THE CANADIAN PRESS -- OTTAWA - Canada will formally recognize the Libyan rebels as the legitimate government of the country.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told Parliament the rebels are the true representatives of the Libyan people.
The minister's announcement of this significant policy shift came as the Commons opened a day-long debate on extending Canada's military commitment to the NATO-led mission in Libya.
Baird said the recognition is part of an enhanced effort to work with the National Transitional Council of Libya, the key rebel organization fighting dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Canada joins France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in formally recognizing the council.
"Our government will engage with the institutions and representatives of the NTC," Baird said. "I will be seeking a meeting with my counterparts on the NTC.
"We will identify members of the NTC responsible for domestic issues and propose meetings with their Canadian counterparts. We will also happily arrange meetings between NTC members and honourable members of this place."
Paul Dewar, foreign affairs critic for the NDP, urged more humanitarian assistance and called for greater efforts to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes in Libya.
He also said the government must recognize that diplomacy is the key to solving the Libyan problem.
"This will not be a crisis that is solved by us, or by NATO, or by more bombing, but it will be solved by diplomatic pursuit, by humanitarian pursuit and to make sure that the UN is in the lead and is co-ordinating matters," he said.
Baird reaffirmed last month's G8 commitment that "at the political level ... Mr. Gadhafi must go."
In response to questions from the NDP Opposition, Baird said regime change is not part of the formal UN mandate that authorizes the military mission, but it is a key element of the long-term political solution.
"Col. Gadhafi seeks to remain in power by committing crimes against the people. He needs to be stopped and he needs held accountable. He is a clear and present threat both to his people and to the stability of the region, including the emerging and promising democracies of Tunisia and Egypt.
"I would note that Canada's end game is shared by our G8 partners, as expressed at Deauville earlier this month."
Critics say the goal of the three-month old bombardment has shifted into a mission to kill Gadhafi. NATO warplanes have recently stepped up attacks on the capital, Tripoli, where Gadhafi is believed to be hiding.
Gadhafi's forces continued to dig in and continue their push back into rebel-held areas in the eastern part of Libya.
"We must continue our military assault on Gadhafi's command and control centres," Baird said.
Canada is also contributing $2 million in new humanitarian assistance to help embattled civilians in Libya.
Some of the money will support people subjected to sexual violence as a tool of war.
"We have been particularly disgusted by abhorrent reports that Gadhafi and his thugs are using torture and sexual violence as weapons against the Libyan population," Baird said.
"Such actions are international crimes and may be war crimes or crimes against humanity. Canada calls for a full and impartial investigation of these allegations so that the perpetrators can be brought to justice."
In March, Canada sent fighter jets, patrol planes, aerial tankers and a warship to join a United Nations-sanctioned mission to protect civilians from Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
The Harper government wants to extend that initial three-month commitment to the end of September.