There’s been a great deal written about Omar Khadr in the past few days and I’m not going to pen yet another column on the subject. What is so revealing, however, is the response to the government’s apology and payment from the Conservative party and its followers.
Frankly, Khadr has become a poster boy for right and left and no political wing comes out of this particularly well. I happen to believe that he was a victim, that we acted incorrectly and that contrition and reparation were due. Stephen Harper’s intransigence was a major cause of the problem but former Liberal governments are also culpable.
Yet Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer immediately called the action "disgusting" and a "secret deal" — the latter, of course, playing to the rightist notion that hidden elites plan and plot behind our backs. He also said, "This payout is a slap in the face to men and women in uniform who face incredible danger every day to keep us safe," when it has nothing whatsoever to do with our military and, if anything, in confirming the rule of law and human rights goes to the very heart of what our soldiers fight to maintain.
The increasingly hysterical Michelle Rempel, when not blocking people on Twitter, described Khadr as a "convicted terrorist," when she must surely know that he was offered a transfer out of the hellish Guantanamo Bay only if he confessed to terrorism. He was a child soldier when the event happened, and still a young man in prison.
But this was nothing compared to the responses from conservatives on social media and in the press, who indulged in what I like to refer to as "Omar Khadr derangement syndrome." Suddenly it was claimed that anybody who thought the man was poorly treated supported terrorism, that the whole thing was a liberal plot, that Harper would never have been so soft, that immigration is a threat, that terrorism is everywhere, that Muslims are bad and so on.
Which leads to the greater question of when did Canadian conservatism become this harsh, thoughtless, extreme and — well — American?
We certainly saw a glimpse of it at the federal Conservative party’s leadership contest, when hard-line social conservatives attracted more than 15 per cent of the vote. Their candidates were strictly opposed to abortion and equal marriage and represented a strain of fundamentalism that most of us thought was long gone. The very fact of the victory of Scheer was a shock. A perennial smile should not obscure the fact that the new Tory leader is on the right of his party, and makes someone like Brian Mulroney look like a screaming lefty.
Throw into this heated stew the success of the painful and nasty Rebel Media platform under Ezra Levant, repugnant comments made by Tory MP and leadership candidate Kellie Leitch, and the number of Conservatives who look to Donald Trump as an example and inspiration, and the menu is complete. This, as it were, is not your parents’ Tory party.
There was, until two or three decades ago, something quintessentially Canadian about the federal Progressive Conservative Party and the greater conservative movement. It generally stood at the right-of-centre side of the Canadian political purview, part of a civilized discourse that was perhaps limited but always reasonable and informed. Not today. Rumour becomes fact, accusation replaces argument and venomous character attacks — especially of Justin Trudeau — are standard.
Ironically, while the Canadian version of Toryism has moved to the right and increasingly resembles the Republicans in the U.S., the European conservative parties have emulated the Canadian version. On climate change, one of the most profound issues of modern politics, Canada’s right stands almost alone with the U.S. right while its European equivalents boast of their green credentials. On LGBTTQ* equality, Britain’s former Tory prime minister David Cameron made the cause a central plank for his party, while our Conservative leader is a right-wing Roman Catholic who is opposed to same-sex marriage. Germany’s conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel is committed to welcoming refugees; our new-look Tory party is peppered with anti-immigrant sentiment.
The indications are that this will become worse and not better, and that’s a shame — not just for Canadian conservatism, but also for Canadian politics in general. I like to think that the people of this country are too sensible to fall for it. Good Lord, I hope I’m right.
Author and broadcaster Michael Coren’s latest book is Epiphany: A Christian’s Change of Heart and Mind over Same-Sex Marriage.