dennis edney is not a man of organized faith and his knowledge of
King’s was initially very limited. His eldest son was a student there, but
Mr. Edney knew the university better for a civil rights case that put it on
the wrong side of history.
In 1991, Delwin Vriend, a chemistry instructor and alumnus, was fired
“That’s the moment things changed. It was the
by the school after he came out as gay. Mr. Vriend appealed to the Alberta
Human Rights Commission but his appeal was rejected because the pro-
vincial law did not include sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of
discrimination. The landmark suit eventually made its way to the Su-
preme Court of Canada and forced a rewrite of the human rights code,
leaving a stain on King’s reputation. “The situation with Delwin Vriend
really broke our community,” says Dr. Humphreys. “Maybe you can’t draw
straight lines to Omar Khadr, but it gave us an openness, awareness and
sensitivity to ways people aren’t receiving full justice. We learned some
important things as a community about how to embrace differences.”
Despite that, there was some opposition to the students and faculty
members defending Mr. Khadr. Many within the institution’s conservative
Christian community had military ties and were disgusted by Mr. Khadr’s
alleged crimes. “There were friends of mine who thought he should rot in
prison,” recalls Mr. Brouwer. Ms. Ales recalls an argument with her father:
“He said, ‘ You’re Christian, he’s Muslim. So why do you care so much?’”
Several donors withdrew their funding (though Dr. Humphreys says
the impact was negligible) and Dr. Zinck personally received threaten-
ing letters that were scary enough to involve police. Conservative media
personality Ezra Levant accused her of turning King’s into “a factory for
The controversy peaked in August 2010 with Mr. Khadr’s long-await-
ed military trial at Guantanamo. Mr. Edney asked Dr. Zinck, herself the
child of a parent in the military, to testify as to her student’s good charac-
ter. By all standards, the trial was a farce, says Dr. Zinck (though she has
kept a memento from that time: hanging in her office at King’s is a framed,
original drawing from Mr. Khadr’s trial signed by Janet Hamlin, Gitmo’s
official court artist). Mr. Khadr pled guilty on all counts in exchange for a
reduced sentence from 40 to eight years and the possibility of an eventual
transfer to Canada. Also as part of his agreement, Mr. Khadr was allowed
moment that Omar Khadr ceases to be the
object of my students’ care and concern and
becomes my student. Our student.”
an in-person education taught by Dr. Zinck. “That’s the moment things
changed,” she recalls. “Because it was the moment that Omar Khadr ceases
to be the object of my students’ care and concern and becomes my student.
after the 2010 trial, Dr. Zinck recruited professors from across Edmonton’s three universities to design and implement an interdisciplinary
curriculum for Mr. Khadr built around Canadian literature. For example,
Mr. Khadr read Thomas Wharton’s Icefields then undertook a physics lesson on calculating height from a mountainside. The lessons went on for
four years – through the duration of Mr. Khadr’s time at Gitmo, where Dr.
Zinck saw him twice more, and after his 2012 repatriation and transfer to
But Dr. Zinck was more than an educator and confidante. Like Mr.
Edney, she became an advocate, speaking of Mr. Khadr’s appetite for
learning, his humbleness, his peacefulness and warmth. More contentiously, she began to speak of his innocence once he retracted his guilty
plea following extradition.
In 2011, Dr. Zinck’s lecture to a University of Alberta Islamic studies
class would reignite Mr. Khadr’s cause, which had lost much of its energy
after the original cohort of King’s student-activists graduated and moved
on. It was there that Dr. Zinck met Muna Abougoush, a 21-year-old philosophy student who admitted to being somewhat embarrassed that she
hadn’t heard of Omar Khadr before.
Ms. Abougoush was active in student groups, raising awareness of the
humanitarian crisis in Darfur, but the magnitude of that crisis left her
feeling that her efforts were futile. Mr. Khadr’s case was different and felt
more personal. He was just one human being, close in age and, like her,
from an Arab-Canadian and Islamic household. The parallels disturbed her.
“The way [Dr. Zinck] was involving her community, I wanted to involve
mine,” says Ms. Abougoush. While forging relationships with the Islamic
community and fellow U of A students, she co-founded the group Free Omar
Khadr Now with the help of Dr. Zinck’s husband Rob Betty and Aaf Post,
a Netherlands designer who spearheaded a robust social media campaign.