When the Canadian House of Commons adopted a resolution back in early October 2014 to join the coalition to combat ISIS beyond its foothold in Syria and Iraq, there was a provision for a renewal of the commitment in six months. This Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced a new motion to extend Canada’s role in the coalition for another year. A major modification, however, expanded operations to include airstrikes in Syria—a sovereign country torn by civil war with a leader who has committed his own atrocities.
This being an election year, debate in the House has predictably strong partisan overtones.
The Harper government, fully conscious of the majority support Canadian have expressed in recent polls for Canada’s participation in the coalition, has argued to extend the ISIS mission to avoid a greater security threat at home. The so-called lone-wolf terrorist acts in the autumn in both St.-Jean, Québec (where a Canadian soldier was killed), and on Parliament Hill in Ottawa (where a reserve soldier standing guard was also killed) only reinforced Canadian support.
Bill C-51, the proposed legislation to give increased powers to Canada’s intelligence-gathering agency (CSIS), also benefits from majority support, even as the debate rages on between those wanting stronger security measures and those fearful of the lack of civilian oversight for the protection of civil liberties. It is fair to say that the Harper government sees further gain for its electoral prospects.
The opposition parties seem to be in a bind. The New Democratic Party (NDP), the official opposition party, opposed Canada’s participation in the coalition back in October, and now opposes the extension of the mission. Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair has indicated that, if elected, he would cancel the mission and order the troops back home. The NDP also opposes the C-51 legislation. Despite his consistency and his resolve, Mulcair is clearly not defending positions in line with the prevailing mood in Canada.
The Liberals, under leader Justin Trudeau, also opposed the October resolution, arguing primarily for a humanitarian and training mission. While Trudeau surprised and disappointed some of his followers with his support of C-51, he has remained steadfast in his opposition to the combat portion of the mission. Should he become prime minister, he promises to change the mission—unlike Mulcair, who would end Canadian participation. This position, however, is difficult to summarize in a sound bite.
It is evident that our three political leaders have their eyes on the October 19, 2015 election date. Unfortunately, this is preventing a much-needed debate on two major issues: expanding the war to Syria and a lack of political oversight of the enhanced powers provided to the police and intelligence authorities by Bill C-51.
Like the majority of Canadians, I believe that Canada cannot stay on the sidelines in the face of the barbaric threat represented by ISIS. If anything, the scope of terror has expanded. Yes, they have lost some ground and are on the defensive in the battle for the city of Tikrit in Iraq. However, the terrorist attack on the Tunis museum, which resulted in over 30 deaths, their recent terrorist intervention in Yemen—thereby creating the real possibility of a civil war—and the targeting of specific U.S. armed forces involved in the conflict all show that ISIS is far from being in retreat. Their clever use of social media, the recruitment of jihadists in Europe and North America, and their unspeakable brutality requires that Canada and the rest of the 60-plus countries in the coalition stay the course.
This being said, expanding Canadian involvement to Syria requires greater precision in purpose, more information about the role, and increased risk assessment. Syria is led by a murderous government which we abhor, and its opponents on the ground are far from reliable as possible allies against ISIS. The risk of casualties is definitely greater. Canadians need to know the implications, should we expand the mission.
Bill C-51 faces opposition from very respectable quarters–former prime ministers, civil libertarians, respected academics, and former Supreme Court justices. If anything should be above politics, it is the debate about the reduction of civil liberties in exchange for greater security measures. This issue must not be a zero-sum game.
Canadians deserve better than election-year partisan battles over a resolution where there is no identified endgame and a significant information deficit about the dangers. When Corporal Nathan Cirillo was killed in Ottawa by a lone gunman last October, all three political leaders came together on the floor of the House of Commons the following day. This one-year extension requires the same spirit. Is it too much to ask?