Monday night’s debate on Mali in the House of Commons began with Bob Dechert, the Conservative parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs, describing the proceedings as evidence the government wants to engage Parliament regarding Canada’s response to the ongoing conflict in that country.
There is a tradition of Parliament debating when this country goes to war. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King famously delayed Canada’s entrance into the Second World War until Parliament could decide. The stakes were smaller this time. Canada’s military contribution to the Mali war is limited to the loan of one transport plane to France, and that decision was made by the Prime Minister, without debate in the House.
Nevertheless, here was a chance for Parliament to discuss Canada’s role in a matter Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has called part of “the great struggle of our generation.” You might think, given that description, that Baird would have shown up. He didn’t. Neither did most MPs. Of party leaders, only outgoing Liberal chief Bob Rae and Elizabeth May of the Greens took part. Attendance peaked at fewer than 40 members, and dropped off as the evening wore on.
For much of the night, it was hard to blame those who stayed away. The discussion was hardly inspiring to watch. There were scripted remarks delivered woodenly from sheets of paper. Bob Dechert appeared to be reading talking points from his smart phone. Little substantial discussion took place about the actual war and what Canada’s involvement in it should or should not be.
Opposition parties spent an awful lot of time arguing that Canada has recklessly cut back aid to, and its diplomatic presence in, Africa. This might be worth further discussion, but meanwhile there’s a war on. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian says French soldiers have killed “hundreds” of Islamists over the past month. Frozen CIDA funding isn’t the biggest problem Mali has right now.
Dechert’s main tactic seemed to be trying to trap his opponents into admitting that they would put Canadian “troops on the ground” in Mali, even if only as peacekeepers. Not long ago that this government would not have portrayed deploying Canadian troops abroad as something reckless or shameful. But times change. The Mali war may be part of the “great struggle of this generation,” but rest assured our soldiers won’t be getting their boots dusty.
It was left to Bob Rae to bring some precision to the discussion. He too framed the Mali war as part of a much bigger struggle. Then he basically urged Canada to show some backbone when considering the role Canada should play in it. His remarks are below. Why this guy bowed out to Justin Trudeau without a fight is something I’ll never understand.
[W]e live in a shrinking world. We live in a world where violence in one corner, whether it is Timbuktu, Gao, Kabul or anywhere in the world, places that perhaps Canadians 15 or 20 years ago would have said what did it matter if people were killing each other in some place that seemed to be far away. The answer to that simple question is, it matters a lot, not only morally, not because we are morally connected to what goes on in the entire globe, but because our interests, our security interests are directly affected. We cannot afford to be narrow, isolationist or small minded about how we look at problems in places far away, so we have to avoid thinking in that way…
The government seems to have a philosophy, which was once associated with a former leader of my party, Mackenzie King, of whom it was said he would never do by halves what he could do by quarters. I would hope that the government would not be quite so cautious. I would hope that the government would explain to Canadians why these things are connected, why a country, which many people could not even place on a map, nor could they name the countries that surround it, is important to the world and is important to Canadian interests. If there is instability in Mali, there is instability in Mauritania. We have two distinguished Canadian diplomats who spent 133 days captured by terrorist forces. Are we going to sit around here and say we do not really think these are critical interests?
My view is that we should be very clear. We support the United Nations, not in some kind of blanket way that says whatever the UN says or does is right, but when the United Nations Security Council says there is an interest, Canada should take an interest.
It is interesting that the minister of foreign affairs was explaining to reporters the other day why Canada was not able to do more in Syria. What did he say? He said there is no Security Council resolution that would allow us to do more. Now we have a Security Council resolution, which is why I say Canada should not be so timid. We should not be so reserved. We should be supporting. As the parliamentary secretary said, it should be African led.
I said that to the Prime Minister. I said that to have a mass of Canadian troops going in would not necessarily be the wisest course, but nor should we reject the principle that we can train, we can be present and we should never say on a blanket basis that there will never be a Canadian troop in Mali. That is not sensible.
We have to take steps against terror and, to put it in colloquial language, we have to whack them back. We have to give them a disincentive to violence, a disincentive to terror and a disincentive to punishing their own people. We have to recognize the regional nature of this and also, potentially, the long-term nature of this. We need a strategy of which we can be proud.