A test for Trudeau? Canada's Liberals split on Iraq combat mission

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (C) stands to vote against a government motion to participate in U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State militants operating in Iraq, The motion passed 157 to 134. (REUTERS/Chris Wattie)

Justin Trudeau is facing the first serious test of his leadership of Canada’s Liberals in the wake of a parliamentary vote to send Canadian fighter jets to Iraq.

Trudeau and most Liberal MPs voted agains the idea.

But Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, a former justice minister and a globally recognized human rights defender, abstained from the vote, saying in a statement that his “principled absention”, as he called it, was a result of his recognition that military intervention against Islamic terrorists in Iraq and Syria is required but that the Harper government’s proposal lacked “clarity.”

Cotler, former Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion and former Liberal cabinet ministers Lawrence MacAulay and Mauril Bélanger were also absent from Tuesday night’s vote.

And influential Liberals like former interim leader Bob Rae, former Liberal cabinet ministers Lloyd Axworthy and Ujjal Dosanjh, and retired general and former Liberal senator Romeo Dallaire all argued ahead of the vote for a combat mission in Iraq.

The apparent schism among Canada’s Liberals was an opportunity for Trudeau’s political opponents to pounce.

“The Liberal Party should hang its head in a shame,” Employment Minister Jason Kenney said after the vote. “This is an ignoble day for the proud Liberal Party of Canada, underscored by Irwin Cotler’s absence tonight.”

Kenney has long admired Cotler’s work in defence of human rights in Canada and around the world and Kenney even began his political career as a Liberal staffer working for longtime Liberal MP Ralph Goodale.

“The vote that the Liberal Party cast tonight is contrary to everything that party ever stood for in foreign and security policy,” Kenney said.

And, indeed, Trudeau now may have more work convincing his own party, let alone Canadian voters, that he was right to reject the combat mission Iraq largely on the basis that, in his estimation, the Harper Conservatives had not made the case for a combat mission.

“The prime minister has not justified these air strikes,” Trudeau told reporters Tuesday before the vote. “The prime minister has failed to demonstrate transparency and accountability for sending Canada into war.”

Employment Minister Jason Kenney: ” This is an ignoble day for the proud Liberal Party of Canada…” (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)

Kenney disagreed.

“As far as I’m concerned, this was the easiest call that a government or Parliament has faced in the deployment of Canadian force in decades,” Kenney said. “Tonight, we were talking about sending six fighters to help defend innocent civilians from a maniacal, genocidal death cult.”

On Monday, in a speech she gave steps from the House of Commons, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said military intervention was “critical” and “essential” though not “sufficient”. Federal Liberals believe Clinton and the U.S. Democrats more broadly to be kindred spirits. Trudeau and senior members of his inner circle were in the hall for Clinton’s speech.

In addition to six CF-18 fighter jets, Canada is sending two reconnaissance planes, a refueling jet and about 600 or so support personnel to Iraq for six months.

Hours before the vote, Bryon Wilfert, a former Liberal MP, said on Twitter, “As a former Liberal Foreign Affairs/Defence Critic, I believe the case has been made for Canada to support the flight [in Iraq]. ”

Michelle Simson, another former Liberal MP, also posted a tweet saying, “If I was still in the House of Commons, I would vote with the government on this issue.”

That tweet appeared to have been subsequently deleted from Simson’s Twitter account but not before it was read into the parliamentary record by Conservative MP Royal Galipeau.

On social networks like Twitter and Facebook, many Liberals argued amongst each other about the virtue of Trudeau’s decision.

The vote Tuesday night capped off two days of Parliamentary debate in which the Liberals and the NDP tried to outdo each other in opposition to the combat mission.

As a result, the government was hardly challenged on the premise that its combat mission of a handful of — to use Trudeau’s sneer in Parliament Friday — “aging warplanes” was a robust enough response to terrorists who now control hundreds of square kilometres of Iraq and Syria.

Ironically, the Canadian Alliance that Stockwell Day led in 2001 and in which Kenney played a leading role would almost certainly have challenged the Liberal government of Jean Chretien if that had been all he had offered as Canada’s contribution to NATO’s military mission in Afghanistan.

“I think the more obvious Liberal position would be to say exactly that,” Kenney said. “I think the more obvious Liberal position would be to demand a more robust intervention in Iraq.”

8 thoughts on “A test for Trudeau? Canada's Liberals split on Iraq combat mission”

  1. He has lost my support. I’ve decided to let my membership in the Liberal Party lapse. I’ve had enough of Trudeau.

  2. David, perhaps you should write another article entitled Green party split, again.

    Green leader Elizabeth May voted against Harper’s war but new MP Hyer voted with the Conservatives.

    It’s like the Green MLA in my riding of Oak Bay- Gordon Head voting twice for the BC Liberal budget despite 70% of the riding voters voting against the Liberals.

    He also support’s David Black’s proposed Kitimat oil refinery and associated oil super tankers despite my Green MP May saying the Green party is opposed to increased oil super tankers off BC’s coast.

    Perhaps the Green party hopes to attract votes from those opposed to Harper’s war as well as those who support it – and those who support increased oil super tanker traffic as well as those opposed to increased oil tanker traffic?

  3. The fact remains the government did not need the approval of the opposition or any percentage of them. The decision to go to war rests solely in the hands of the executive branch of government. Media seems to think that if the opposition votes against the mission they could stop it. Far from the truth. This was done as a courtesy to the opposition. Nothing more. The decision was made and the right one was made. Canada cannot sit on the sidelines and watch people being beheaded and innocent civilians being slaughtered. The opposition should be ashamed of themselves.

  4. The Liberal grandees don’t seem to following leader Justin in his opposition to Canada’s mission to Iraq. Here they are:

    Irwin Cotler
    Stephane Dion
    Lawrence MacAulay
    Mauril Bélanger
    Byron Wilfert
    Michelle Simson
    Lloyd Axworthy
    Ujjal Dosanjh
    Bob Rae
    …and more hiding in the bushes…!

    Even Liberal admirers of US liberal Hillary Clinton are offside with her support for Obama’s mission.

    The most comical is Liberal MP Marc Garneau who came up with the lame statement that he opposes the Conservative motion to send the Canadian military to Iraq, but then corkscrewed himself by saying he would support Canada’s troops in Iraq. Talk about Liberal double-talk… lol

    Of course, we all know Trudeau is taking the anti-war stance to ingratiate himself and his Liberals in Quebec and to counter the NDP leftist ambivalence for jihadi terrorists. It’s all about the Quebec vote.

    1. Add Romeo Dallaire to that list, to complete the ‘generational schism’ within the Liberal party.

      Don’t be surprised if you see a Conservative election attack ad suggesting that Trudeau is an ISIS supporter because he and his Liberals voted against sending Canadian planes and troops to Iraq.

      Prez Bush said: “You are with us or against us!”…. and Justin’s Liberals are against Canadians fighting ISIS in the ME.

  5. I’m so proud of Justin Trudeau for not giving Harper and his cronies a blank cheque for not supporting the war. Just wait, the truth will come out and we will see if David Akins goes after the Conservatives and Harper.

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