Dr. Arlette Zinck delivers Campion College’s annual Nash Memorial Lecture at the University of Regina March 21. Photo by Mickey Conlon

Omar Khadr's case a valuable education for Edmonton's King's University

By  Mickey Conlon, Catholic Register Special
  • March 29, 2017

REGINA – Few people are as polarizing in Canadian society today as is Omar Khadr, the Canadian child soldier who spent most of his teen years and early 20s imprisoned in the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison reserved for the Islamic terrorists the United States deems the greatest threat to the nation.

The story of his 13-year journey to freedom has been filled with twists and turns, but a Christian college in Edmonton has become one of the more intriguing players in a plot that continues to evolve.

The young Khadr was jailed for his role in the death of an American soldier during a 2002 firefight in Afghanistan that also left him severely wounded and blinded in one eye. He recently underwent extensive surgery to repair a shoulder injured that day.

The now 30-year-old Khadr and his al-Quaeda-sympathizing family from Toronto have been on the radar for much of the past two decades, a symptom of the 9/11 attacks on the United States and the resulting war on terror.

A core group of about 40 students from The King’s University in Edmonton flew beneath the radar to dig into the Khadr story to find what seemed buried beneath the headlines. It’s through this exploration that Khadr developed a long-lasting relationship with the Edmonton Christian liberal arts university that remains to this day. For King’s, it has also meant creating a lasting liberal arts education project for prisoners that has gone well beyond its Khadr connection.

Dr. Arlette Zinck shared the King’s-Khadr story March 21 in Regina. The associate professor of English and dean of the Faculty of Arts at King’s delivered Campion College’s annual Nash Memorial Lecture. Campion is the Jesuit undergraduate college federated with the University of Regina.

The relationship between King’s and Khadr began in 2008 as King’s was hosting its annual interdisciplinary conference and one of its guests was Dennis Edney, the Edmonton criminal defence lawyer who represented Khadr in his legal battles before Canadian and American courts and military tribunals. The students “were riveted but they were also distressed” by the hopelessness of the situation Edney described to them, said Zinck. Here was a young man, similar in age to them, a Canadian like them, severely broken down by injuries sustained in the firefight and jailed in the most notorious prison on the planet, unfairly it seemed, at least according to his advocate Edney.

From here the sensibilities of a liberal arts institute like King’s, with its “robust Christian ethical teaching,” kicked in, she said.

“In the wake of the 2008 conference, it was clear we had something to do,” said Zinck.

That something, she said, became an interfaith sharing opportunity to build common purpose with others.

A challenge was put to the students — you’ve heard from Khadr’s advocate, now it’s time to dig deeper and find out if there was another side to the story.

“So much of what we do (in a liberal arts university) is about getting facts,” she said.

Zinck thought it likely that was the end of it, “but I was amazed at what happened next.” The students had indeed dug into the story by speaking with MPs, NGOs and journalists. Their sleuthing led to a relationship with the imprisoned Khadr. Over the next two years, they corresponded with him and shared his story in the community. Zinck said it was a classic example of following in Christ’s footsteps: “I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36).

Their story began “to generate positive energy” on campus, she said. The Education Project was soon developed to educate Khadr behind bars. His captors were onboard with the plan, even supervising his studies.

All this, Zinck and her students took on in addition to their own work and studies.

“Believe me, that was hard,” she said. “It was a miracle anything happened.”

In 2012 Khadr was returned to Canada and placed in the maximum security prison at Millhaven, Ont. A year later he was moved to a prison in Edmonton, where three days a week he was taught by King’s faculty.

After his release in May 2015, he continued his studies with King’s instructors and by December had become an official student at the school. Today, “the thoughtful young man” is an Edmonton resident enrolled at MacEwen University, said Zinck, though he continues his relationship with King’s through a night course. He hopes to study nursing.

King’s has continued to expand its presence in the correctional system with eight or nine prisoners getting a liberal arts education through the program, said Zinck.

The journey, said Zinck, “forestalled the hopelessness” of the situation Khadr was living. King’s students and faculty, through a “stubborn trust” that they could make a difference, had moved from hopelessness to hope, she said.

Still, there were challenging times at King’s, with a student body openly debating the Khadr case and whether the college was doing the right thing.

That’s the beauty of a liberal arts education, Zinck said.

“Knowledge of multiple stories worked against knee-jerk reactions,” she said.

(Conlon is a writer in Regina.)

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