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The Iraq file: Who wants to fight shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. now? Robert Sheppard, CBC.ca Reality Check Team | Dec. 13, 2005 | More Reality Check

"If I were prime minister, we would not be involved in Iraq. I would encourage the Americans and hope they're successful, but our government would not be there." Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, Dec. 13, 2005 at a press conference in Trenton, Ont.


He had to know it was coming. At a campaign stop near CFB Trenton, Ont., to announce the Conservative defence policy – new heavy-duty military aircraft to move troops around the globe, doubling the size of Canada's Assistance Response Team, reviving an airborne battalion – the question was inevitable: Would Stephen Harper send Canadian troops to Iraq? That's when he gave the answer above, adding for what may well be the first and last time in the campaign that this is a policy he shares with Paul Martin.

It was not always thus, of course. In the spring of 2003, when Harper was the new leader of the Canadian Alliance and the United States was embarking on its overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Harper was one of Canada's biggest hawks. In the last year or so, however, he appears to have undergone somewhat of a transformation. Earlier this week, he sent a letter to the editor of the Washington Times, trying to quash the view that if elected he would quickly become George W. Bush's "new best friend."

His positions on Iraq, Kyoto and social conservatism have been vastly oversimplified, Harper wrote. On Iraq in particular, he said he was happy about the removal of Saddam but would not commit Canadian troops to the conflict, and he felt "great disappointment" at the breakdown in pre-war intelligence.

This is not an indefensible position given all that's happened since the invasion of Iraq. But that is not the one Harper was espousing two years ago.

  • CBC News: Harper says he has 'many differences' with U.S. conservatives (Dec. 12, 2005)
  • CBC News: Tories would bring back airborne regiment (Dec. 13, 2005)

Harper's comments

  • In March 2003, the Canadian Alliance was the only party in the Commons to vote against a Bloc Québécois resolution to stay out of the war. At the time, Harper said "in reading only the polls, indulging a juvenile and insecure anti-Americanism, this government has for the first time in our history left us outside our British and American allies in their time of need."

  • "In the final analysis," he added, "disarming Iraq is necessary for the long-term security of the world, to the collective interest of our historic allies and, therefore, manifestly it is in the national interest of this country."

  • A few days later, on March 28, 2003 as the invasion began, Harper wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal in which he reiterated those views and said: "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."

The following week he told Fox News that most Canadians outside Quebec support the U.S.-led invasion. He also introduced a motion in the Commons asking Canada to support the war.

There are many news clips showing Harper's support of the war during that period. One has him saying, "We should have been there, shoulder to shoulder with our allies." But his most elaborate justification came in a speech in Toronto in April 2003 that sought to justify the new Conservative movement. In it, he lambasted the Left and Jean Chrétien's Liberals for waffling:

  • "They argue one day that there are no weapons of mass destruction, yet warn such weapons might be used. They tell us the war was immoral, then moral but impractical, then practical but unjustified."

He went on, "There is no doubt about the technical capacity of our society to fight this war" – an opinion he doesn't seem to hold today. At Trenton this week, he said that while he supported the war earlier, he always had doubts about Canada's ability to actually contribute any soldiers.

Harper's repositioning began just over a year ago, in June 2004, in the run-up to the election that year. Harper told reporters that he was only advocating morally supporting Bush and Tony Blair. Later in June, as the campaign began, he said he hadn't wanted to send Canadian troops to Iraq for the invasion, he was thinking of a pre-deployment before the war to scare Saddam.

In that campaign, Harper also said he wouldn't send any Canadian forces to Iraq at that point, in 2004, not even to train Iraqi police, which was something the Liberal government had just authorized.

The Martin position

Perhaps because he came to power by dethroning chief rival Chrétien, there has always been a lurking suspicion Paul Martin was a secret supporter of the Bush initiative. After all, he harboured many other distinct positions from his predecessor. What's more, he came to office – it's easy to forget today in the wake of so much anti-American campaigning – promising smoother relations with our neighbours to the south.

There is nothing in Martin's public statements during that early period or in any of the recent biographies of him that suggest he wanted to send Canadian troops to Iraq, though there is plenty of confusion as to where he really stood.

One Martin quote that made the rounds of political websites during the last election (and continues to do so today, even on the NDP site) came from his interview with the North Bay Nugget in April 2003, when he was campaigning for the Liberal leadership.

  • He said: "I really think Canada should get over to Iraq as quickly as possible." That segment is usually all that shows up on political blogs. The full quote goes on to read: "There's a huge need for front-line medical professionals. There's a huge need for policing. And there's a huge need for infrastructure rebuilding."

When Martin became prime minister at the end of 2003, the Bush administration announced it would not offer contracts to help rebuild Iraq to any non-coalition members. Canada complained. It had just committed troops to Afghanistan, to relieve U.S. forces there, and it was offering $300 million to send police trainers, electoral officials and medical personnel to Iraq, though most would get no closer than Jordan.

  • That was the basis for Martin's position, going into the 2004 election, that "once the war in Iraq began, Canada was far from neutral."

Later, in December 2004 after the Bush visit to Canada, Martin was pushed by CNN interviewer Wolf Blitzer to agree to commit Canadian troops to Iraq at some point. He dodged the question even when it was repeated twice, saying Canada had enough commitments in Afghanistan, Haiti and the Sudan.

  • Finally he said: "We did not agree with the invasion of Iraq," adding "once that was done, once we're into the situation where we want to create a democracy in Iraq, take those elections and rebuild Iraq [then], as far as I'm concerned, we are at one with the United States."

That last part, at least, seems to be exactly where Harper is today.

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