The Commons: Lawrence Cannon's lips are sealed

Whether Canada has transferred children to Afghan authorities, the government won't say

The Scene. It is entirely possible that when all has been, said, done, investigated and disclosed that Canadian officials will be found to have done a largely admirable job of handling, seizing, transferring and monitoring those individuals detained during this country’s mission in Afghanistan—and that that conclusion will do very little to redeem this government’s various cabinet ministers for the various things they have said about the matter these last four and a half years. To understand why is to get at perhaps the central paradox of so much about this place and these times: the serious, complex nature of modern problems set against the increasingly simplistic, largely evasive way we seem compelled to talk about those problems.

The latest cause for incoherence is a report from the CBC, based on a secret government briefing note, that Canada has been transferring children to Afghan authorities. For sure, this sort of news raises all sorts of complicated questions about law, human rights, war and foreign affairs. For sure, none of these complicated questions will ever properly be addressed here.

Here though stood Thomas Mulcair, the first to state for the benefit of the House a series of varyingly inflammatory questions—”Why is Canada transferring children to the Afghan torturers, NDS? How many children have been arrested? How many children have been transferred? How many children have been tortured?”—to which he couldn’t possibly have expected to receive answers.

Over all the same to Lawrence Cannon, the Foreign Affairs Minister rising to remind everyone—once again—that it was the current government that, more than three years ago, improved upon the “inadequate” transfer agreement it had inherited from the previous administration. That the current government has been in power for fully five years now and that it had previously pronounced itself “satisfied” with this “inadequate” agreement went, in this case, unmentioned.

The NDP’s Jack Harris then tried his luck with a slightly simpler provocation. “Why was Canada transferring children to the notorious NDS,” he asked, “and how long has the minister known about it?”

That Canada has been transferring children to Afghan authorities has been a matter of public record for at least three years. Opposition members have risen and asked questions of the matter and government ministers have stood in the Commons and acknowledged as much. And yet here, Mr. Cannon opted not to admit anything.

“Mr. Speaker,” he said instead, “we have always said all along that when there is credible evidence of abuse, the Canadian Forces and our diplomats act with the utmost integrity. As a result of the supplementary transfer arrangements put in place by our government, we have full and unrestricted access to the detention facilities where Taliban prisoners transferred by the Canadian Forces are held.”

Here was, if nothing else, a fond nod to the remarkable dance this government put on a year ago, when, with the nimbleness of a half dozen prima ballerinas, its various ministers split differences between the phrases “proven allegations” and “substantiated allegation” on the one hand and “credible evidence,” “credible allegations,” “substantial evidence,” “credible information” and “credible, sustained information and evidence” on the other.

Those were, indeed, remarkable days and the fond throwback to those confounding afternoons continued with a profound riddle of an exchange between the NDP defence critic and the Foreign Affairs Minister that mostly resulted in Mr. Cannon restating his previous assertion.

With the NDP having thus gained absolutely no insight, Gilles Duceppe apparently felt it necessary to follow-up. Making a rare appearance long after his two traditional questions off the top, the Bloc leader rose to twice directly ask the Foreign Affairs Minister—”oui ou non?”—whether Canada had indeed transferred children to the Afghan intelligence service. Twice Mr. Cannon thus stood and notably avoided offering anything like a direct response.

The proceedings now verging on outright parody, Bob Rae rose to lend his gravitas. ” Mr. Speaker, I have a couple of direct questions to the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He has not answered them in the House today. I would like to give him another opportunity to do so,” he offered. “First, were children transferred to the NDS, the secretariat in Afghanistan? Second, if they were transferred, why were no specific special measures put in place respecting the protection of children?”

Not being able to help himself perhaps, the Foreign Affairs Minister responded first with a needlessly debatable sentence—”Mr. Speaker, individuals are detained only when they have either attacked or killed a Canadian soldier or official.” Then though, a kind of answer. “It is not always possible to know the age of the prisoner,” he said. “As a result, the Canadian Forces treat those who appear to be under the age of 18 as juveniles. Consequently, if there is any question of age, the prisoner is treated as a juvenile with separate quarters.”

The heavens did not then open up and pour brilliant light down upon the minister, but perhaps they might as well have.

Alas, as quickly as enlightenment had been visited upon us, it was obscured again. “Mr. Speaker, to be fair, the minister seems to have responded ‘yes’ to my first question, that children were transferred,” Mr. Rae said next, obviously pushing his luck.

From the other side, various Conservatives actually shouted “no.” The ground did not then open up and swallow this place whole, but it might as well have.

“He even referred to them as ‘juveniles.’ He said there is a special facility for juveniles and that they were transferred,” Mr. Rae continued, perhaps desperate to seize this clarity before it was denied. “I am giving the minister a chance to answer a question very directly. Canadians want to know. Precisely what are the special measures put in place with respect to the protection of children?”

One final time to Mr. Cannon, not to answer the question mind you, but at least to confirm that it had been asked on more or less plausible grounds.

“Mr. Speaker, I have responded clearly that it happens in some cases when we are not in a position to be able to determine the age of the individual involved in an attack or incident,” Mr. Cannon reassured. “The Canadian Forces has special provisions in those circumstances.”

And so perhaps we were back where we started. Wherever that is.

The Stats. The environment, eight questions. Afghanistan, seven questions. Government spending, five questions. Ethics, four questions. Pensions and bilingualism, three questions each. Taxation, securities regulation, health care and product safety, two questions each. Crime, immigration and Africa, one question each.

John Baird, nine answers. Lawrence Cannon, eight answers. Tony Clement, six answers. Jim Flaherty and Leona Aglukkaq, four answers each. Dave Anderson and James Moore, three answers each. Diane Finley, two answers. Rob Nicholson, one answer.

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