OTTAWA — The Liberal government is under fire for a lack of transparency around Canada's mission in Iraq, which entered a critical stage this week with the attack on Mosul.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan honed in on the issue during a news conference on Parliament Hill on Tuesday, saying that the military held more briefings and provided more information while the Tories were in power.
National Defence provided 12 technical briefings on what Canadian troops were doing in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant during the first year of the mission, which coincided with the Conservative government's last year in office.
Those updates included specific details, such as the number of troops on the ground in northern Iraq as well as how many times those soldiers had called in airstrikes and engaged in firefights with ISIL forces.
Harjit Sajjan stands in the House of Commons during Question Period, Oct. 18, 2016. (Photo: Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)
The military also at one point provided an unprecedented walk-through on a so-called friendly fire incident involving Kurdish peshmerga fighters in March 2015 that killed Sgt. Andrew Doiron and injured three other Canadian soldiers.
Yet briefings largely dried up during the mission's second year, which is when the Liberals were in office. The most recent, held two weeks ago, was only the third since the Liberals were elected last October on a promise of greater transparency.
A senior military officer revealed during that briefing that Canadian troops have been spending more time on the front lines, and engaged in "sporadic" firefights with ISIL, during the spring and summer.
But he refused to say how many firefights Canadians have been in or how many Canadian soldiers are on the ground — even though that figure was already included in public documents tabled in the House of Commons at the end of September. He also wouldn't say if Canadian troops are still calling in airstrikes.
"I have to trust in the military when it comes to the type of information that's provided."
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan defended the tightened grip on information, saying it was necessary to protect Canadian troops and the operation to free Mosul, which has been billed as the most important battle to date in the fight against ISIL.
"It was actually around Mosul, everything that we did," he said of Canadian activities over the last few months. "If it was in a different location, it'd be a different story. I have to trust in the military when it comes to the type of information that's provided."
Bezan said operational security is essential, "but there is still information after a battle's taken place that can be shared with Canadians to inform us on exactly what is happening in the battle for Mosul." The government owes it to parliamentarians, Canadians and the soldiers' families to be more open, he added.
Canada has more than 170 special forces troops working with and assisting the Kurds in northern Iraq.
That includes about 50 personnel attached to a medical hospital in Erbil, a helicopter squadron, and an unspecified number of soldiers working directly with the Kurds near the front lines.
Their mission has been billed as non-combat, though the government says they can shoot in self-defence. Military officials says they have also shot to defend allied forces and, in some cases, civilians.
But some critics have accused the Liberals of tailoring the definition of combat to fit with promises made during last year's election campaign. Sajjan denied that the information clampdown had anything to do with the Canadian mission edging closer to the traditional definition of combat.
Defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute said he didn't think the current mission constituted combat, "but the things people were construing as combat are happening more often."
And while there may be legitimate reasons for curtailing information about the mission in Iraq, Perry said there has also been a clear shift under the Liberals in terms of transparency.
"The Harper government last winter got very liberal in discussing special operations forces activities, because the past practice was effectively to say almost nothing. And they got verbose," he said. "So this government has kind of turned it back towards the norm."
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