The Commons: Starring Vic Toews as Kurt Russell

Conservative ministers have shown tremendous hypothetical courage in the face of hypothetical danger

The Scene. After offering a general appeal for clarity from the government—”What is happening on your side?” she begged—Nycole Turmel narrowed her complaint to a specific article of speech. In this case, a conjunction.

“Yesterday, the Minister of Public Safety said ‘information obtained by torture is always discounted. However…’ What does he mean by ‘however?’ she asked. “There is no ‘however.’ There is no ‘but.’ Torture is either condoned or it is not. Which is it? No ‘however.’ No ‘if.’ No ‘but.’ ”

Rising as today’s stand-in prime minister, Peter MacKay offered a perfectly straightforward response that entirely avoided the question. “But! But!” the New Democrat side mocked. “But! But!”

Ms. Turmel tried again, this time en français. Mr. MacKay did likewise. “Mais!” the New Democrats chirped. “Mais!”

Switching to English and stepping forward, the Defence Minister attempted to put this all in perspective. Or possibly to read aloud from a script he’d recently submitted to television producers.

“Let me be clear,” he graciously offered, “what the honourable member opposite appears to be indicating is that under no circumstances, if information came into the possession of Canadian officials that would stop the death, a mass death perhaps, if there was a bomb threat at the Air Canada Centre, that we would be forced to refuse to use any information that would save lives. That is not the position of this government.”

The New Democrats had sprung up three consecutive times to cheer their side and here a dozen or so Conservatives managed to stand and salute Mr. MacKay’s hypothetical courage in the face of hypothetical disaster.

Alas, Jack Harris was soon enough up too. And here he insisted on inconvenient details. “Mr. Speaker, information from torture is unreliable. That is the problem,” he explained. “Has the government learned nothing from the Maher Arar affair? We know there are countries and agencies that use torture as a matter of course. But instead of moving to stop this, the government turns a blind eye. That is what it really means when the Minister of Public Safety directs CSIS to use information extracted through torture. Torture will continue if the information keeps being used. Will the minister acknowledge, as his predecessor did as public safety minister, that torture is morally wrong and information extracted through torture is unreliable?”

Vic Toews would acknowledge no such thing. Whatever the opposition’s earlier taunts, he was sticking with his article of speech.

“Mr. Speaker, I cannot be any clearer. Our government does not condone torture and certainly does not engage in torture,” he reported. “However, when we have information that Canadian lives are at risk we will act without delay. Canadians expect no less.”

Mr. Harris demanded more. “Mr. Speaker, torture is prohibited under the Criminal Code of Canada and the United Nations Convention against Torture, to which we are a signatory. The minister claims not to condone torture, and then, however, opens the door wide for other countries to use torture and for us to use that information,” he shot back. “In 2009 the Conservative public safety minister said, ‘If there is any indication that torture may have been used, that information is discounted.’ Why has the government now flip-flopped and thrown open the doors to use immoral and unreliable information extracted through torture?”

Faced with two such crushing adjectives, the Public Safety Minister retreated into a horror of his own imagining.

“Mr. Speaker, this is a member who, if he knew there was a plane with his constituents, men, women and children, and he obtained information which came from a questionable source, he would do nothing,” Mr. Toews ventured, wagging his finger at the NDP critic. “That is the position of the NDP members. They would not take the appropriate action to ensure that the lives of Canadians were protected.”

The mind races with questions about this dramatic scenario. Is there a bomb on this plane or has it been hijacked or both? Is it in the air? If so, what “appropriate action” would Mr. Toews propose to take on the basis of “questionable” information? What could be done about such a situation? (Would we, for instance, shoot a plane out of the air on the basis of information obtained through torture?) Has such a situation ever presented itself in the history of counter intelligence? Has information obtained through torture ever saved the day at a moment like this? Are we discussing legitimate matters of public policy here or are we attempting to apply the lessons of the 1996 action blockbuster Executive Decision?

“That is why they are over there,” Mr. Toews concluded of the New Democrats. “They are not fit to be trusted with the security of Canadians.”

At least not in the world that the Public Safety Minister has constructed for himself.

The Stats. Pensions, 15 questions. CSIS and aboriginal affairs, five questions each. Manufacturing and air travel, two questions each. Tourism, seasonal workers, auto safety, military procurement, the census, sealing, health care, trade, immigration and China, one question each.

Diane Finley, 12 answers. Peter MacKay, six answers. John Duncan, five answers. Gerald Keddy and Denis Lebel, four answers each. Vic Toews and Christian Paradis, two answers each. Maxime Bernier, Julian Fantino, Keith Ashfield and Jason Kenney, one answer each.

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