The Scene. With the Prime Minister back on Canadian soil and allowed a few days to recover from the profound jet lag that comes with circumnavigating the globe, it seemed that today would be the day his presence would once more be registered in the House of Commons. Ah, but wouldn’t you know it, our national men’s lacrosse team was in Ottawa this afternoon and, obviously, it seemed only courteous that they be granted a brief audience with the PM at precisely 2:15pm.
Good luck for him as he apparently managed to win a very handsome jersey in the process. But poor luck for the House. And, indeed, for the Prime Minister’s Defence Minister, a man whose knees must be nearly worn completely out from all the sitting and standing.
The first of what would be 20 questions for Peter MacKay this day was tabled by Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal leader returning to the House after a few days away himself. Why, Mr. Ignatieff wondered en français, had the Canadian Forces, as disclosed by the chief of the defence staff over the weekend, decided on several occasions to halt the transfer of detainees to Afghan authorities?
Across the way, John Baird chirped about “coercive interrogation.”
Mr. MacKay attempted to explain. “Mr. Speaker, I thank the Leader of the Opposition for the question,” he said. “As he would know, and as he has indicated, decisions to stop transfers are operational decisions taken on a case-by-case basis in a theatre of operations by military personnel. In this instance, and it is now on the government web site, there were three operational decisions taken that resulted in pauses of transfers. Most recently, I want to indicate, the reason that the transfers stopped was because the Afghan officials were not living up to their expectations, not living up to the expectations set out in the transfer arrangements. The decision to stop was based on the fact that they were not living up to those expectations.”
Mr. Ignatieff returned with an assertion. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “in other words it is reasonable to assume that detainees were being abused.”
“Nooo!” moaned various Conservatives.
Mr. MacKay gave it another go. “With respect to the pause in operations of transfers made on the ground in Afghanistan, it was because we could no longer have unfettered, unannounced visits to Afghan prisons,” he explained. “When Afghans are not living up to their expectations, we pause transfers. When they started to allow that access again, the transfers then began again.”
So there. For the record though, the publicly available statement to which Mr. MacKay refers, explains the three operational decisions as follows: “The first two pauses in 2009 were related to allegations about treatment, the last pause was related to access to facilities.”
Moving on, Mr. Ignatieff attempted to do the math. “Mr. Speaker, this does not add up,” he declared. “The minister is saying that he knew that torture was a possibility from the moment they took office in late January 2006. No action of any remedial kind was taken until April 2007. Why, then, has the government been smearing the reputation of a public servant who tried to tell it what was happening in that period? None of this adds up. When will the government set up a public inquiry to give Canadians the truth?”
Mr. MacKay responded with an archaic rhetorical flourish. “These are not things that we can take holus-bolus,” he ventured, “just based on no evidence.”
Next up, Ujjal Dosanjh made a bold proposition. “We must be prepared to live by the standards of decency, transparency and respect for human rights,” he posited, “that we ourselves embrace on the world stage.”
Mr. MacKay made a claim on clarity. “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.”
This is, apparently, now the rallying cry. That whatever has been estimated, whatever has been reported, whatever has been admitted, whatever has been alleged, whatever has been testified to, whatever has been seconded, you simply cannot demonstrate beyond doubt that a prisoner transferred by Canadian Forces to Afghan authorities was subsequently tortured. Canada is back and you can’t prove we’ve done anything wrong.
“Mr. Speaker, the facts and figures that the honourable member has put forward do not apply to prisoners transferred from the Canadian Forces,” Mr. MacKay explained when Jack Layton insisted on citing a report of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. “Those are broad-sweeping numbers that speak to the conditions in the prison. They do not apply to the numbers that were transferred by Canadian Forces.”
After his performance last week, the Defence Minister seemed blessed of a slightly more straightforward script. Unfortunately, the questions persisted.
“What is important to listen to is somebody who is there on the ground,” Mr. MacKay explained. “Gail Latouche, of Correctional Service of Canada, reports that in fact, unequivocally, she and three of her colleagues working in Afghanistan have said there is zero evidence of torture and abuse, based on the visits taken place by Canadian officials.”
That Richard Colvin was also a man on the ground should perhaps not be left unmentioned. Nor, for the record, should it be left unsaid that, as CanWest reported of Ms. Latouche, she arrived in Afghanistan after the period of time in question and, as a result, “does not feel qualified to speak about the issue or the political tempest it has caused in Canada.”
The Liberals kept Bob Rae for last and the veteran of this stuff stood with a novel suggestion. “I would like to ask the minister this,” he said. “Would he please table before the House all of the briefing notes which he received as a minister and the briefing notes which the Prime Minister of Canada received with respect to the treatment of Afghan citizens by Afghan correctional services?”
Mr. MacKay proceeded to rhyme off a series of government funding commitments, including money allotted to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission whose work he now dismisses.
Mr. Rae came back, repeating his question, directly eyeing the Minister. Mr. MacKay refused to return Mr. Rae’s gaze, but with the question fully restated, the Minister snapped shut his briefing book, came quick to his feet and swaggered to the edge of the aisle, apparently quite besmirched by this challenge.
“Mr. Speaker, here is what we will do,” he said. “I will do him one better. We will look at the documents that are going to be placed before the parliamentary committee, going back beyond the time that we took office. We will see what his government’s record was and how it stacks up against the efforts that we have made to improve the conditions in prison. We will look at all of that evidence. Then we will see where conditions were improved, when actual investments were made, when the real work was done to improve the situation in Afghanistan, not their lame effort.”
Across the way, Liberals called him on, apparently taking this to mean he would do as asked.
The Stats. Afghanistan, 20 questions. The environment, four questions. The economy, Saudi Arabia, Israel, taxation and ethics, two questions each. Crime and education, one question each.
Peter MacKay, 20 answers. Jim Prentice, three answers. Deepak Obhrai, Diane Finley and Ted Menzies, two answers each. Denis Lebel, Peter Van Loan, Pierre Poilievre, Jason Kenney, Christian Paradis and John Baird, one answer each.