OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has given new defence minister his marching orders — and Harjitt Sajjan's top priority is to end Canada's combat mission in Iraq and Syria.
The Nov. 6 letter, released Friday in a package of so-called "mandate letters" from the prime minister to his cabinet members, was also notable for what it didn't say in terms of the other thorny defence issues facing the new Liberal government.
While it makes reference to "refocusing Canada's efforts in the region on training local forces and humanitarian support," it does not spell out what that will look like.
The Conservative opposition was quick Friday to challenge Trudeau to hold a debate and a vote in Parliament on his plans to change the military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIL or ISIS.
"We heard from the prime minister almost immediately following the election that he told President Obama that Canada would be pulling out of the allied air strike mission against ISIS," said Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose.
"I'm asking the prime minister to follow the leadership of Conservatives on this issue, and commit to a debate and vote on any changes to the mission against ISIS."
What's not in the letter
Sajjan was told to work with Public Services and Procurement Minister Judy Foote on an "open and transparent" competition to replace Canada's CF-18 fighter jets, but the letter makes no reference to excluding the F-35 — something Trudeau promised during the election.
The letter to Sajjan also makes no reference to overhauling National Defence along the lines of retired lieutenant-general — now Liberal MP — Andrew Leslie's transformation report.
Implementing everything in that report, which aimed to give defence less administrative tail and more operational teeth, was also a Liberal promise.
The letter does flesh out what the Liberals have in mind when it comes to re-engaging in United Nations peacekeeping.
The Trudeau government is prepared to make available "Canada's specialized capabilities — from mobile medical teams, to engineering support, to aircraft that can carry supplies and personnel — on a case-by-case basis."
"Right now, there is a need to revitalize, focus and support peacekeeping operations around the world."
Sajjan will also be expected to co-ordinate with Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion to help the UN "respond more quickly to emerging and escalating conflicts and providing well-trained personnel to international initiatives that can be quickly deployed, such as mission commanders, staff officers and headquarters units."
That means — for the moment — Canada is not ready to make the kind of significant boots-on-the-ground UN contribution that both the Liberals and NDP have lamented was lost under the Conservatives.
Trudeau gave a return to peacekeeping a full-throated endorsement during the foreign policy debate midway through the election campaign. He was responding at the time to the pledge by 50 countries to contribute an additional 30,000 troops and police for missions in trouble spots around the world.
"The fact Canada has nothing to contribute to that conversation today is disappointing because this is something a Canadian started," he said. "Right now, there is a need to revitalize, focus and support peacekeeping operations around the world."
The letter commits to Sajjan to conducting "an open and transparent review" of Canada's defence strategy, but how that will manifest itself is unclear.
Meeting with world leaders
Trudeau will be meeting world leaders in the coming weeks at a series of summit meetings, where he is expected to meet U.S. President Barack Obama and reiterate the pledge to end Canada's role in the Iraq combat mission.
The Liberal pledge to buy anything but the F-35 stealth fighter could also come up, given how heavily Washington has invested in the troubled, often-delayed program.
On Thursday, Foote was asked whether an open competition to replace the CF-18s would specifically exclude the Lockheed Martin-built F-35.
"We have not made a decision on that," she said. "Briefings are taking place."
When the Liberals chose the Sikorsky-built Cyclone helicopter to replace the air force's aging Sea Kings back in 2004, rival AgustaWestland went to court claiming that its bid had been turned down because of political considerations. The case was eventually dropped.
Foote said the potential legal consequences of excluding Lockheed-Martin from the bid process have not been part of her briefings.
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