The Commons: Shrug and dismiss

"This issue has long since been dealt with."

The Scene. The Prime Minister stood and shrugged and declared that the military and the government had conducted themselves properly. Michael Ignatieff asked a second question. The Prime Minister rose and shrugged once more, suggesting the Liberal leader was without evidence of wrongdoing by the Canadian Forces.

In the face of futility, Mr. Ignatieff switched to English for a third try. “Mr. Speaker, there are no allegations against Canadian Forces. It is the conduct of the government that is in question,” he attempted to clarify for the umpteenth time. “The government has withheld evidence, it has intimidated witnesses, it has censored documents. This morning it even tried to prevent Parliament from debating the issue. The Prime Minister is responsible for this conduct. He is responsible for a year of wilful blindness. What does he have to hide?”

The Prime Minister stood here to declare the matter closed. “Mr. Speaker, the reason the leader of the opposition now tries to say he does not point the finger at the Canadian Forces and diplomats is, of course, because they have always respected their obligations. These people have been operating in extremely difficult conditions in Afghanistan. Whenever they have been faced with difficulties, they have taken the appropriate action,” he explained. “Systems have been changed two, three, four years ago. This issue has long since been dealt with.”

The government would seem to no longer be interested in trying to explain itself.

Ujjal Dosanjh stood to suggest it was impossible to believe that the abuse of a detainee in the summer of 2006 was confirmed only this week. Peter MacKay rose and confirmed his support for the men and women of our armed forces.

Gilles Duceppe narrowed to the specifics of the field notes apparently only discovered this week that confirmed for General Walter Natynczyk that an individual taken into custody by Canadians had subsequently been abused by Afghan authorities. The Bloc leader referred directly to that report’s most intriguing words—”as has happened in the past.”

The Prime Minister stood and dismissed the concern.

Mr. Duceppe went red in the face, leaned forward, gripped the desk in front of him and castigated Stephen Harper. The Prime Minister rose and asserted his pride in the military.

The Bloc’s Claude Bachand stood and suggested that an internal military investigation was not sufficient, that a full public inquiry was necessary. Mr. MacKay seized on this as a demonstration of disloyalty. “That again really portrays something quite obvious,” he said. “We support the forces, their success and the success of our country. He cannot say the same.”

Jack Layton asserted his indignation. “Mr. Speaker,” he ventured, “Canadians are tired of this nonsense.” The Prime Minister yelled and swiped his hand and asserted his patriotism.

The day went in this way. Moaning and groaning on all sides, unnecessary declarations, reassuring ovations and calls for resignation.

Marlene Jennings raised the previous declarations of the Defence Minister, wondered how many more cases of abuse were as yet unrevealed and demanded a public inquiry. Mr. MacKay invoked “the hard work, the blood, sweat and tears, and sacrifice of the Canadian Forces and our diplomatic corps.”

Mark Holland rose to press further in his particularly insistent way. “Mr. Speaker, the defence minister, on November 23, said, ‘There has never been a single proven allegation of abuse involving a prisoner transferred by the Canadian Forces, not one.’ In one Question Period alone, the minister repeated this line no less than five times. There was no ambiguity, no uncertainty, just an unqualified statement dismissing disturbing allegations of torture, a statement we now know was false,” Mr. Holland reported. “Why did the Defence Minister fail to ensure he was speaking the truth before answering in this House? Why was it left to the Chief of Defence Staff to uncover the minister’s falsehood?”

“Mr. Speaker, at 9:30, when the Chief of Defence Staff called to share this new information with me, that is of course what happened,” Mr. MacKay explained. “We accept his version of the truth.”

Mr. Holland tried again. Mr. MacKay expressed his intent to support the Canadian troops.

The Bloc’s Pierre Paquette attempted to quote from Abraham Lincoln. Mr. MacKay rose to suggest the words actually belonged to P.T. Barnum, then seemed to imply some comparison between himself and Mr. Lincoln. “I will tell him what Honest Abe did do, he tried to unify a nation,” Mr. MacKay declared. “He tried to bring people together during a time of war. That is what great Canadians do. They get behind their forces, they back them, they give them the necessary resources. They give them the necessary support that they need when they are doing difficult work. The honourable member continues to play cheap politics, continues to use wedge politics. We will support our forces. We will see our country succeed with no help from him.”

Mr. Paquette stood and suggested that Mr. MacKay might have more in common with Richard Nixon.

Two more questions from Liberal Judy Foote, two more statements of the government’s faith in the military. Then it was Marcel Proulx who rose to table the afternoon’s 22nd and 23rd questions on this topic. With his supplemental, he referred the Defence Minister to the section commander’s field notes on which this week has turned, wrapping a multitude of questions into one.

“Mr. Speaker, the document made public yesterday by Gen. Natynczyk revealed an essential element, though it was not new,” Mr. Proulx said, the House going noticeably quiet. “In November 2007, this document was included in a 1,200-page bundle presented in Federal Court by the Department of National Defence. At the time, the date of the document was censored, along with the sections dealing with the mistreatment of detainees. It was perhaps new to Gen. Natynczyk, but clearly, it was not new to the government. Why did they hide the truth?”

The Defence Minister stood with what would be his 16th and final answer of the day.

“The member is suggesting by implication that the military somehow did something wrong and that they somehow did not do the right thing,” he opined. “That is what is so despicable. I ask them to slip out of their comfy shoes, pull on some combat boots and walk outside the wire with some of those men and women.”

This was the parting shot, perhaps intended as the afternoon’s climax, the culmination of these past few weeks before the House falls silent on the occasion of Christmas.

And yet, an end to the questions seems about as far away as it has ever been.

The Stats. Afghanistan, 23 questions. The environment, four questions. The economy, finance and banking, two questions each. Human rights, crime, pensions, mining and Aboriginals, one question each.

Peter MacKay, 16 answers. Stephen Harper, eight answers. Jim Flaherty, five answers. Mark Warawa, four answers. Bev Oda, Stockwell Day, Chuck Strahl and John Baird, one answer each.