In The Media

With details of Canada’s deployment to Mali still murky, Conservatives demand House of Commons vote

by Marie-Danielle Smith

National Post
April 25, 2018

OTTAWA — As details remain scarce around Canada’s prospective deployment to a UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, Conservatives are asking the Liberal government for a formal debate and vote in the House of Commons.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came into government on a promise to “renew Canada’s commitment to peacekeeping operations,” and later said that such missions would be subject to parliamentary debate. But fewer peacekeepers are on the ground than when he took office, and the six-helicopter deployment to Mali announced last month is well shy of the 600 troops and 150 police the government announced in 2016 would be part of unspecified future missions.

The Canadian Armed Forces is still developing its plan, said Byrne Furlong, a spokeswoman for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan. “More fulsome answers about the mission and our Task Force composition will become clearer once the mission assessment and planning phases are complete, and final. Government approvals have been granted. More information will be formally and publicly relayed at that time,” she said.

“They’ve been dragging their feet,” said Conservative defence critic James Bezan. “It’s all these broken promises that makes the point, even more so, why there needs to be a vote in the House.”

Conservative House leader Candice Bergen recently wrote to her Liberal counterpart Bardish Chagger, formally requesting a full debate and vote on peacekeeping. “It has become accepted practice for Canada’s government to seek Parliamentary support for missions where combat is possible,” she said in a letter obtained by the National Post. Canada’s major deployments to Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and Syria were subject to votes, including in 2016 under Trudeau, she pointed out in the letter.

Past deployments were subject to “take-note” debates in the House, usually held in the evenings, but not formal votes. These included a cargo plane sent to Mali in 2013, and troops sent to a NATO training mission in Ukraine in 2015, both under Stephen Harper. This style of debate, according to Chagger’s office, is what is being offered to the Conservatives now.

“The government believes in the importance of the House of Commons having an opportunity to debate international deployments. This is why the government offered a take-note debate to the opposition on March 20th,” Chagger spokeswoman Sabrina Atwal said in an emailed statement. That offer “still stands.”

Procedurally, there is nothing preventing the Liberals from giving notice of such a debate with or without the opposition’s permission. Chagger’s office wouldn’t say why she isn’t going ahead.

The Tories, who had reduced Canada’s participation in peacekeeping missions during their tenure in government, are keen for a daytime debate and vote because of the “very dangerous” nature of the mission, said Bezan. “We know that the base where our troops are headed to has been attacked in the past, and will likely be attacked again by the terrorist organizations operating in the area,” he said. “So we have the right to ask the hard questions of the government.”

“We are going to make sure they have the appropriate mandate, the appropriate equipment, and the right rules of engagement that will be set out by the Chief of Defence Staff to make sure they have the right of self-defence and, more importantly, for the protection of civilians,” Sajjan said in the Commons last week.

The mission itself, which seeks to help stabilize Mali after an uprising and coup in 2012, consists of 15,156 personnel, according to the UN. It is considered dangerous, with 166 peacekeeper casualties since its establishment in 2013, but whether Canadian helicopters would end up in a “combat” situation is a stretch, experts told The Canadian Press last month.

It was in a CP interview in December 2016 that Trudeau had said peacekeeping deployments would be subject to debate in the House, though he’d stopped short of saying there would be a vote.

Trudeau was being briefed on a much-larger-scale mission to Mali right around that time, according to a recent book by Jocelyn Coulon, an advisor to former Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion.

In his book Un selfie avec Justin Trudeau, released earlier this month, Coulon said a team of bureaucrats — and subsequently the Liberal cabinet’s committee on international affairs — had settled upon a large-scale mission to Mali in December 2016. At the time, the UN Secretary General’s office was preparing to nominate a Canadian general as the head of the Mali mission.

But Trudeau’s entourage was worried about moving too fast, according to Coulon’s account, and held off on approving it. Dion was sacked weeks later and Coulon quit, he wrote, after being told that new minister Chrystia Freeland wasn’t considering peacekeeping a “priority” file — after all, Donald Trump had just been elected as U.S. president. A Belgian took the helm in Mali and bureaucrats were left “thunderstruck,” Coulon wrote, as they scrambled to inform their counterparts all over the world that Canada was backing down from its ambitions. 

The number of Canadian peacekeepers assisting in United Nations missions is down by more than half since Trudeau took office, according to UN data. Only 47 were on the ground as of last month, putting Canada in 78th spot. That compares to 112 in November 2015, when Trudeau took power, versus 352 when Conservatives were first elected in 2006.

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