OTTAWA – Top government officials gave their first official briefing on the mission against ISIS in Iraq on Thursday and made no apologies for Canada’s role.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson and Chief of Defence Staff Tom Lawson answered questions from opposition MPs before a special House committee.
Canadian troops have returned fire on ISIS militants three times this month, prompting both the Liberals and New Democrats to question the government’s assurances that Canadians aren’t in a combat role on the ground.
The government says Canada’s role has "evolved," but the opposition says Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s claim back in September that Canadians wouldn’t "accompany" Iraqi or Kurdish fighters to the front has been proven false.
The Tories and their rivals argued about the definition of "accompany" and whether it changes in a military context.
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar doesn’t think so.
"If it walks like a duck, you know, talks like a duck, it’s a duck," Dewar said.
"This has been an evolutionary process because this has been a success; they’re moving forward," Nicholson responded. "This is not a combat mission but if you fire on Canadian Forces, whether it’s here, in Iraq or indeed anywhere, you can expect Canadian Forces to fire back and that’s completely consistent with the rules of engagement and international warfare and common sense."
British media have reported U.K. special forces use drones to identify targets and have killed many ISIS militants. The reports contradict the NDP’s claim that Canada is the only country in a 61-country coalition to return fire.
Asked to comment on this, NDP defence critic Jack Harris appeared unsure.
"I don’t know if that’s the case," he said. "Sometimes we don’t know what special (forces) are doing."
Dewar also went after Nicholson because the government refuses to answer questions about the cost of the mission, but Nicholson responded with a question of his own.
"We should look at the human cost of not doing anything, which is what the NDP wants us to do."