After two hours of closed-door meetings, MPs trying to negotiate the release of documents related to the treatment of prisoners transferred to Afghan custody by the Canadian military emerged Thursday morning looking sombre and without a deal.

House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken granted the MPs a deadline extension until Friday to come up with an agreement. But with less than 24 hours to go, there still appear to be some sticking points.

In fact, Bloc Québécois MP Pierre Paquette indicated new obstacles had arisen.

"The government put other conditions on the table … their position is not the same … [as] it was yesterday," he said.


NDP MP Jack Harris says he doesn't characterize the lack of a deal as a 'setback.' ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

NDP MP Jack Harris would not say whether or not he was more or less optimistic than he was after meetings on Thursday.

"We're getting down to brass tacks here, so in that sense, we're looking at what the real issues are, and we're still working on it," he said. "I wouldn't characterize anything as a setback … these are serious issues.

"I think the Speaker put it well when he gave us his ruling two weeks ago. He said, 'These will be difficult discussions and difficult negotiations,' and I think that's the case."

At the end of last month, Milliken ruled that MPs have a right to see the uncensored documents but that they have to figure out how to do that while taking into account national security concerns.

The documents include a wide range of material related to Canada's mission in Afghanistan, including emails, faxes, reports and legal briefs — primarily from the ministries of defence and foreign affairs.

The opposition has said it suspects the documents will show that Canadian officials knew prisoners captured by the Canadian military and handed over to Afghan authorities faced a real risk of torture.

Can't agree on what to keep secret

The negotiations appear to be stuck on the issue of how to resolve disputes among opposition MPs and the government over which documents can be made public and which ones should remain secret.

But it's also not clear whether the opposition itself is united. When Harris was asked if it was possible that the Liberals and the government might agree on a mechanism for disputes that the NDP doesn't agree with, he said:

"We aren't at that point yet, and I suppose anything is possible in these discussions. There are four parties involved, and there may be different points of view."

Harris says the public should care about this process because it's all about getting at the truth and ensuring the government does not impede parliamentarians from doing their job.

Despite the looming deadline, MPs won't meet again until Friday morning.

If an agreement cannot be reached, the opposition could move a motion to find the government in contempt of the House. That could result in a snap election.