Thomas Mulcair and Gary Freeman

Why did the NDP leader meet with a man convicted of shooting a police officer?
Opposition leader Tom Mulcair speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday, June 6, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Here is a fascinating moment for politics, public policy and humanity.

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.

Jason Kenney and Vic Toews promptly, and predictably, tweeted their displeasure. (Perhaps Mr. Toews would have been more sympathetic if the meeting had been part of an upcoming episode of Border Patrol.)

Mr. Freeman’s situation is uniquely complicated.

Mr. Mulcair raised the case last May during a QP exchange about the return of Conrad Black. At the time, Mr. Kenney erroneously accused Mr. Freeman of being a “convicted police murderer” and then, in correcting himself, wrongly suggested that the police officer, Terrence Knox, had been blinded. He also repeated the claim that Mr. Freeman was a former member of the Black Panthers.

The full story is something like this.

In 1969, Mr. Freeman, then 19 years old and known as Joseph Pannell, was stopped by Terrence Knox, a 21-year-old police cadet, on Chicago’s South Side. Here is how the Toronto Star described Mr. Knox’s version of events in a 2005 piece.

In his victim-impact statement filed in Toronto court, Knox said on the afternoon of March 7, 1969, at the request of neighbourhood school officials anticipating violence, police officers had been asked to stop youths who looked of school age. One of them, he said, refused to be searched. While he was radioing an officer for help, Pannell shot him three times in the arm, Knox was reported as saying in news reports after the incident.

Mr. Freeman has claimed he was acting in self defence.

Jackman argued in her appeal that the violent incident in which Freeman shot a Chicago police officer happened in a vastly different time, when Freeman feared for his life. “There was a climate of fear among the black community in Chicago during the late 1960s because of continuing overt racism, serious abuse, and the murders of blacks by U.S. enforcement officers,” Jackman writes. “It is well documented. In fact, it proved to be so egregious that the U.S. faced international criticism as a result.”

“He maintains that the officers stopped him, punched him in the back of his head, pointed a gun at him, and threatened to shoot him,” Jackman continues in her appeal. “He was terrorized, fearing that he could be killed.”

Mr. Freeman subsequently jumped bail, but claims that was also motivated by fear.

Freeman said he jumped bail only after he says he was shot at — he doesn’t know by whom — and threatened by two white men in suits while awaiting trial.

He fled to Canada, settled in Montreal, got married, moved to Toronto, raised four children and worked as a librarian. American and Canadian authorities eventually discovered him and he was arrested in 2004. He fought extradition, but relented in 2008 and returned to Chicago to face trial. He pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated battery and was sentenced to 30 days in prison and two years’ probation. He has since been barred from re-entering Canada.

The federal government has claimed that an association with the Black Panthers is one reason he cannot be allowed to return, but it is not clear what evidence, if any, exists to support the suggestion that he was a member of the group. Three years ago, he applied for permission to attend the funeral of his father-in-law and an immigration report assessed his case thusly.

At the top of the report is: “Risks? N.” “It appears highly unlikely based on his recent track record that he would either reoffend or remain in Canada beyond the period authorized for his stay, given this would violate his probation order and would result in extradition and further prosecution,” immigration case officer Alex Chou wrote. “Sole grounds for inadmissibility are his conviction for aggravated battery. . . ”

So a man who lived peacefully and productively in Canada for three decades is not allowed to return because of his conviction for a shooting in 1969.

A few years ago, Mr. Freeman’s wife contacted Olivia Chow, the NDP’s immigration critic at the time, to seek assistance. Ms. Chow subsequently took up Mr. Freeman’s cause and brought the matter to Mr. Mulcair’s attention.

There is certainly a law and order case to be made against Mr. Freeman—whatever the circumstances, he has been convicted of committing a crime. But then there is surely a compassionate case to be made in his favour. He is both a convicted “cop shooter” (to use Mr. Toews’ description) and a man with a family who seems to have lived without offence for more than 30 years in our midst. So what of mercy? What about forgiveness? And how does keeping Mr. Freeman out of this country make the rest of us any safer? Is there some standard that must be applied here for the greater good of the nation? (It is cheap and and unfounded to claim, as Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Freeman have, that race is a factor, but the admission of Conrad Black might demonstrate some kind of contradiction. I presume the difference is the violent nature of Mr. Freeman’s crime.) Are we a better country without Mr. Freeman?

As a political act on Mr. Mulcair’s part, last week’s meeting was an interesting embrace of unnecessary risk. It would seem, on first glance, to violate all conventional wisdom of how to succeed at politics. He and his advisors surely knew—and, if not, Don Davies could explain it to them—that a public meeting with Mr. Freeman would almost definitely result in criticism from their primary political opponents. Even if Mr. Mulcair felt it necessary to meet with Mr. Freeman, he might have done it privately. It might have been done without any public acknowledgement from the NDP or explained after the fact with a sanitized sentence or two. Of course that wouldn’t have resulted in the sort of publicity that Mr. Freeman’s advocates likely think his case would benefit from. But it also wouldn’t have resulted in a picture of Mr. Mulcair and a convicted “cop shooter” being published in this country’s largest national newspaper.

(You might liken Mr. Mulcair’s support for Mr. Freeman to those politicians who have spoken up about Omar Khadr’s situation. But the latter has been a pressing and current political question. The former might’ve been ignored without anyone in the press gallery ever again asking about Mr. Mulcair’s position.)

Is there any obvious political upside? In Mr. Mulcair’s subsequent interview with CTV, he seemed to think he had a chance here to charge Mr. Kenney with hypocrisy. Perhaps that will register with some voters. Perhaps Mr. Mulcair is counting on a Conservative reaction that he thinks he can somehow use against them. Or perhaps Mr. Mulcair hopes to establish himself as a principled leader.

Here is how he explained himself to the Globe.

“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.”

That matches Mr. Freeman’s belief.

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.

That’s a strong endorsement. But it is the endorsement of a “cop shooter.”

Update 12:22am. Identifying sincerity in politics is a fraught exercise. That is the thing about politics: it’s political. But it is, of course, possible that Mr. Mulcair’s decision to meet with Mr. Freeman truly derives from nothing more than a sincere interest and profound belief in a case that supersedes, in his mind, any negative political consequences—that he really believes so strongly that Mr. Freeman is being treated unjustly that he feels it necessary, regardless of good or bad political reactions, to use his position to try to do something about it. But then we can’t see into Mr. Mulcair’s heart.