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In the court of public opinion, Canadians say Trudeau got it wrong on Omar Khadr settlement

Most Canadians think the government's settlement with Omar Khadr was wrong. And if anything is fuelling that anger, it's the belief that Justin Trudeau's Liberal government had other options, but chose to pay.

Public opposition to the settlement is broad, strong in every region, age group and both sexes, according to a new survey conducted by the Angus Reid Institute – echoing the expressions of anger since reports of a settlement first broke last week.

In all, 71 per cent said the Trudeau government did the wrong thing and that "it should have fought the case and left it to the courts to decide whether Mr. Khadr was wrongfully imprisoned."

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Read more: Canada failed Omar Khadr. We owed him compensation and an apology

There's no doubt that adds up to political danger for Mr. Trudeau. While the anger certainly seems stronger from Conservative supporters, even Liberal voters aren't happy: 61 per cent of them thought Mr. Trudeau's government made the wrong choice, too.

It's not that Canadians are rock-solid certain about how they feel about Mr. Khadr's case. When asked if they think he was treated fairly, the biggest group of survey respondents, 42 per cent, say they're unsure. Mr. Khadr pleaded guilty – he says under duress from U.S. authorities – in 2010 to killing U.S. Army Sergeant Chris Speer with a grenade in Afghanistan when he was 15. But while 74 per cent said they believe he was a child soldier, that clearly doesn't make them all see him as a victim.

The money is key: There's a recoil at the $10.5-million settlement. A big chunk of those opposed to the settlement, 25 per cent of those surveyed, said they'd have offered Mr. Khadr an apology but no money. The payout may even have affected the way people view Mr. Khadr: Two years ago, when he was released from prison, 55 per cent said they thought he was a "potential radicalized threat now living in Canada." Now, more people, 64 per cent, see him that way. "This settlement is affecting how Canadians view Omar Khadr," said  Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute.

The blowback may be affecting the way Canadian see Mr. Trudeau, too. A lot of that seems to be linked to the idea that he had a choice.

Canadians don't see this as a losing case that Mr. Trudeau had to settle to avoid paying more later, a lawsuit dumped on him by his predecessors that the government could not win. It seems they instead believe it was a matter of choice for the Prime Minister, so the question is: "Why is he giving millions to a bad guy?"

The Angus Reid survey makes that link clear: Those who believe the government had a choice are far more likely to believe it did the wrong thing. And 65 per cent didn't buy the notion the government had no choice. (The survey was conducted only between July 7 and 10, among a randomized sample of 1,521 Canadian adults who are members of the Angus Reid forum, an online panel.)

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Of course, there are different kinds of choice. Clearly Mr. Trudeau's government could have fought Mr. Khadr in court until it was forced to pay. Mr. Trudeau's Conservative critics, such as Party Leader Andrew Scheer and former prime minister Stephen Harper, say that's what he should have done.

It's hard to imagine that government lawyers held out much hope of winning, since the Supreme Court issued a decision in a judicial review case in 2010 that made strong statements on many of the elements of a damage claim. The court ruled Canadian officials breached his rights and their duty to protect a Canadian youth, that they were partly responsible for his lot in Guantanamo Bay and the damage was ongoing till the government did something to get him out. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said last week Ottawa spent $5-million on legal fees and had virtually no hope of beating his lawsuit, so the only sensible thing to do was settle.

But either Canadians don't think that's true or they wanted the government to fight in court all the way, anyway. It's hard to imagine Mr. Trudeau or any politician actually wanted to pay Mr. Khadr millions and face the music. But Mr. Trudeau's defence – that the Charter protects all even when it's uncomfortable – sounds like he's arguing the multimillion-dollar settlement was just, rather than just necessary. The immediate verdict in the court of public opinion is that he had a choice, and chose wrong.

Video: Trudeau says Khadr settlement about Charter rights (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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