OTTAWA – The Liberal government faced fresh accusations of misleading the public on Tuesday after the country’s top soldier said Canadian troops have been allowed to fire first in Iraq.
Government and military officials have previously said Canadian troops can and have fired in self-defence, including to defend their Kurdish partners and civilians.
Chief of defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday that such defensive fire includes instances where his troops have taken the first shot against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
“We are allowed to deal with a threat that is emerging that would overwhelm those we are working with, or ourselves, if we didn’t deal with it,” Vance said after the committee meeting.
He cited as an example a situation where Kurdish forces might not have the weaponry to destroy an ISIL suicide bomber driving a heavily armoured vehicle. Canadian troops have been pictured with anti-tank missiles in Iraq.
“That is the definition of defensive fire,” Vance said. “We don’t have to be shot at first. We can take the first shot if it is to save lives.”
The general told committee members there has been “all sorts of speculation” and “wordsmithing” around the mission in Iraq, but that the military continues to operate within the limits laid down by the government.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan echoed that assessment in the House of Commons, adding Canadian soldiers have a duty to protect civilians when required.
“In many cases they need to protect not only themselves, their coalition partners and civilians,” Sajjan said in response to opposition questions.
“This is an imperative they have a duty to do so. And I’m very proud of the work they’re doing in fulfilling their mission in an honourable manner.”
But Vance’s comments renewed opposition party allegations that the Liberal government has been playing political games with the Iraq mission, as well as calls for greater transparency.
“The Liberal government not only attempted to silence our military, they continue to mislead Canadians by insisting that we are in a non-combat role,” Conservative defence critic James Bezan said in the House of Commons.
NDP defence critic Randall Garrison said in an interview that whether Canadian troops are involved in combat or not, “it’s not what the Liberals promised.”
“What’s clear here is that what Canadian troops are doing is clearly not what the Liberals led Canadians to believe they were doing,” he said. “We should just call it what it is.”
The question of whether Canadian soldiers on the ground in Iraq are combat has dogged the mission since the first special forces troops arrived to work with Kurdish forces in October 2014.
The Liberals promised during the last election campaign to end Canada’s combat mission in Iraq.
But while they withdrew six CF-18 fighter jets previously deployed by the Conservatives, they expanded the number of troops on the ground to more than 200 from 69.
At the same time, there has been a clampdown on information about the mission with fewer briefings or details such as how often Canadian troops have called in airstrikes against ISIL or engaged in firefights.
Senior officers have said the special operators are spending more time on the frontlines and supporting the offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.
During the committee meeting, Vance also said that measuring a country’s military contributions to NATO solely in terms of defence spending is a “shallow” approach.
The defence chief said there is sometimes a tendency to look only at spending, but Canada is pulling its weight with NATO in many other ways such as its promise to lead a NATO force in Latvia.
Canada is expected to face pressure from the U.S. to increase its defence budget in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.
Trump was critical of NATO during the presidential campaign, stressing that many members do not spend enough on their own defence.
All NATO members agreed in 2014 to spend two per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defence, but only five meet that target.
Canada is in the bottom third of allies at less than one per cent, its lowest level in decades.