'Sympathetic' terrorist play gets boost

Actor Lwam Ghebrehariat plays Shareef Abdelhaleem -- a convicted member of the so-called Toronto 18...

Actor Lwam Ghebrehariat plays Shareef Abdelhaleem -- a convicted member of the so-called Toronto 18 -- in Homegrown, which opens Aug. 5 at Theatre Passe Muraille.

DON PEAT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:34 AM ET

TORONTO - Tax dollars from the very governments he's convicted of plotting to blow up are helping ensure the curtain goes up next week on a "sympathetic portrayal" of one of the members of the so-called Toronto 18 terror plotters.

Shareef Abdelhaleem was found guilty earlier this year of two terrorism-related charges in connection with the plot to bomb downtown Toronto.

Following his conviction, Abdelhaleem told court if he ever learned of another terrorist plot, he would sit back and let it happen.

Now he is the leading character portrayed in Homegrown, one of the plays in this year's lineup of Summerworks, a Toronto festival that has received almost $90,000 from all three levels of government within the last year -- including a $30,000 operating grant from the city-funded Toronto Arts Council, $24,500 in operating funding from the provincially funded Ontario Arts Council and $35,000 from federally funded Heritage Canada.

Homegrown itself received $6,000 from the city-supported Toronto Arts Council for a workshop.

The autobiographical play chronicles playwright Catherine Frid's more than a year of visits with Abdelhaleem in jail as he awaited trial.

Frid says the play is about raising questions around the criminal justice system that convicted him and the sweeping legislation police used to bust the Toronto 18 and charge them with terrorism crimes.

But at least one city councillor and member of the Toronto Arts Council is questioning why taxpayers' dollars are putting a sympathetic story of a convicted terrorist on display.

"I don't feel comfortable with that," Councillor Norm Kelly told the Sun Friday. "Art plays a number of roles in society ... but (this play) would be going too far.

"If the court was correct in its assessment of their intent, I don't see much artistic merit in that portrayal."

Kelly said he will bring the matter up at the next board meeting of the arts council.

"There is freedom of expression but there is nothing that says there should be freedom of investment," he said.

Councillor Adam Vaughan disagreed with Kelly.

Vaughan said it isn't up to politicians to decide what art should be shown in theatres or hung on gallery walls.

Homegrown's playwright, Catherine Frid, says the play is a "sympathetic portrayal" of Abdelhaleem, not of a terrorist.

"He wasn't planning to blow up Bay and Front St. with a truck bomb," Frid said. "People don't know the whole story behind Shareef's conviction. I'm not speaking for all the Toronto 18, I'm just focusing on the one person I met and whose case I followed and I'm telling that story."

Frid said she's not condoning violence or advocating terrorism and she's not anti-Canadian.

"I've never even joined a political party but this is something, because I have a background in law, that just really stuck in my craw," she said.

"If you care about Canada, and we all do and you know what we're all proud as hell of our country ... but you have to look a little bit beyond the headline and it is so easy to portray these guys as, you know, the big scary threat," she said.

Genevieve Vallerand, communications co-ordinator for the Ontario Arts Council, said it only funds operating costs.

"All artistic selections and production decisions are theirs," she said, adding the council would not necessarily be aware of those choices.

A spokesman for the Toronto Arts Council said it expects Summerworks to take risks in its productions.

Heritage Canada could not respond to a request for comment by Friday night.

Homegrown opens at the Theatre Passe Muraille on Aug. 5.

don.peat@sunmedia.ca


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