Dennis Edney on Omar Khadr and doing good with a law degree

Zachary Al-Katib (2L)

On September 17, the U of T Law Union and Muslim Law Student’s Association hosted Dennis Edney, the voice of Omar Khadr for the last twelve years. More than 150 people attended the lunch-hour talk, “Fighting for Freedom,” in which he recounted his involvement in Omar’s case, as well as broader issues of security, liberty, and rights in post-9/11 Canada.

After the talk, I sat down with Dennis to chat about some of the topics he covered. This interview is a composite of that chat and previous and subsequent conversations we’ve had.

You and your co-counsel, Nate Whitling, were named as two of the 25 most influential lawyers in Canada this year by Canadian Lawyer because of your work on Omar’s case. Why is this a case that has national importance?

Omar Khadr’s case is a measure of the rule of law in this country. Guantanamo Bay is a terrifying place—a place outside the rule of law. People are treated like animals. They are denied basic human rights. Omar was literally a child when he was found under a pile of rubble in Afghanistan. He had no choice in being there. He was a child sent there by his father, with a group of men who turned out to be fighters. Omar had been abandoned by every adult figure in his life.

Instead of helping him, we allowed him to be tortured in Bagram [Air Force Base, in Afghanistan], then shipped off to Guantanamo, where he suffered further torture and unspeakable living conditions. Our government knew about all of this, and was content to leave him there. They didn’t demand that his rights as a Canadian citizen be upheld.

This was a case about holding the government to account, making sure it was not allowed to just abandon citizens to places outside the rule of law.

How did you first get involved?

I was asked by an American civil liberties organization to take on the case of a Canadian citizen—not Omar Khadr—who was being held at Guantanamo. Most people don’t know that Omar wasn’t the only Canadian there. When I got there, I heard there was a young child, who was Canadian, being held there, and I asked to see him.

I can never forget that first meeting. Here was this young boy shackled by his hands and legs to the floor, unable to move. He didn’t talk to me the entire time, until the very end of the meeting when I took out a picture of my own son and showed it to him. That was how we initially connected.

You know, when I went to Guantanamo, I thought it would be something great to put on my resume. But what I saw there the first time changed me. It was a turning point in my life. I cried the whole way back.

What made you take Omar’s case?

What it really boils down to is that I couldn’t live with myself if I did nothing. I couldn’t turn away from what I saw in Guantanamo. It was the exact opposite of everything I lived for and believed in. A place where the rule of law did not apply, where people had no rights, where there was no presumption of innocence, or obligation of humaneness. It is a nightmare, literally.

To think the USA, which holds itself out as the upholder of liberty and democratic values, could operate such a place in this day and age is beyond belief. To see our government leave a Canadian citizen, a boy, to rot there was completely unacceptable to me.

How has this affected your life?

It’s made me a better human being and a better lawyer. It also meant that I completely destroyed myself financially. My practice fell apart, and it was extremely difficult emotionally. I’ve gone into a lot of debt, and I had to re-finance my house. But I have no regrets.

Why not?

Because I feel like this was my test. Everyone has something in their life that they get tested with. Sometimes it’s a family issue. Sometimes it’s something in your career. There’s a right decision, which isn’t always the most lucrative in terms of personal gain, and there’s the wrong decision. I made the right decision. It’s paid off because I can go to sleep at night knowing I’ve done something meaningful, and I haven’t abandoned my principles.

What advice do you have for law students?

Stand up for justice. Care. Be engaged. Vote! You don’t have to be a criminal or constitutional lawyer to do those things. You can be a civil lawyer. You can do corporate work. You might not even work in the law. Whatever you do, though, be an ethical person and use what you have to help make this society better.

How do you do that, practically?

Institutions. Society is as strong as its institutions. You can’t do good work on your own. We are in dire need of more institutions that work to make people’s lives better. Get on the board of an institution, or start something, and fill a need in society. Just looking at civil liberties work, there are numerous organizations in the US that are well-funded. It took a long time to get there, but they do good work. We need to be building such institutions here.

I look at what’s happened since 9/11 and it terrifies me. There has been an erosion of civil liberties in Western democracies, and the institutions resisting that tide need to be bolstered. People forget what Germany looked like before 1939—it was a progressive, democratic place. It didn’t take much for Hitler to create a satanic war-machine. He eroded the rule of law and institutions.

As a law student, you can do a lot. It starts with pro bono clinics, involvement in the law school community, government. Those things. Then you stay involved. You get involved with the board of a society geared towards achieving societal benefit, in a way that aligns with your interests. If one doesn’t exist, get some people together and start something. I was on the board of the Scottish club in Edmonton, and we did great work.

You have to leverage institutional manpower and capital to do societally beneficial things.

This interview has been condensed and edited.