New Democrat defence critic Jack Harris has lodged a formal complaint against Prime Minister Stephen Harper for providing "misleading information" to the House of Commons on the scope of Canada's military efforts in Iraq.
Shortly after question period wrapped up, Harris stood up to call Speaker Andrew Scheer's attention to "a question of grave importance" — namely, a series of seemingly contradictory statements by the prime minister.
On Sept. 30, New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair asked Harper whether Canadian soldiers "are currently going on patrols with Iraqis or Kurds," Harris reminded his colleagues.
"Mr. Speaker, I said ‘advise and assist the Iraqis,’" Harper told the House at the time.
"If I could just use the terminology in English, it is quite precise. It is to advise and to assist. It is not to accompany.”
Harris noted the prime minister seemed similarly clear in a subsequent reply to a "simple six-word question" from Mulcair, who asked if Canadian soldiers were going into combat zones, in which Harper pointed out he had "just said Canadian soldiers are not accompanying the Iraqi forces into combat."
There could be "no doubt whatsoever" that during those days of "intense questioning in the House and by the media," Harper was "in possession of the best and most accurate information on Canada’s proposed military deployment," Harris argued.
Perhaps, he suggested, Harper was "even setting the terms of the deployment himself."
Speaker asked to find privilege breach
"Today, we know that the Canadian military has been involved in multiple firefights with [ISIS] forces, and are the only coalition partner reported to have been involved in any at all," Harris continued.
"We know that they have regularly accompanied Iraqi forces to the front lines, not under extraordinary circumstances, but as a matter of routine duty," and "conducting duties that the international military community routinely defines as ‘combat roles,’ including painting targets."
Those are activities that the prime minister "explicitly ruled out when this Chamber was making its decision on whether or not to authorize the mission," Harris said.
"He misled this House and Canadians in a deliberate attempt to downplay Canada’s level of engagement as well as the risk involved to our brave men and women in uniform."
Both Canadians and parliamentarians "had a right to know the truth, too," Harris concluded.
"Canadian troops are accompanying Iraqi forces to the front line, and the Prime Minister said they weren’t."
Given that contradiction, he called on Scheer to find a possible breach of privilege, which would trigger a vote to send the matter to committee for further study.
'Not a question of the House being misled': government
Not surprisingly, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan had a very different view.
"There is not a question of the House being misled," he argued.
Instead, he suggested, there is a "question of a debate" for an opposition that, "thinks that self-defence is combat."
"We, respectfully, disagree," Van Loan continued.
"We think self-defence is not combat. We think it is common sense. We think it is what anybody would expect their troops in the field to be able to undertake."
The mission, Van Loan said, is to advise and assist.
"There is nothing in that mission to prevent our soldiers from defending themselves if they should come under fire."
Van Loan even offered a hypothetical scenario of what "misleading the House" would look like, to him.
"It would look like a situation where perhaps a member of the government knew that these occasions of shooting in self-defence had occurred and then, once asked about them, denied to the House that they had taken place," he suggested.
"Nothing like that has happened here."
On the contrary, he noted, "this government has been most forthright."
As is his customary response to such interventions, Scheer took the matter under advisement, and promised to return to the House as soon as possible.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office said Canadian troops "continue to carry out the advise and assist mission they were given by the government."
"Their actions as described reflect the mission and mandate they were given, and we stand 100 per cent behind them and the job they are doing in the fight against [ISIS] terrorists," Jason MacDonald told CBC News by email.
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