OTTAWA — The Liberal government faced fresh accusations of misleading the public on Tuesday after the country's top soldier said Canadian troops have been allowed to fire first in Iraq.
Government and military officials have previously said Canadian troops can and have fired in self-defence, including to defend their Kurdish partners and civilians.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan speaks in the House of Commons on Nov. 15, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
Chief of defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday that such defensive fire includes instances where his troops have taken the first shot against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
"We are allowed to deal with a threat that is emerging that would overwhelm those we are working with, or ourselves, if we didn't deal with it," Vance said after the committee meeting.
He cited as an example a situation where Kurdish forces might not have the weaponry to destroy an ISIL suicide bomber driving a heavily armoured vehicle. Canadian troops have been pictured with anti-tank missiles in Iraq.
'We can take the first shot'
"That is the definition of defensive fire," Vance said. "We don't have to be shot at first. We can take the first shot if it is to save lives."
The general told committee members there has been "all sorts of speculation" and "wordsmithing" around the mission in Iraq, but that the military continues to operate within the limits laid down by the government.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan echoed that assessment in the House of Commons, adding Canadian soldiers have a duty to protect civilians when required.
"In many cases they need to protect not only themselves, their coalition partners and civilians."
"In many cases they need to protect not only themselves, their coalition partners and civilians," Sajjan said in response to opposition questions.
"This is an imperative they have a duty to do so. And I'm very proud of the work they're doing in fulfilling their mission in an honourable manner."
But Vance's comments renewed opposition party allegations that the Liberal government has been playing political games with the Iraq mission, as well as calls for greater transparency.
Tories, NDP blast government
"The Liberal government not only attempted to silence our military, they continue to mislead Canadians by insisting that we are in a non-combat role," Conservative defence critic James Bezan said in the House of Commons.
NDP defence critic Randall Garrison said in an interview that whether Canadian troops are involved in combat or not, "it's not what the Liberals promised."
"What's clear here is that what Canadian troops are doing is clearly not what the Liberals led Canadians to believe they were doing," he said. "We should just call it what it is."
The question of whether Canadian soldiers on the ground in Iraq are combat has dogged the mission since the first special forces troops arrived to work with Kurdish forces in October 2014.
Story continues after slideshow:
Her'es a look at some of what's been said — recently and otherwise — about Canada's evolving role in the U.S.-led mission against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which was officially retooled by the new Liberal government. (Information from The Canadian Press)
"Our efforts should better reflect what Canada is all about; defending our interests and freedoms alongside our allies and working constructively with local partners to build real solutions for the longer term." — Trudeau, announcing a larger training and development mission and the withdrawal of CF-18 fighter-bombers.
"ISIL would like us to see them as a credible threat to our way of life and to our civilization. We know Canada is stronger — much stronger than the threat posed by a murderous gang of thugs who are terrorizing some of the most vulnerable people on earth." — Trudeau.
"Left unchecked, this terrorist threat can only grow, and grow quickly. As a government, we know our ultimate responsibility is to protect Canadians and to defend our citizens from those who would do harm to us or our families." — Former prime minister Stephen Harper on Oct. 3, 2014, as he announced in the House of Commons a plan to send Canadian aircraft to fight in Iraq.
"Canadians did not invent the threat of jihadi terrorism and we certainly did not invite it; nor, as this global threat becomes ever more serious, can we protect ourselves, our communities, by choosing to ignore it. That is why a strong majority of Canadians have supported our government's mission against ISIL. Canadians understand that it is not merely in the wider interests of the international community, but specifically in Canada's national interest." — Harper on March 24, 2015, telling the Commons of a plan to extend and expand the mission.
"It is important to understand that while airstrike operations can be very useful to achieve short-term military and territorial gains, they do not, on their own, achieve long-term stability for local communities. Canadians learned this lesson first-hand during a very difficult decade in Afghanistan where our forces became expert military trainers renowned around the world." — Trudeau on Monday.
"Along with our allies and through the auspices of the United Nations, Canada should provide more help through a well-funded and well-planned humanitarian aid effort. The refugee crisis alone threatens the region's security, overwhelming countries from Lebanon to Turkey, from Syria itself to Jordan. Here at home, we should significantly expand our refugee targets and give more victims of war the opportunity to start a new life in Canada." — Trudeau as Liberal opposition leader in the Commons, March 2015.
"Our allies want us in the fight against ISIS, that is clear. This is a despicable terrorist group. And Canadians want us in the fight against ISIS because it is our fight and that is clear. When our friends and our allies are attacked, it is our fight and when our values are threatened and our country is threatened and our friends are threatened, it is our fight. And when human rights are trampled and human dignity is trampled, then it is our fight." — Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose.
"The prime minister likes to say he cares about diversity, but there is nothing that threatens diversity more than ISIS — whether it is the rights of women, cultural and religious freedoms, or the rights of gays and lesbians." — Ambrose.
"The Canadian announcement is the kind of response the secretary has been looking for from coalition members as the United States and our coalition partners push to accelerate the campaign against ISIL ... the United States is willing to lead the coalition in the fight against ISIL, but the barbaric group poses a threat to every nation, so every nation should join this fight. If countries are unwilling or unable to contribute militarily, then they should consider the important non-military ways they can contribute to this effort." — Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook during Monday's Department of Defense briefing.
"We are concerned that the Liberal government has chosen to place Canadian Forces personnel deeper into an open-ended combat military mission in Iraq — a mission that fails to even define what success would look like. And while we welcome the government's announcement today of increased humanitarian assistance to the region, we are concerned that this aid is being linked to the military mission." — NDP MP Helene Laverdiere.
"I commend Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for committing to increase humanitarian and military aid for the nearly 4.6-million Syrian refugees who have been displaced by five years of brutal war in the region." — Green party Leader Elizabeth May.
"As a founding member of the coalition, Canada has been a valued and willing partner in the mission to degrade and destroy (ISIL) and has played an important role across all lines of effort." — Bruce Heyman, the U.S. ambassador to Canada.
"We're pleased Canada is continuing to invest and play a leadership role in educating and protecting children affected by crises in Syria and Iraq." — David Morley, president and CEO of UNICEF Canada.
The Liberals promised during the last election campaign to end Canada's combat mission in Iraq.
But while they withdrew six CF-18 fighter jets previously deployed by the Conservatives, they expanded the number of troops on the ground to more than 200 from 69.
At the same time, there has been a clampdown on information about the mission with fewer briefings or details such as how often Canadian troops have called in airstrikes against ISIL or engaged in firefights.
Senior officers have said the special operators are spending more time on the frontlines and supporting the offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.
General weighs in on NATO
During the committee meeting, Vance also said that measuring a country's military contributions to NATO solely in terms of defence spending is a "shallow" approach.
The defence chief said there is sometimes a tendency to look only at spending, but Canada is pulling its weight with NATO in many other ways such as its promise to lead a NATO force in Latvia.
Canada is expected to face pressure from the U.S. to increase its defence budget in the wake of Donald Trump's election.
Trump was critical of NATO during the presidential campaign, stressing that many members do not spend enough on their own defence.
All NATO members agreed in 2014 to spend two per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defence, but only five meet that target.
Canada is in the bottom third of allies at less than one per cent, its lowest level in decades.