghanistan as a boy by his father and trained as a child solider. He spent a decade in Guantanamo Bay after being detained in mid-2002, at the age of 15, during a violent exchange with American soldiers that took the life of a medic serving with that offensive.

According to a 2015 Supreme Court of Canada ruling on Khadr’s civil suit against the Canadian government for their role in ensuring he would be tried as an adult instead of a minor, the actions against the teenage Khadr by Canadian officials at Guantanamo Bay “offend the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of detained youth suspects.”

Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Omar Khadr is simply a mirror image of Donald Marshall, Jr., who passed away in 2009 – a year before Khadr pleaded guilty to murder and several war crimes at a hearing held by a United States military commission. (He would later tell the Supreme Court of Canada that he had no memory of the firefight in question and only entered the plea as he felt it was his sole opportunity to leave Guantanamo Bay and serve the remainder of his sentence in Canada.)

But as I listen to the voices around me, I’m hearing the same rhetoric that led to the young cartoonist’s 1990 lapse in judgment. “We can’t afford it.” “He looks different than we do.” “He’s a criminal.” (I’m surprised “author of his own misfortune” hasn’t re-emerged.)

What’s not up for debate: Khadr was wronged by the supposedly-peaceful Canadian system, just as Marshall was wronged by the supposedly-just Nova Scotia system.

The “edgy, provocative” cartoonist eventually grew up and realized that Marshall’s wrong did indeed deserve to be righted. Hopefully we can collectively come to the same conclusion about Khadr and recognize his right to the life denied him from such a young age.