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Committing Canadian Troops To UN Mission Deserves Real Debate

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Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan, pictured here delivering a speech at the 15th International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-la Dialogue on June 5, 2016, wants to commit Canadian troops to an undefined peacekeeping mission. (Photo: Wong Maye-E)

Yesterday at a UN peacekeeping conference held in London, Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan announced that Canada will commit to a yet undefined peacekeeping mission, probably in central Africa, and in doing so Canada will be a "responsible partner in the world."

Being such a responsible partner means that 600 troops and somewhere in the neighbourhood of 100 to 150 police officers will be placed in harm's way by the government. $450 million of taxpayer's money will be spent, and it will probably not be until the end of the year that we know the details -- why, where, the mission's duration, what will they do, what victory looks like and the terms of engagement.

What we know for sure from minister Sajjan's announcement and follow-up questions is that this matter will not be brought before Parliament for a vote before the commitment to the UN is finally agreed upon and put into operation. The reason why Parliament is being ignored is because the Liberals claim they received a mandate to do this in the last election.

Steven Chase of the Globe and Mail writes that Sajjan said "the Liberals campaigned in 2015 on a revived commitment to United Nations peacekeeping and Canadians expect this government to proceed as they promised." Sajjan is quoted as saying "we will be deciding in cabinet and moving forward as quickly as possible."

Government by cabinet decree is back, now in the form of a government which campaigned on the restoration of parliamentary democracy, based on openness, transparency and accountability. To be clear, there is no legal requirement to consult parliament or secure a vote in favour of the mission from the House and the Senate, but over the last decade this was something the Harper government actually did, even when it was a minority government.

One would have thought that the government would have learned that more democracy is better than less.

Surely there is no more important decision for a prime minister to make than the decision to put Canadian lives in harm's way. Surely one would have thought that this government in making that decision would want to be as open as possible with Canadians and bring this decision to the people's house, the House of Commons.

In the spring, during the debates on Bill C-14, the medically assisted death bill, and in the establishment of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform and the debate over its composition and the right of Greens and the Bloc to a vote in committee, one would have thought that the government would have learned that more democracy is better than less. It was forced to back down on Procedural Motion 6 which effectively moved all parliamentary authority to the government side, neutering the opposition and it gave in, providing the Green Party and the Bloc with full membership on the Electoral Reform Committee.

Parliament is not an irrelevant institution to be ignored by the government and the opposition, and its demands for debate and the right to advance alternatives is not simply an inconvenience to be swept out of the way by cabinet decision.

Yes, the Conservative gang before Trudeau was less than perfect in their respect for Parliament, but on matters of national security, such as the commitment of troops overseas, there was consultation in most instances. And in any event, this is now about the Trudeau government, the past is the past.

justin trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at the United Nations headquarters in New York in April. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Also it is not as if this peacekeeping mission is without controversy. From the time rumours about it surfaced, there have been questions raised about the government's motives. If this is just about currying favour in UN circles to secure a seat on the Security Council, retired general Lewis MacKenzie has stated publicly that Canada's efforts should be placed elsewhere.

He said, "Canada should focus on increasing support to UN agencies that have been saving and improving lives around the world." When it became clear that the peacekeeping is what the government was going to do, MacKenzie -- who is not without experience in this field -- stated that Canada must play "hardball" with the UN in order to keep Canadians safe. He went on to say that Canadians will be going somewhere dangerous and need to bring the right weapons and the rules of engagement should be developed by Canada.

Sajjan himself has been clear that this mission has no resemblance to the original Pearsonian peacekeeping missions. He said Thursday "this is not peacekeeping of the past. There is no peace to keep in some cases, and where there is peace, it is extremely fragile." He also pointed out that in this "whole of government" approach Canada will be dealing with economic development, which -- in the case of the recruitment of child soldiers -- means preventing their recruitment and presenting them with economic opportunity away from the battlefield.

The question arises as to what else the Liberals campaigned on that they deem can be implanted without seeking the authority of Parliament.

While Sajjan and others went recently to Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and the Congo, betting is that Canada's troops will be deployed to Mali, South Sudan and/or the Democratic Republic of Congo. There will also be a small group sent to Niger in the fall to engage in training local troops.

So it is for all of these reasons that this mission is unique and definitely deserves to be debated in Parliament. It is very slippery slope to say as Sajjan did Thursday that because the Liberals campaigned on re-engaging in peacekeeping that the actual fulfillment of that promise, as vague as it was, does not need to be brought before Parliament. The question arises as to what else the Liberals campaigned on that they deem can be implanted without seeking the authority of Parliament.

Hopefully the Liberals, as they did with the medically assisted death bill and with the committee on electoral reform, will listen to their critics and change direction to bring this mission and NATO's in Latvia to Parliament for a full debate and a vote. It is the right thing to do. And they may want the cover of parliamentary approval when, as may very well happen, in this dangerous part of the world, our soldiers start to return in body bags.

In any event, this peacekeeping mission and the lack of parliamentary authority probably just made its way close to the top of matters to be dealt with in question period on September 19.

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