The impartiality of our police officers is crucial to public trust in them.

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By now, most Ottawans (and many other people as well) are aware of the events surrounding the death of Abdirahman Abdi, a Somoli Canadian with mental health issues who died one day after being severely beaten by Ottawa police officer Const. Daniel Montsion.  Montsion is now facing charges of manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon. He has been suspended with pay from the police force. The facts of the case are that Montsion, an anti-gang officer, responded to 911 calls reporting a man groping women at a Bridgehead at Wellington and Fairmont on a Sunday morning. The alleged groper, Abdi, fled the coffee shop. He was pepper-sprayed, beaten with a baton and punched during his arrest. Some people begged the officers to stop, saying that Abdi was mentally ill. By the following Monday afternoon, Abdi was dead. The courts will now have to figure out what happened between Montsion’s arrival at the Bridgehead and Abdi’s death.

Since then, blue wrist bands engraved with the words “United We Stand”, and Const. Montsion’s badge number (1998), are showing up on the arms of police officers all over the city. The wrist bands are being sold for $2 apiece, and the proceeds go to a police benevolent fund. The officers wear them to declare their support for Montsion. This is worrisome. For one thing, cops are part of Canada’s justice system. They must uphold the law. The law says that Montsion’s trial is where his innocence or guilt will be proven. To declare support for him before either exoneration or sentencing is to circumvent due process. For another, police neutrality is essential. In a case where a man stands accused of killing another man, the police must support both the victim and the alleged killer by ensuring fair treatment until trial. The rights of both parties should be respected by everyone, but particularly by people who are on the public payroll for having sworn to uphold the law and human rights.

Along with both of these considerations is the fragile relationship between the police and Abdi’s peers. Somolia has provided Canada with many newcomers. In Ottawa alone, nearly 7,000 people claim Somoli as their mother tongue. Somolia has been occupied, warring or anarchic (at times, all three) for decades. Considering this, it is understandable that it can be somewhat difficult for Somolian immigrants to trust police officers. Nevertheless, progress has been made. This progress is threatened by wrist bands declaring police officers’ loyalty to a man who stands accused of killing one of their own.

I am not unsympathetic to the challenges faced by police officers on the job. I can only imagine the guts and grit it takes for them to suit up and step out into the world wearing a uniform that means they cannot walk away from anything. They can’t even look away – their calling requires that they move straight into the danger zone, and stay there until they’ve stabilized it. The stress of their position must be, at times, like gasoline – always ready to explode under the right conditions. I don’t believe Const. Montsion meant to hasten to death of Abdirahman Abdi. But it may well turn out that he contributed to it, possibly due to the heady combination of mounting fear, surging adrenaline, chronic stress and heavy pressure. Montsion deserves compassion and support during his ordeal. However, so does Abdi, a victim of what looks and sounds like a brutal assault – and Abdi’s family and friends. They regularly pass the Bridgehead where their loved one was beaten senseless. Now, they have to see cops in uniform – who are entrusted with public safety and enforcement of law and order – wearing approval of Abdi’s treatment. If you were one of them, would you feel like you will be treated fairly by an officer wearing that blue wrist band? Would you even feel safe, knowing that the person with whom you are dealing has the power to arrest you, using force if necessary – and that they support that behaviour toward a member of your community, even though it may have led to his death?

We are all entitled to our opinion. We all have the right to choose where our loyalty lies. Even cops – as private citizens. If Montsion’s colleagues want to be there for him, they can send him a card or call him. They can meet him for a coffee or a beer, and ask how they can help. While off-duty, wearing street clothes. When our police officers put on their uniform and badge, they have to be on everyone’s side. They have to be – in both mind and appearance – as blind as Lady Justice. That is the only way we can be assured of the impartiality needed to carry out her sacred work.

 

If Jian Ghomeshi gets away with what he did, plaintiffs may have no one to blame but themselves.

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The closing arguments in the trial of Jian Ghomeshi will be presented tomorrow in Toronto. Then, of course, comes sentencing. This will finally bring to an end a tempest that has been raging in the CBC teapot for more than a year. Ghomeshi has been accused of sexual assaults on multiple women, involving biting, hitting, choking, and smothering – none of it consensual. The hip, sexy host of the CBC’s Q began by brushing it all off as harmless kink, then fell largely silent as the accusations mounted. Woman after woman – more than twenty of them – came forward, detailing shockingly violent encounters going back as far as 1988. It seems that Ghomeshi was also emotionally cruel, and abused his clout in the Canadian entertainment industry to charm his way into his victims’ lives and use them to feed his appetite for power and rough sex.

After months of speculation and rumour, he was charged with four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking. The trial began February 1, and involves three plaintiffs. One of them, former Trailer Park Boys actress Lucy DeCoutere, has allowed her name to be publicized. The other two have chosen to remain anonymous. One would think that this trial would be fairly straightforward, and end in a victory dance for women everywhere. In addition to the three formal accusers, there is a long line of alleged victims (many of whom appear to be articulate, intelligent and successful) giving detailed accounts of physical and sexual assaults. Public opinion turned against Ghomeshi months ago, and it’s fair to say that he has been stripped of everything that ever made him cool or glamorous or desirable. The trial, however, has been the opposite of straightforward.

The three plaintiffs have changed their stories in both inconsequential and signficant ways. Evidence of collusion has surfaced, to the tune of thousands of messages exchanged between them. This is sloppy, but – in some ways – understandable. I have a spotty memory at best. I sometimes forget entire conversations. And I really don’t blame these women for reaching out to each other. It’s bad enough to be a victim of violence. It’s salt in that wound to feel alone with your fear and sorrow. I can overlook, also, the gleeful texts and emails about Ghomeshi finally being punished for his crimes. When someone treats you like garbage – which is what he did, by all accounts – you want that person to pay. It would have been better if these things had not been a factor, but we are all only human. The one thing I can’t understand or support, however, is the way they behaved with him after these unfortunate incidents. DeCoutere sent him an affectionate six-page letter just days after he beat and choked her. There were emails between them as well. One of the unnamed complainants went so far as to send Ghomeshi a photo of herself in a red bikini after he yanked her hair hard and punched her without warning. When asked about this strange behaviour, she claimed that her bikini pic was “bait” – she wanted to catch his attention, she said, so she could ask him why he hurt her. There is anecdotal and photographic evidence that she also continued to see Ghomeshi.

What Ghomeshi did is wrong. More than wrong, it is disgusting and horrifying. He deserves to be punished to the full extent of the law. I’m glad these women came forward to say what they went through and confront him across a courtroom. But they’ve undermined their character and testimony severely by their behaviour. By being friendly with him – and even continuing to see him romantically – they are saying two things. 1) What he did to them is not a big deal – not even enough to quell the urge to flirt with him, in fact. 2) They were willing to risk a second assault.

I can hear the arguments already. Yes, there are women who are trapped in abusive situations. They can’t leave, often for financial reasons – especially if they have dependent children. Sometimes, it’s cultural, and they simply lack the option – there is nowhere safe for them to go, and no one will help them. This is not the case with either of the three plaintiffs, so let’s put that notion to rest right now. These women had education, money and lives independent of Ghomeshi. He was not the husband who owns the accounts and house and car, and controls their comings and goings. He was the epitome of a bad date – and they willingly, knowingly exposed themselves to more if he chose to dish it out.

As I said earlier, Ghomeshi should be punished – he should never again have the freedom to harm anyone. The plaintiffs (all of his victims, in fact) should have our sympathy, and any comfort or help we can offer. But how can they convince the justice system, and the general public, that what happened to them is serious if they did not appear to take it seriously themselves?

In the early days after Ghomeshi’s nasty side came to light, there was social media outrage. People confronted heavy issues like the meaning of consent, victim-blaming and how to change the justice system so that women who have been sexually assaulted feel confident coming forward and pushing for recognition and retribution. Alot of good things came out of these conversations. We were reminded that “no” means no, not maybe or later or I’m-just-playing-hard-to-get. We got angry because questions of what a woman was wearing, who she flirted with, how much she had to drink, how many men she’s slept with in the past are irrelevant when it comes to the crime of sexual assault. It doesn’t matter if I left my unzipped wallet in the middle of my driveway with a neon sign pointing to it, you have no right to steal it. We have burned that into our consciousness. We’ve asked hard questions about how a sexual assault – particularly an old one – can be proven, and how much women should have to go through to provide that proof. And there was a long line of people (mainly women) digitally tearing Ghomeshi limb-from-limb. In the wake of this trial, in which the plaintiffs arrived unorganized and filled with excuses and poorly concealed questionable actions, the lady lynch mob has nearly fallen silent. Maybe it’s lack of interest, now that the media hoopla has all been going on for a year. Maybe they’ve moved on to bigger issues, because there are many – particularly for the female half of the population.

I suspect, though, that the quiet has more to do with disappointment. This scandal and trial were supposed to change things – this was supposed to be a turning point, featuring strong, solid, angry plaintiffs who would demand justice and not back down. Instead, we have the courtroom equivalent of children arriving breathlessly in front of their parents to tattle, backtracking, changing their stories, flinging accusations and excuses around to the point where no one can untangle the knots and find the truth. Jian Ghomeshi may very well be acquitted because of this behaviour. This is shameful, because he doesn’t pass anyone’s smell test. Due to their own lack of diligence and credibility, though, neither do his victims.

You can’t buy what I want for Christmas.

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Every November, as soon as Remembrance Day has ended, I start getting ready for Christmas. People tease me about Christmassing too early, but it works out well in the end. By mid-December, with decorations up, cards posted, gifts purchased and baking baked, I can sit on my duff with a cup of peppermint tea and an unbearably smug smirk because I am ready for Christmas and all the people who made fun of me back in November are not. In fact, in recent years, I’ve extended my gloating to a trip to the mall to eat lunch in the food court and watch people lose their marbles in a last-minute dash for presents. I did that just last Saturday, along with my family.

Located next to the food court is Justice (this is probably not random). Everything in Justice is covered in glitter and smells like cotton candy, which means that Fiona and Bridget love the place. The three female members of our crew wandered into the store to check it out, while Ryan wisely stayed at least twenty-five feet away and immersed himself in his phone. There was a Christmas tree at the entrance to the store, and stacks of post-its in six different colours. Customers were encouraged to write their first name and a Christmas wish on the post-it, and stick it on the tree. Most of the post-its were predictable: iPods, puppies, ponies, cool clothes and accessories (presumably from Justice). There were also wishes that couldn’t be granted using money. A happy Christmas. No more cruelty to animals. World peace. One clever little wag had written a wish for “JUSTICE for girls everywhere”. Out of the forest of pastel slips of paper, one caught my eye and squeezed my heart: a girl named Makayla wishing for a friend. A friend. Not a whole lot of them, just one.

Facebook is a fount of …. well, everything everybody is thinking at any given time, whether it’s fit for sharing or not. Some posts are solid, some posts are more like solid waste. One that I’ve seen a couple of times recently, though, resonates with me:

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What do I want for Christmas? I have been grateful for (nearly) every present I’ve ever received. I do remember a pair of mustard-coloured cords and a matching sweater that I might have worn once before “losing” them …. Even when the item hasn’t particularly tickled my fancy, I’ve appreciated the thought. I’ve no doubt what I unwrap this year will also be lovely. But, really, what I want for Christmas isn’t available in stores. (And, no, Canadian Tire, it’s not available online, either. If I hear one more stupid list of all the many varieties of the many things you can order from Canadian Tire I might just hit them up for one of seventeen different lighters and set the radio on fire.)

I want peace – in my mind, in my home, and on earth. I want hope. I want desperate people to look up and believe – and I want something for them to believe in. I want time. Time to sit and ponder. Time to organize my clutter, both literal and figurative. Time to have a conversation without glancing at the clock every few minutes. Breathe in, breathe out – soak in. I want health, both in body and mind. I want gratitude to replace comparisons and anxiety. I want kindness for others, and for myself. I want forgiveness. I want to let things go. Just let them go, and not look back. I want to be a refuge for the people I love. I want no judgement. Only love today, and every day. I want more hugs.

And I want a friend for Makayla. May this be the year ….

The thing is, most of these things start with me. I can’t control what everyone else does (even though sometimes I wish I could because I know what is best for everyone) – but I can fix myself and my reactions and my priorities. Do I want them badly enough to break them down, make a to-do list, and work towards them? As life races forward, spins me around, and slips away from my outstretched hands, I feel less and less tolerant of anything less. Merry Christmas, everyone.

 

Can we give a child soldier a second chance?

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In 2002, Omar Ahmed Khadr was just fifteen years old when he tragically changed the course of several lives. In the midst of a firefight in Ayub Kheyl, Afghanistan, he threw a grenade that killed an American soldier, medic Christopher Speer. In the same skirmish, Omar was severely wounded. He was captured by the Americans, charged with various war crimes, and held at Guantanamo Bay for over a decade. After nearly a decade of imprisonment and torture, he pleaded – and was found – guilty. We know all about him – because he’s not just any underage war criminal. He’s our underage war criminal. He was born in Canada, to Canadian citizens of Egyptian and Palestinian origin. He spent his childhood bouncing back and forth between Canada and the Middle East, attempting to settle in Afghanistan just in time to be swept up in its conflict with the United States. Young Omar joined the war effort against America, and has paid a heavy price for it. He was repatriated to Canada in 2012, and this week he was set free on bail. His freedom comes with a number of conditions, from a nightly curfew and an electronic tracker to restricted internet usage and supervision of all contact with his family.

For many Canadians, the name Omar Khadr is synonymous with evil. To them, he’s a lost cause – a terrorist who murdered one of the good guys, a threat to our peace and stability, deserving of a lifetime wasting away in a chamber of horrors like Guantanamo Bay. For many other Canadians – myself included – he’s one of us, and deserving of better than what he’s been given.

For one thing, he was a young offender. He was a teenager. Think about your teen years for a moment …. All of us did stupid things when we were fifteen. Some of us did illegal things, and some of us did awful things. A teenager’s brain is not like an adult’s brain, which is why they are treated differently by the justice system. Under Canadian law, to which he is entitled as a Canadian citizen, he should have been tried as a child. Many young Canadians commit terrible crimes. The ones who are under eighteen, like Omar at the time of his capture, are given special consideration by the law. Juries and judges consider their upbringing and circumstances, and usually hand them lighter sentences than they would receive if they were older. Their names cannot be released, because we want them to straighten up and fly right, without the burden of notoriety. They are given a chance to learn from their mistakes and change for the better. For another thing, Omar was heavily influenced by his family, and thought he was fighting for them. Like many young people, he had a limited world view shaped by limited experience – and his elders took advantage of that to use him as fodder for their war machine.

Even adults in Canada who commit heinous crimes are often given a chance to reform. There are armed robbers, rapists and murderers here in Canada who have spent less time in jail than Omar, and their crimes were committed independently – as adults in a free and peaceful country. Are they entitled to more leniency and goodwill than Omar?

Did he do something horrible? Yes. He took a life. It may not have been the first one, either. He took Christopher Speer from his wife and two children, and everyone else who loved him. He spent years being punished for it. He was fifteen when he lost his freedom; he’s just now getting some of it back at twenty-eight. He has apologised repeatedly for what he did, and is asking other young people to stay away from the influence of terrorism and seek education. He has denounced jihad, and intends to live a peaceful life. He is thankful to Canada for setting him free, and has promised to prove that he is a good person. This will be much easier for him to do if Canadians give him a second shot – if we extend a hand in welcome and good faith, rather than turning our back on him and writing him off.