Canada is operating in a foreign theatre of war. Most Canadians expect the Government to be open and transparent about what our forces are doing in Iraq and Parliamentarians need to know exactly what is going on since they will be called upon to debate and vote on a possible extension.
Before Christmas, I wrote to Ministers to request the creation of a joint Defence-Foreign Affairs committee that would meet openly and regularly to ensure all Parliamentarians, the public and the media were kept informed on what was going on. The request was declined as have our repeated requests to know the costs associated with the mission.
Last week we learned that our Special Forces had been on the front lines to provide targeting for airstrikes and had been doing this for some time. It was clear most Canadians were surprised to hear this news. Our top soldier General Lawson had specifically ruled out that role last year when the mission was announced.
Then we learn that our Special Forces returned fire on two other occasions last week.
All Canadians are proud of our Special Forces and obviously we want them to defend themselves if they come under fire, but we also want to know what they're doing unless divulging their role presents special risks, which is not the case here since the Government made their role public.
What's at stake here is the truth.
On the 9th of September I asked Defence Minister Nicholson three questions in a public sitting of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development. This committee met after the Government announced that Canada would send Special Forces to Iraq to advise and assist Peshmerga soldiers for a period of up to 30 days. The Liberal Party supported this decision.
Question one:You have stated that Canadian soldiers will provide tactical advice to the Kurdish Peshmerga. My first question is can you confirm that no Canadian soldiers will be in the trenches on the front lines, or taking part on the ground in any offensive or defensive operations?
Hon. Rob Nicholson: "Again, I've indicated they are not taking a combat role. Their role will be strictly advice and technical assistance. Again, I think I've been very clear on that, Mr. Garneau. Again, we're not putting boots on the ground. We're not engaging in combat activity. Again, our role is very specific and very clear."
Question two:If any changes are planned to the Canadian military role being discussed today, will the government undertake to bring them to Parliament?
Hon. Rob Nicholson: "Again, the government has reached out, as you know, to members of the opposition to keep them informed about this engagement and indeed about all our activities in that area. I believe we will continue to keep other people, including the opposition, informed as to what we're doing."
Question three:I think most Canadians who are following the committee hearings this morning are trying to get that sense of what it is that our Canadian troops are going to do over there. I'm going to have a stab at it. Please tell me if I'm out in left field, but I'm imagining that group of Canadian special ops soldiers, whether it's 35 or 65, providing that advice in some sort of command centre or operations centre behind the lines where they are working with the Kurdish Peshmerga, possibly the Americans, and possibly some other allies in this coalition. Their job is to help to provide advice, whether it is for an offensive operation that is going to be carried out by the Iraqis or the Kurds, or even for a defensive operation if ISIS decides it's going to try to create an onslaught somewhere along the line. Is that roughly what the picture is?
Hon. Rob Nicholson: "I think that is a pretty good description of what our armed forces will be doing in terms of giving advice. I think that's well done."
The Government is now saying that targeting for airstrikes was always part of the mission parameters. Except that until last week, they categorically denied this was part of the mission. Now we're learning about more incidents where our soldiers have returned fire. We're not yet sure of the details.
The Government can decide what role our forces play in Iraq, but it also has a duty to be honest with Canadians about that role. It is high time for the Government to tell us what's going on.
Marc Garneau is the foreign affairs critic for the Liberal Party of Canada and the Member of Parliament for Westmount--Ville-Marie.
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