The Commons: Support for the troops if necessary, but necessarily support for the troops

Even if soldiers don't agree with each other, the government agrees with soldiers

The Scene. Michael Ignatieff stood to report that some 23 former ambassadors had put fingers to keyboard to express their support for Richard Colvin and John Baird took the opportunity to rise and expound on the fine work of our troops.

Rising for his second question, Mr. Ignatieff offered the obvious follow. “Field notes by Canadian soldiers make it clear that a detainee was beaten in Afghan custody after being transferred by Canadian troops, way back in June 2006. Our soldiers saw it firsthand. They took photographs. They did the right thing. They rescued the man. They reported it up the chain of command. However, the government did nothing,” he ventured. “What kind of Canadian government refuses to act on firsthand accounts by its own troops, credible accounts, of detainee abuse in Afghan jails?”

There were various catcalls from the Conservative side. Laurie Hawn, seated in the front row beside Peter MacKay, loudly objected.

Mr. Baird was ready with a response. “Mr. Speaker, let us be very clear. Let us talk about the facts,” he boldly declared. “The then-Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, General Walter Natynczyk, a decorated war hero, someone who has served our country in uniform for decades, stated very clearly more than two and a half years ago that the Afghan in question was not detained, was not captured by Canadian Forces, and he repeated that statement yesterday. I say to the Leader of the Opposition, why can he not trust General Walter Natynczyk?”

On this highly contentious file, the government’s explanation for itself is now entirely semantic.

It is the testimony of one military officer that the detainee in question here was “turned over” by Canadian Forces. It is the reporting of another soldier that the detainee was both “detained” and “transferred.” But it is the insistence of Gen. Natynczyk and, subsequently, this government that the detainee was merely subjected to “questioning” by Canadian Forces before being seized by Afghan law enforcement.

With his third try, Mr. Ignatieff attempted to sidestep this entirely. “Mr. Speaker, the issue is much simpler than this,” he reckoned. “It is an issue about what happens when Canadian soldiers report credible accounts of detainee abuse. Those accounts are not in question. They take photographs of the abuse, they report it up the chain of command and, for a year, the government does nothing about it. That is the issue.”

“Are you done yet?” moaned a Conservative.

“Why,” asked Ignatieff, “will the government not account for that year in which it did nothing?”

In between affirming his support for the troops, Mr. Baird pumped his fist and spoke assuredly. “Mr. Speaker, let us be very clear,” he repeated. “When our Canadian men and women in uniform, doing an outstanding an outstanding job in incredibly difficult circumstances, are presented with credible information with respect to this regard, they act.”

Credible information. Though they didn’t repeat the claim today, it would still seem to be the government’s position that there has yet to be a “proven allegation” of abuse concerning a detainee transferred by the Canadian Forces. But there was apparently “credible information” of something. And we heard previously of “credible allegations” and “credible evidence” and “substantial evidence.” Indeed, this afternoon Peter MacKay added a new phrase to the mix, referring at one point to “credible, sustained information and evidence.”

You could spend the rest of your life attempting to parse the differences between those statements. And perhaps that is precisely the point.

Ujjal Dosanjh stood next and suggested that recent reporting seemed to indicate the government had been somewhat less than direct and transparent with the public on this issue. Mr. MacKay stood here to testify on his own behalf. “Mr. Speaker, we have been clear,” he said. “We have been credible.”

He then reassured the House of the government’s support for the troops. “I have tremendous faith and respect for the men and women in uniform, and our diplomats for the work that they are doing in Afghanistan,” he explained. “I wish the member shared that confidence.”

Mr. Dosanjh seized on the obvious rejoinder. “Mr. Speaker, I have confidence in the military,” he said, “but I have no confidence in that minister right now.”

In response, Mr. MacKay referred once more to his government’s goodness. “Mr. Speaker, again, we have been clear,” he informed the House. “We have been consistent.”

A short while later, the Liberals sent up Judy Foote to appeal for some of this consistency. “Mr. Speaker, in June 2006 a Canadian soldier found an Afghan detainee with blood running down his face. He recorded in his field diary that he ‘assumed positive control of the individual and removed him,'” she reviewed. “Photographs and medical examinations, which the government refuses to release publicly, corroborate the eyewitness account. Other notes show clearly the abuse. The detainee was ‘a person in custody detained by Canadian troops.’ Why are the Conservatives attempting to discredit these two front-line Canadian soldiers? Why are they calling them liars?”

Mr. MacKay stood to various off-the-record requests from the Liberal side to support the troops.

“Simply put, Mr. Speaker, we are not,” he said to Foote’s question. “We are applauding them.” In the next breath, he repeated Gen. Natynczyk’s contradiction of said soldiers.

Ms. Foote was unpersuaded. “Mr. Speaker, either they believe the eyewitness accounts of our soldiers on the ground or they do not. It is as simple as that,” she ventured. “In 2007-08, two senior Canadian officers further corroborated the accounts of the soldier and the medic under oath in court. Detailed notes show the name of the Canadian platoon that captured the Afghan before he was handed over and beaten. There are even photos. The Conservatives not only refuse to release this information, but they deny it exists. Why will they not come clean? Why will they not believe our soldiers?”

Here, Mr. MacKay split a new difference entirely. “Mr. Speaker, last time I checked, the chief of the defence staff is not only a soldier but the top soldier,” the Defence Minister replied. “I will take his word.”

It fell later to the NDP’s Jack Harris to commit to Hansard his party’s polite request that the Minister remove himself from his spot. “Mr. Speaker, the Minister of National Defence’s response to the testimony of Richard Colvin was a slanderous low blow,” Mr. Harris began. “Today, 23 former ambassadors have attacked the government’s response to Mr. Colvin’s testimony and its approach to Afghan detainees. The minister has on nine separate occasions told the House there is not a scintilla of evidence of mistreatment even as the entire country was shown evidence that torture did take place. Canadians no longer have confidence in this minister. Will he apologize for his slander of Mr. Colvin and will he resign?”

Mr. MacKay was up before Mr. Harris had finished the question. “Mr. Speaker, I have been clear, I have been consistent,” he reaffirmed. “We have disputed the credibility of the evidence, not the credibility of the individual. I want to be clear about that.”

The opposition side groaned.

Mr. Harris tried once more, adding new arguments to his indictment. Mr. MacKay stood halfway through and waited for Mr. Harris to finish. The Minister referred once more to Gen. Natynczyk and then restated his position vis-à-vis how much he supports the troops.

“They did do the right thing. That is one thing we can agree on,” he said. “The soldiers in Afghanistan are doing a magnificent job and we back them 100% on this side of the House.”

So there.

Back in his seat, the Minister received a pat on the back from Mr. Hawn.

The Stats. Afghanistan, 15 questions. The environment, nine questions. Foreign affairs and the economy, three questions each. Public works and steel, two questions each. Aerospace, textiles, Ukraine and employment, one question each.

Peter MacKay, 12 answers. John Baird, seven answers. Christian Paradis, Mark Warawa and Tony Clement, four answers each. Bev Oda, three answers. Denis Lebel, Lawrence Cannon, Diane Finley and Gary Goodyear, one answer each.

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