The Commons: Too little, too late

Peter MacKay admits Canada's detainee transfer agreement isn't perfect

The Scene. Bob Rae stood with nothing to say about Helena Guergis. Alas, the good news ended there.

Each day, he said, there were new allegations, new information about this country’s handling of detainees in Afghanistan. None of this is being resolved. So why not a public inquiry to sort it all out?

Here came the Defence Minister, quite ready for this. “Mr. Speaker, the key word in the honourable member’s question was ‘allegations,'” Peter MacKay said. “In fact what we knew yesterday was the witness before the committee made allegations, and when specifically asked about these allegations he said he had no specific evidence to support the claims. In fact it was the honourable member who posed questions to him that elicited that response. When specifically asked if he was even in the area when these alleged incidents occurred, he said ‘no.'”

This is, you might note, just about the same tack the government employed five months ago after Richard Colvin’s initial testimony. And that was, you might’ve noticed, not particularly successful in bringing this matter to a conclusion.

Mr. Rae tried again. “Mr. Speaker, it is not going to do,” he offered, somewhat exasperatedly, “to not recognize the seriousness of the allegations which were made by the individual yesterday.”

The Conservatives grumbled. The Liberal critic acknowledged their complaints.

“I am hearing a lot of heckling on the other side,” Mr. Rae said. “All I can say is that it simply will not do to dismiss it. The minister cannot dismiss Mr. Gosselin, Mr. Anderson and, with respect to the minister, continue to dismiss Mr. Colvin. There is no other place for these allegations to go except to a proper public inquiry. That is the only place these questions can be resolved. It is the only way it can be done.”

Mr. MacKay came back with another of this government’s refrains. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “nor can the honourable member or anyone continue to dismiss the testimony of senior members of the military and the diplomatic corps.”

This, of course, only served to prove Mr. Rae’s point. “Mr. Speaker, it is precisely because there are different accounts of the same event that we need to have some place to go to get the contradictions resolved,” he said, louder now.

Up came Mr. MacKay, sarcastic and caustic and dismissive, to once again ignore the proposal at hand.

The Liberals turned then to Ujjal Dosanjh to ratchet up the tone and volume. “Mr. Speaker, it is only before a judge that allegations turn into evidence, and that is why we cannot dismiss Mr. Colvin, Mr. Anderson, Mr. Gosselin, Mr. Mulgarai and a number of number of memos that all point to a systematic transfer of prisoners to risk of torture and for rendition, and allegations of innocent civilians being sent to the NDS for further questioning,” he testified. “Then yesterday there was an allegation of a teen being shot in the head. If General Natynczyk can call an inquiry overnight and has the courage to do that right away, then why this cowardice on the part of the government and not a public inquiry?”

Well then.

“Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the emotion on the part of the honourable member,” Mr. MacKay demurred. “However, again, the reality is we need specific allegations to take specific action. When that happens, Canadian Forces follow that evidence, each and every time. The chief of defence staff indicated that yesterday. With respect to testimony heard yesterday, and the honourable member was there, when specifically asked if he had firsthand accounts, proof that this happened, he said ‘no.'”

Mr. Dosanjh stood again to restate his points with more venom. And it was here, finally, that Mr. MacKay came close to offering an alternative to a public inquiry.

“Mr. Speaker, more rhetoric, more sound and fury, more unsubstantiated allegations that the honourable member himself, who is a lawyer, a former premier, is getting very good at. His theatrics are noted,” said Mr. MacKay, proceeding himself to get loud and furious and theatrical.

“I just wish,” he continued, the rest of his comments playing out rather predictably, “that for once we would get a question from the honourable member that would reflect an acknowledgement that the men and women of the Canadian Forces are continuing to do great work on behalf of our country, at great risk to themselves and their families. He should stop disparaging their name, their work, stop making allegations, insinuating that they are war criminals. That is despicable, detestable evidence.”

Right. So the choice then is this. On the one hand, we can proceed directly to a public inquiry. On the other, we can attempt to sort out the measurement Mr. MacKay has set out here. We could, for instance, survey all members of parliament as to how many members of the Canadian Forces each has hugged in the past year. Then we could determine which side of the House has averaged the most hugs per member. If the opposition’s managed more hugs, they get to have an inquiry. If the government’s proved huggier, we forget any of this ever happened. Deal?

Absent an agreement on this reasonable compromise, the questions persisted. With his last effort, Mr. MacKay dismissed a question from the Bloc’s Francine Lalonde. “Mr. Speaker, what is astounding to me is that repeatedly we see members opposite completely wrapping their arms around these broad statements of unspecified, unsubstantiated evidence,” he moaned.

He explained how his government had improved upon the “flawed transfer agreement” it inherited, a perfectly valid point save for the fact that this government first defended that agreement as sufficient.

“It is not perfect,” he concluded, “but it is far better than it was when we inherited this mission.”

Here then was an entirely reasonable answer. Or at least here was an answer that would have been entirely reasonable if the government had not previously claimed its record in this regard to be quite perfect. Or at least that you couldn’t prove its record wasn’t quite perfect.

And so we arrive at the answer just a few months, or perhaps a few years, too late. Missed opportunity that.

The Stats. Helena Guergis, 13 questions. Afghanistan, 11 questions. Access to Information, four questions. Foreign affairs, science, taxation and First Nations University, two questions each. Gas prices, foreign ownership, economy and Aboriginal affairs, one question each.

John Baird, 11 answers. Peter MacKay, 10 answers. Andrew Saxton, Ted Menzies and Chuck Strahl, three answers each. Lawrence Cannon, Deepak Obhrai, Mike Lake and Leona Aglukkaq, two answers each. Rob Nicholson and James Moore, one answer each.

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