The detainee documents: it's not about who respects our soldiers

The questions about detainee treatment have to do with the government, not soldiers

On the release today of many thousands of pages of documents related to the Afghan detainees issue, Defence Minister Peter MacKay took a moment to lash out at the Conservatives’ partisan adversaries.

“Opposition parties have tried to sensationalize and politicize this whole issue to their own advantage each and every time they had the opportunity to do so,” MacKay said. “I’m very proud of our military, and they are worthy of much more from the opposition parties.”

It’s nothing new, sadly, for a cabinet minister in this government to suggest that raising questions about how Canada handled the transfer of prisoners to Afghan authorities somehow amounts to displaying a lack of respect for Canadian soldiers. This is, in my opinion, a low slur.

Almost all of the questions I heard raised about Afghan detainees over the past few years had to do, not with the actions of soldiers, but with the arrangements for turning over and monitoring prisoners worked out by Foreign Affairs and Defence officials.

And even if today’s document dump, once it’s been read, shows that Canada didn’t do anything wrong at all, that will not change the fact that the detainees issue came to light and at times dominated Parliament Hill debate for entirely valid reasons.


There were two peaks in opposition and media interest. First, in the spring of 2007, when then-defence minister Gordon O’Connor had to apologize to the House for falsely stating that the International Committee of the Red Cross was monitoring Canada’s detain-transfer agreement with Afghanistan.  And, second, in the fall of 2009, when diplomat Richard Colvin testified to a House committee that his warnings, when he was stationed in Afghanistan, about the torture of detainees in Afghan prisons were ignored.

Was O’Connor’s blunder less serious than it was made out to be at the time? Was Colvin’s testimony less credible than it initially might have seemed? Both are valid questions. But these stories, when they broke, didn’t require the opposition to “sensationalize and politicize” them to become big news.

When MPs or, for that matter, reporters and ordinary citizens, hear that a minister has misled the House or that a diplomat has voiced troubling allegations, deep concern is the normal response—and not a sign of low regard for Canadian soldiers.