The Commons: ’This is a joke’

What happened in the House when the debate shifted to Omar Khadr

The Scene. After the House had finished discussing the American President’s upcoming visit, environmental regulations, funding for the arts, the aerospace industry, military contracts and the rights of women to fair and equal pay, the Bloc Quebecois’ Paul Crete rose to once again press the case of Omar Khadr.

“We are talking about a child soldier,” he said, “imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay for more than six years and subjected to torture.”

Would the Prime Minister, Crete asked, commit to discuss the matter when he meets with Barack Obama next week?

Mr. Harper remained in his seat. The chair to his right, usually occupied by Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, was empty. So to address this serious matter, the Conservatives sent up Deepak Obhrai, the parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs and a voracious reader.

“Mr. Speaker, our position regarding Mr. Khadr remains unchanged. Mr. Khadr faces serious charges that include murder, attempted murder and terrorism,” he said as he has said so many times before. “We continue to closely monitor this situation, including the work of the American committee formed to study the fate of the detainees, including Mr. Khadr. Any speculation is premature at this time.”

Though some will suggest that the handling of Mr. Khadr long ago descended to the level of farce, it was at precisely this moment that things turned from simply ridiculous to kind of sad.

Crete came back up, this time with a question about the International Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, a pact entered into by some 96 countries, including Canada, in 2007. The United States, Crete reported, had so far declined to sign on. Would this government, he wondered, pressure President Obama to do so?

Mr. Obhrai stood with the response. “Mr. Speaker, let me say it again,” he said. “Our position regarding Mr. Khadr remains unchanged. Mr. Khadr faces serious charges, including murder. We continue to closely monitor the situation, including the work of the American committee formed by President Obama to study the fate of detainees, including Mr. Khadr.”

The Bloc benches descended into hysterics. Gilles Duceppe laughed uproariously.

Liberal Dominic LeBlanc stood and complimented Mr. Obhrai on his diction. The prospective attorney general, speaking in French, then laid out his question. Canada, he noted, had committed itself to the United Nations’ Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In that regard, he asked, did this government believe that the American government had met the standards of the protocol in its treatment of Mr. Khadr?

Mr. Obhrai was ready with the answer. “Mr. Speaker, as I have stated, we continue to closely monitor the situation, including the work of the American committee formed by President Obama to look at the detainees, including Mr. Khadr,” he said. “Our position has not changed. Omar Khadr faces serious charges including the murder of a medic. We are aware. At this time any speculation is premature.”

“This is a joke!” chirped a voice from the Liberal side.

Perhaps concerned, given Mr. Obhrai’s earlier misunderstanding, that something was being lost in translation, LeBlanc switched to English.

“Mr. Speaker, perhaps I asked the wrong question,” he began.

The Conservatives mockingly cheered.

The Speaker called for order. “Whatever question the member is going to ask,” he said, “the parliamentary secretary has to be able to hear it.”

LeBlanc began again. “Mr. Speaker, the parliamentary secretary did not answer the question,” he said. “Canada ratified the protocol on the convention of the rights of children. Does the minister believe the American government has respected the requirements of that protocol? President Obama believes they have not. Does the parliamentary secretary agree with President Obama, or does he still agree with President Bush?”

Obhrai managed here to summon a few of his own words. Granted, they didn’t make much sense when strung together, but still. “Mr. Speaker,” the parliamentary secretary huffed, “he should be asking the American government that question.”

Then back to the script. “Let me state the position of the government of Canada, not the government of America,” he continued. “The government of Canada continues to closely monitor the situation, including the work of the American committee formed by President Obama to look at the detainee issue, including Mr. Khadr’s issue. Again let me remind the member, Mr. Khadr faces serious charges including murder of a medic.”

The Conservatives jumped to their feet to salute Mr. Obhrai’s effort.

“You read it better the first time!” yelped a voice from the Liberal side.

The parliamentary secretary sat back down with a smile and a chuckle. From a couple seats over, Maxime Bernier leaned over and gave him a thumbs up.

The Stats. Arts funding, six questions. Aerospace, five questions. Canada-United States relations, the economy and military contracts, four questions each. Omar Khadr, three questions. The environment, forestry and pay equity, two questions each. Foreign affairs, the Olympics, Aboriginals, railways, Chuck Cadman, immigration and Bill Casey, one question each.

Stephen Harper, nine answers. James Moore, Tony Clement, Peter MacKay and Deepak Obhrai, four answers each. Stockwell Day, Denis Lebel, Vic Toews and Peter Van Loan, two answers each. Jim Prentice, Jim Flaherty, Leona Aglukkaq, Pierre Poilievre, Jason Kenney and Rob Merrifield, one answer each.