A. The Parliamentary Debate over Fighting ISIS – an Introduction

Corporealism XVI: Justin Trudeau Redux

A. The Parliamentary Debate over Fighting ISIS – an Introduction


Howard Adelman

Last week and the week before, the parliament of Canada debated Canada’s role in the fight against ISIS. The focus during last year’s election and the beginning of this year has been the Liberal Party pledge, executed on 15 February 2016, to withdraw six Canadian CF-18 fighter jets from combat in Iraq and Syria. Before I analyze the debate itself in the context of the larger war against radical Islamic terrorism or Islamicism, more specifically against ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, I offer a brief introduction to the formal status of the debate in the House of Commons and some historical background to the current debate.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s motion about Canada’s contribution to the fight against ISIS (17 February 2016) was not a motion asking the House of Commons to authorize the Liberal Policy. For one thing, the revision was a fait accompli. The acting leader of the Conservative Party, Rona Ambrose, contended that the introduction of the motion after the fact was disrespectful of parliament, but a motion after the decision had been made was consistent with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s motions when he deployed Canadian military forces in Iraq in 2014 and 2015. Further, the Liberals had offered much more parliamentary time to debate the issue. Third, the government was simply asking the House of Commons “to support” a decision already made. It was a support rather than authorization motion. The authority to deploy military resources and shape goals and modalities of the military mission belongs to the Federal cabinet, not parliament. To repeat, support, not authorization, was being sought.

The motion begins, “That the House support [my italics] the government’s decision to broaden, improve, and redefine our contribution to the effort to combat ISIL by better leveraging Canadian expertise while complementing the work of our coalition partners to ensure maximum effect…” The motion was not simply about a new policy; it was comparative. The new Liberal policy was broad; the old Tory policy was narrow. The new Liberal policy was an improvement on the older, inadequate policy. At the same time, the new policy was not radically different; it was merely a redefinition. The new policy is still to combat ISIL. Was it simply to degrade, or was it to destroy? It had two key characteristics according to the Liberals. The policy leveraged Canadian expertise. The policy complemented rather than simply duplicated that of Canada’s allies.

The debate is rooted in Canada taking exception towards perceived American military adventurism. When U.S. President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien acted consistent with the Canadian attitude to refusing to participate in the Vietnam War rather than Canada’s participation in the Korean War, the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War and the Afghanistan War. In the latter three, Canada was a very active participant. The refusal to join the Americans in Vietnam and in the second Gulf War without the endorsement of a UN resolution was a statement about Canada’s mode of taking military action in the international arena. Though years later he would admit the war was a mistake, in 2003 Stephen Harper, then leader of the Opposition Canadian Alliance Party, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal co-authored with Stockwell Day, the Conservative foreign affairs critic, wrote, “This is a serious mistake… The Canadian Alliance – the official opposition in Parliament – supports the American and British position because we share their concerns, their worries about the future if Iraq is left unattended to, and their fundamental vision of civilization and human values.”

On 4 September 2014, when Stephen Harper was Prime Minister, he announced that Canada would be deploying up to 100 Canadian special forces in Operation Impact (compared to Operation Inherent Resolve for the American mission, Operation Chammai for the French, Operation Shader for the British and Operation Okra for the Aussies), but it was defined as a training rather than a combat mission. On 3 October, Canada assumed a combat role as well, not with boots on the ground, but with jets in the air. Harper announced the deployment of six CF-18 fighter jets, a refueling aerial tanker and two CP-140 surveillance aircraft for the war in Iraq. Air strikes commenced on 2 November 2014. On 7 October 2014, in almost similar wording to the motion passed last week, Parliament voted on party lines to “support” the Harper mission by a vote of 157 to 134. The NDP then leader of the opposition, Thomas Mulcair, accused the government of setting off on a course of mission creep without either clear goals or an exit strategy. Justin Trudeau urged humanitarian aid instead and rather flippantly criticized the Conservatives for macho behaviour and “trying to whip out our CF-18s and show them how big they are.” In March 2015, the Canadian deployment was renewed for another year by a vote of 142-129. Targets were expanded to include ISIS operating in Syria.

The motion tabled in the House of Commons on 17 February reads:

      That the House support the government’s decision to broaden, improve, and redefine our contribution to the      effort to combat ISIL by better leveraging Canadian expertise while complementing the work of our coalition partners to ensure maximum effect, including:
  (a) refocusing our military contribution by expanding the advise and assist mission of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) in Iraq, significantly increasing intelligence capabilities in Iraq and theatre-wide, deploying CAF medical personnel, offering to provide the Government of Iraq ministerial liaison personnel to the Ministries of Defence and the Interior, enhancing capacity-building efforts with our defence partners in Jordan and Lebanon to advance regional stability, and withdrawing our CF-18s while maintaining air force surveillance and refuelling capability;
  (b) improving the living conditions of conflict-affected populations and helping to build the foundations for long-term regional stability of host communities, including Lebanon and Jordan;


  (c) investing significantly in humanitarian assistance while working with experienced humanitarian partners to support the basic needs of conflict-affected populations, including children and victims of sexual and gender-based violence;
  (d) engaging more effectively with political leaders throughout the region, increasing Canada’s contribution to international efforts aimed at finding political solutions to the crises affecting the region and reinforcing our diplomatic presence to facilitate the delivery of enhanced programming, supporting increased CAF deployments, strengthening dialogue with local and international partners on the ground and generally giving Canada a stronger voice in the region;


  (e) welcoming tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to Canada;
  that the House express its appreciation and pride to the members of the CAF, diplomatic and intelligence personnel for their participation in the fight against terrorism, to Canadian humanitarian workers for their efforts to provide critical support to conflict-affected populations, and reconfirm our commitment to our allies in the coalition against ISIL; and


  that the House note the government’s resolve to return to the House within two years with a new motion on Canada’s contribution to the region.

The debate could only proceed after Trudeau paid homage to Canada’s armed forces personnel who served with such courage and dedication. The homage was repeated by many parliamentarians on both sides of the House, But Trudeau and others could not possibly outdo the remarks during the debate of James Bezan, the PC member from Selkirk and defence critic. “I understand the incredible risk that our military services, either in the regular or reserved forces, are willing to undertake to protect Canada. Everything that we hold dear in here, our democracy – our freedom of speech, our rights and liberties – are only possible because of the incredible sacrifices made by members of the Canadian Armed Forces and the veterans who came before them. I want to pay tribute to every member who is currently serving in the Canadian Armed Forces, whether they are in the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Canadian Army, in reserves or regular forces. I thank them for keeping us safe. We do not even realize the incredible efforts they take 24/7 to keep us safe in Canada. They are the eyes of Canada on the world. They are standing on the wall to keep evil out and they are always prepared to go where no one else will go. They run toward danger. Their commitment is something each and every one of us in here should pay great respect for and thank them profusely.”

Though many tried in the debate, no one was nearly as effusive as Bezan,

“Broaden,” “improve,” “redefine,” these were the key buzzwords in shaping the program. “Comprehensive” (aiming for a durable result and utilizing the various means to achieve it), “integrated” (with allies and various other approaches), and “sustained” (i.e. multi-year), these were the key words in characterizing the design of the program. “Robust,” “comprehensive,” and “effective,” these were the key words depicting the execution. Better leverage of Canadian military assets and expertise while complementing the work of its coalition partners – that was the frame.

But what did that mean in practice?

  • Expanding the advice and training mission for the Iraqi “boots on the ground”
  • Increasing intelligence capabilities both in Iraq and the larger Middle East theatre
  • Deploying CAF medical personnel
  • Military and diplomatic liaison with the Iraqi Departments of Defense and Interior as well as with Jordan and Lebanon
  • and, the contentious issue with the Conservatives, withdrawing the six CF-18s.

The rest of the motion had to do with enhanced humanitarian aid, development aid re governance and Canada’s refugee resettlement program. What the latter had to do with a military deployment overseas became clear in the debate, a debate that began as I indicated above with Justin Trudeau offering plaudits to Canadian men and women in uniform and compassion for the family of Andrew Poiron killed by friendly fire almost a year earlier.

During this week, if I am able to stick to my plans as I write each morning, I will try to proceed according to following plan:


With the help of Alex Zisman


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