Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is rejecting any suggestion that Canada is being sidelined by its anti-ISIS coalition partners, after the minister was not invited to participate in a key meeting with allies in Paris this week.
"Not at all," Sajjan told reporters at a cabinet retreat in New Brunswick today. "Meetings happen all the time. There's a number of other meetings that happen that you may not be actually aware of.
"I have a meeting at Norad that's happening in a couple of days that's very important … and I have a couple of meetings that are going to be coming up in the next few weeks to talk about [ISIS]."
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CBC News Network's Power & Politics revealed yesterday that Sajjan was not invited to a meeting of the defence ministers of France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Australia, the Netherlands and the United States on Wednesday.
Defence ministers will discuss the next stage in the fight against ISIS. Canada's absence calls into question the degree to which allies value the contribution Canada is making to the coalition in light of the government's plan to withdraw its fighter jets from the region.
In dismissing the apparent snub, Sajjan said he has a meeting coming up in Brussels in a couple of weeks and that he has a "very good idea" of what is happening on the ground.
"I was most recently back into the region to get a first-hand look at what's going on, [and] talk to the actual commanders on the ground, which allowed me to get a great sense and refine the contributions that we'll be making as a country to the overall fight," he said.
Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose said she asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to keep Canada's six CF-18s in the region to continue the fight against ISIS. If he doesn't do that, Ambrose said, Trudeau needs to be clear with our allies about what Canada will do.
"It's obvious when you are not a partner, a full partner, you don't get invited to the table," she said. "We've said we are pulling out of that bombing mission, and we don't have a clear plan to what we are going to do to replace it."
Unclear how Canada will participate
Former Liberal foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy told CBC News Network that the federal government has been unclear about what Canada's contribution to the fight against ISIS will be after its fighter jets are withdrawn from the region.
"It's not sure where and what Canada is planning to do," he said. "I know there are discussions reported … in the cabinet retreat. I hope something comes out of it. I hope that by the time Parliament meets next week that there will be a pretty clear set of prescriptions put on the table of what we can do and how we can help."
Axworthy said there are many other options for how Canada could participate in the fight against ISIS, but that for the last three months there's been uncertainty as to how Canada will continue to participate in the coalition.
'We can't afford to be on the sidelines.' –Lloyd Axworthy, former Liberal cabinet minister
"It's that lack of direction and certainty that I think is causing other people to wonder," he said. "Australia gets invited with the same number of aircraft that we have still flying, but we don't. The government has to think about that and respond to it."
Axworthy said the government needs to consider what to do next in light of ISIS-inspired attacks in Europe and the death of six Canadians in an attack in Burkina Faso, West Africa. "We can't afford to be on the sidelines," he said.
'2nd tier' now, says Peter MacKay
Former Conservative defence minister Peter MacKay told CBC News Network's Power & Politics that Sajjan did not get invited to the meeting because the decision to pull Canada's CF-18s out of the mission has sent the world "a signal that Canada is no longer actively engaged at that level."
"Not to say that training is not important, that other contributions such as refuelling ... are not important. But we're in a second tier. We're not part of that very active engagement that we were previously," he said.
MacKay said the decision to scale back commitment, "while other countries in the coalition are talking about stepping up their efforts … diminishes Canada's role and reputation in the world."
Canada has nine aircraft currently participating in the anti-ISIS coalition including six CF-18 Hornet fighters, one CC-150T Polaris aerial refueller and two CP-140M Aurora surveillance aircraft. The Polaris and Aurora aircraft will remain in the region after the CF-18s return home.
A U.S. Embassy spokesperson said the meeting was a "one-time" event co-hosted by the U.S. and France and was not a formal coalition meeting.
"The United States and Canada are great friends and allies, and together with our coalition partners, we will continue to work to degrade and destroy [ISIS]," the embassy said in an email to CBC News.