The Commons: Lost in translation

Harper and MacKay can't seem to get their stories straight

The Scene. No hair is apparently so fine it cannot be split. If Confucius did not say so, he perhaps should have.

After Michael Ignatieff had stood to open Question Period and wondered aloud about the government’s competence, the Prime Minister, making his second consecutive appearance in the House, rose and explained, en francais, as follows.

“Quand nos diplomates, nos soldats ont reçu des preuves crédibles de cas d’abus, nos diplomates, nos soldats ont agi dans ces cas.”

Now, as scrawled quickly in ye olde Moleskine, the House of Commons translators, they of pleasant, if harried, voices, relayed “des preuves crédibles de cas d’abus” as “proof of abuse.” For the record, the authority that is Google understands this to mean “credible evidence of abuse.” And our dog-eared 1977 copy of Cassell’s French Dictionary translates the term “preuves” as “proof; evidence, testimony.”

This may or may not matter.

Mr. Ignatieff stood for his second question. “Mr. Speaker, reports of torture reached the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister’s own national security advisor,” he said. “For 18 months, the government knew about torture in Afghan jails. For 18 months, it did not investigate. For 18 months, it did not stop it and it has covered it up ever since. Why?”

“Whenever Canadian officials or soldiers have received credible reports of abuse,” the Prime Minister explained, “they have reacted and responded.”

Once more to Mr. Ignatieff. “Mr. Speaker, between January 2006 and May 2007, the government knew that torture was occurring in Afghan jails. It knew that it was transferring Afghans to those very jails, but the Prime Minister claims that no one transferred by Canadians was ever tortured,” he said. “How can he be so categorical when the government did nothing to investigate for 18 months? What kind of Canadian government does nothing to prevent torture?”

Back to Mr. Harper. “Mr. Speaker, again, on the contrary, Canadian officials and soldiers have always acted when they have had credible evidence of abuse,” he said. “That is absolutely clear.”

And yet. Here, again, is what his Defence Minister said just the other day. “Mr. Speaker, let us be clear,” he offered. “There has never been a single proven allegation of abuse involving a prisoner transferred by the Canadian Forces. Not one.”

Perhaps Mr. Harper and Mr. MacKay are not speaking these days. Perhaps Jim Prentice, the minister who occupies the seat between them on the government’s frontbench, is interfering with the communication between the Prime Minister and Defence Minister. Perhaps we should see what the Defence Minister now has to say about what the Prime Minister has just said.

In the meantime, the Prime Minister kept on.

“Monsieur le Président, quand il y avait des preuves crédibles de cas d’abus, dans les prisons afghanes, envers des prisonniers détenus par les Canadiens, le gouvernement, les soldats, les forces canadienne et le ministère des Affaires étrangères ont réagi,” he told Gilles Duceppe.

“Monsieur le Président, encore une fois, quand il y a des preuves crédibles de cas d’abus, les fonctionnaires du gouvernement du Canada ont toujours réagi de façon responsable,” he told Jack Layton.

Both times, to our ears, the House translators, to whom we here and now give a belated thanks for their efforts, translated the term “preuves” as “proof.”

By this time, Minister MacKay had apparently taken the hint. “Mr. Speaker, when officials at Foreign Affairs, officials at the Department of National Defence were in possession of credible allegations, they acted,” he told Bob Rae.

“We acted when we had credible evidence, we acted when we had substantial evidence that related to the transfer of prisoners taken by Canadian Forces,” he told Dominic LeBlanc. “We acted when we had credible evidence, we continue to act to improve the situation in Afghanistan.”

“Mr. Speaker, when officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Department of National Defence had credible allegations we acted,” he told Ujjal Dosanjh. “We acted substantially. We acted quickly.”

So there. And now how to make sense of it all?

Did the Prime Minister mean “proof” or “evidence?” If he meant “evidence,” what is the difference between “credible evidence” and proof? What act was it “credible evidence” of? Was this “credible evidence” of whatever ultimately deemed to not constitute proof? If so, wouldn’t that make it “uncredible evidence?” Same too for the phrase “credible allegation?” What, precisely, is a “credible allegation” if it is not substantiated and proven?

Tomorrow will make a week since the government began its latest attempt to explain itself. One can only hope that on the seventh day we will realize the clarity we’ve been promised.

The Stats. Afghanistan, 17 questions. Environment, four questions. Bilingualism, three questions. Violence against women, the Mint, child safety and abortion, two questions each. Taxation, fisheries and poverty, one question each.

Peter MacKay, 10 answers. Stephen Harper, nine answers. Jim Prentice, Helena Guergis and James Moore, three answers. Rob Merrifield and Leona Aglukkaq, two answers each. Gail Shea, Christian Paradis and Diane Finley, one answer each.

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