Baird rebuffs advice from former hostage Fowler on Mali

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says he doesn't want to "get into a debate" with former Canadian diplomat and one-time al-Qaeda hostage Robert Fowler. Baird, Fowler and International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino briefed MPs Tuesday on the conflict in Mali.

Foreign affairs, CIDA ministers updated Commons committee on activities in West Africa

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says he doesn't want to "get into a debate" with former Canadian diplomat and one-time al-Qaeda hostage Robert Fowler. Baird, Fowler and International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino briefed MPs Tuesday on the conflict in Mali. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says he has no interest in hearing any direct advice from former Canadian diplomat and one-time al-Qaeda hostage Robert Fowler.

"He obviously had a distinguished record as a former diplomat ... I can tell you I have one better than that: I have the entire foreign service, diplomatic team at the Department of Foreign Affairs that I count on and rely on," Baird said Tuesday as he testified before the House of Commons foreign affairs committee.

"I'm not going to get into a debate with a former diplomat."

Four years ago, Fowler and fellow Canadian diplomat Louis Guay came face to face with that threat when they were kidnapped and held for 130 days by the Islamic Maghreb, the al-Qaeda linked group in Mali.

Prior to the minister's testimony, Fowler told the all-party committee of MPs that Baird hasn't asked to meet him to hear about his unique perspective on the al-Qaida linked terrorist threat in West Africa.

"Mr. Baird has not sought my advice," he said in response to a question from NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar. "I have had chats with other people in the government, particularly shortly after I came back."

Fowler has been critical of the Harper government, which he maintains is not doing enough to help French and African forces in Mali, where the same terrorists behind his abduction recently gained a foothold in the northern part of the country before being driven out.

Retired diplomat criticized DFAIT cuts

Fowler renewed that criticism Tuesday when he told the committee that the government needs to stop making cuts to the foreign service which he says are harming Canada's international interests.

Fowler criticized the Foreign Affairs Department plan to cut costs by closing embassies and selling property at a time when a terrorist insurgency is threatening West Africa.

Retired diplomat and former hostage Robert Fowler testified before the Commons foreign affairs committee Tuesday, telling MPs Canada needs to do more to fight the terrorist insurgency in West Africa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The department plans to cut $170 million from its $2.6-billion budget over the next two years, including the sale of some official residences, which are projected to generate some $80 million in revenue.

"We're going in a counter-trend direction. I don't know why we are," Fowler testified.

"I know life is tough and budgets are tight and we can do things smarter. But yes, I believe Canada has interests to protect and project. We haven't been doing much of that lately."

Fowler said he doesn't want to see Canadian infantry battalions "drawing a line" in Mali's desert fighting terrorists.

But he said Canadian special forces could be helping French special forces, while the military could contribute intelligence and logistics officers as well as helicopters and trucks.

"I wish we would stop talking in binary fashion about boots on the ground or not boots on the ground. It isn't that simple."

And he said Canada's recent $13 million contribution in humanitarian aid was paltry when compared to past aid contributions.

Opposition MPs on the committee questioned why Baird wouldn't want to hear Fowler's unique perspective.

"He's an experienced diplomat and obviously went through what he went through recently," Dewar said.

Liberal MP John McKay said Fowler would likely have a lot more to tell Baird in private than he has said in public.

"It's disappointing, minister, that you haven't had time to visit with Mr. Fowler over the last few months," said McKay. "He's clearly one of Canada's most experienced and respected diplomats, and is very knowledgeable of the area."

Canada 'reflecting' on next steps

MPs heard from the French and Malian ambassadors last week, as Canada's mission providing logistical support to its allies continues through Friday.

It's unclear whether the Canadian military will continue to play a role in the French and African-led mission against al-Qaeda-linked rebels beyond its one-month deployment of a single C-17 transport plane.

Baird told MPs Tuesday there has been no request yet for an extension of the cargo aircraft's shuttle runs in and out of Mali with equipment, supplies and potentially troops. The minister did say the military could respond quickly to a request should one be made.

A limited number of Canadian special forces are also on the ground protecting Canadian assets.

Canadian ground troops have played a limited training role for African troops from nearby countries, but are not active in the ground mission to retake and hold the country's north, previously overrun by the insurgents who had also threatened the country's capital, Bamako.

The Harper government has said Canadian ground troops will not be involved in the future and that Canada's support role will not morph into an offensive one.

Baird said Tuesday he was "very cautious about sending in potentially thousands of Canadian troops to a counterinsurgency," saying Canada was not going to get involved in "another Afganistan." 

Baird did acknowledge Canada's obligation to participate in the fight against terrorism, saying that there were requests before the Harper government now from African organizations.

"We will reflect on them before we come to a conclusion," he said, pointing out that at the moment the conflict was not ready for a peacekeeping mission.

On Feb. 5, the House of Commons held a take-note debate on Canada's role in Mali. Neither minister participated, so Tuesday's committee meeting was a chance for MPs to ask more detailed questions on the government's actions and strategy to this point.

In late January, Fantino announced an additional $13 million in humanitarian assistance to take care of urgent needs in the country, although Canada's other development projects in the country remain suspended until its political situation stablilizes.

with files from CBC News