OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated his sympathies for the families of the alleged victims of Omar Khadr Friday, but unlike his prime ministerial predecessor, said he has not reached out to them directly.
It's an omission Opposition Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said he intends to rectify, arguing it is important the families know that not all Canadians agree with a decision by the Liberal government to settle Khadr's multi-million-dollar lawsuit.
That message was communicated once already this week; former prime minister Stephen Harper is reported to have called and apologized to the families of both U.S. Sgt. Chris Speer, who died, and fellow Delta Force soldier Layne Morris, who was blinded in one eye, during the 2002 incident that led to Khadr's imprisonment in Guantanmo Bay and the subsequent interrogation and torture.
His treatment at the hands of Canadian officials there, and a later Supreme Court ruling that they'd violated his rights, is what led to Khadr's lawsuit against the Canadian government that the Liberals settled this month in the form of an apology and a reported $10.5 million pay out.
Trudeau repeated Friday that if the government had not settled, the cost would have just been higher.
"No one can imagine the anguish that those families have gone through and are going through, this an extremely difficult situation as we all understand and I understand how Canadians are troubled by this, including by the settlement, as am I, that's why we settled," Trudeau said during a news conference in Providence, R.I.
But Scheer said he finds it difficult to believe Trudeau cares about the money, calling it just a "rounding error" for the government, and accused of him of shifting around the Liberals' defence of the payment in a bid to ease the public outcry.
"Nobody believes that Justin Trudeau is trying to save taxpayers' money," Scheer said.
"I do think that outrage that's being expressed by Canadians is certainly more than what the Liberals were expecting. And I think it certainly shows that they are out of touch with Canadians on this one."
At one point, the Liberals had sought to blame the previous Conservative government for the fact they were left dealing with the lawsuit, an accusation which drew a rare public rebuke from Harper, who has refrained from speaking out against the Liberals since the election.
Harper appeared to take his own defence a step further when, according to the Toronto Sun, he phoned both the families this week and apologized, a move Trudeau wouldn't comment on.
Scheer said he wants to offer his own regrets.
"I think that on behalf of the vast majority of Canadians who don't appreciate the fact the Liberal government has done this, I want to communicate to Tabitha Speer that not everyone in Canada agrees with this and that our sympathies and our feelings of concern and compassion are with her and her two children," he said.
The Liberals and Conservatives have been duelling for days over who wears the political responsibility for the payout and the standoff has put wind in the Tories' political sails. They launched a website this week attempting to poke holes in the Liberals' defence of the payment, they've sent letters directly to party supporters condemning it and some MPs have held roundtables in their ridings on that subject alone.
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre is sponsoring an electronic petition on the House of Commons website calling on the government to condemn "Prime Minister Trudeau's $10.5 million payment to Omar Khadr." As of late Friday, it had just over 2,000 signatures, meaning it is likely to require an official government response.
Among those encouraging people to sign the petition is Harper's son Ben, who has also been encouraging donations to a crowdfunding site set up to support the Speer family.
Scheer said he's not personally donated to the campaign, but echoes calls from others that Khadr should donate the settlement to it.
The Conservatives' efforts have met with some resistance; letters to the editor and comments on social media have suggested the Tories' approach isn't onside with the Charter and raises questions about how a Conservative government would have acted.
Trudeau said he hopes the settlement sets a precedent for other governments to follow.
"When governments do not protect their citizens' rights, everyone ends up paying," he said.
Scheer said he accepts that Khadr's rights were violated, but argues he received his compensation in the form of his repatriation to Canada in 2012.