Ottawa

The Commons: Let's be frank

'There is no way to eliminate all risk, given the reality of Afghanistan'

The Scene. The NDP’s David Christopherson stood and, sounding serious, informed the House that the official opposition’s joined all Canadians in mourning the loss of Master Corporal Byron Greff, who died this weekend after a suicide bomber struck the convoy in which he was travelling near Kabul. The House was quiet.

The Prime Minister was absent this day, but Mr. Christopherson proceeded to direct his question to him nonetheless. “Will the Prime Minister,” he asked, “update this House on his current view of the security situation our troops are now facing in Afghanistan?”

Defence Minister Peter MacKay duly stood and added his condolences. “It is a reminder,” Mr. MacKay then said, “of the unlimited liability assumed by members of the Canadian Forces and our allies in that mission.”

Indeed, the Defence Minister seemed to sense where Mr. Christopherson was going with this. “No one would suggest,” he said with his next breath, “that the risks will ever be zero in that country, given the current security climate.”

That Mr. MacKay feels the need to say this much now likely has something to do with what the Prime Minister said nearly a year ago. In abandoning his previous idea of what Canada’s mission in Afghanistan would involve going forward, Mr. Harper set out a vision that, so far as he was concerned, presented “minimal risks to Canada.” A few days later he was confronted about this in the House of Commons.

“Can the Prime Minister guarantee that this is not going to involve combat, that it is going to be out of Kandahar and that the training will occur in safe conditions in Kabul?” a former leader of the opposition asked.

“The answer is yes to all of those questions,” the Prime Minister responded. “As the Minister of National Defence, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and others have said, we are looking at a non-combat mission that will occur. It will be a training mission that will occur in classrooms behind the wire in bases.”

And because the mission was “technical or training” in nature—as opposed to one that “put troops  into combat, into a war situation”—no vote of the House of Commons was required to move forward. (Eventually, a debate was compelled upon the House by the Bloc Québécois.)

But now a soldier is dead and last week there was a firefight. And whether or not the country now finds itself with something different than what it was promised depends mightily on how you understood the phrases “minimal risks” and “safe conditions” vis-à-vis the warzone in which this country has operated for the past decade.

Count Mr. Christopherson among those with some quibble. “Mr. Speaker, last November the Prime Minister assured Canadians that this new training and aid mission in Afghanistan involves ‘minimal risks to Canada.’ Now, tragically, we see that just is not the case,” he offered with his supplementary. “We still have 950 troops stationed in Afghanistan. Their families need an honest assessment about the true risks of this new mission. Why has the Prime Minister not been more clear and straightforward about the real risks our soldiers are facing in Kabul?”

Once more to Mr. MacKay. “Let us be frank,” he graciously offered. “The reality is that this training mission is in a different configuration. It does not involve combat. It does not involve searching and engaging the enemy. It involves training in a static base form in and around Kabul.”

And yet. “There is no way to eliminate all risk, given the reality of that country,” the minister explained. “Given the security climate that is there, we can never mitigate that risk to zero, as I just said.”

So there you now have it. And there 950 troops will remain for another three years or so.

The Stats. Military procurement, seven questions. The economy and asbestos, four questions each. Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, three questions each. The long-gun registry, gay rights, government accounting, the G8 Legacy Fund and the auditor general, two questions. Shipbuilding, veterans, tourism, fisheries, the Canadian Wheat Board, the Arctic, lawful access and the Champlain Bridge, one question each.

Christian Paradis, six answers. James Moore and Julian Fantino, five answers each. John Baird, four answers. Peter MacKay, Vic Toews and Diane Ablonczy, three answers each. Gary Goodyear and Tony Clement, two answers each. Rona Ambrose, Eve Adams, Randy Kamp, David Anderson, John Duncan and Pierre Poilievre, one answer each.