ISIS atrocities in Iraq: What's Canada's next move?

Canadian leaders call the violent attacks in Iraq "unspeakable barbarism" and even "genocide." But beyond the strong words, how can Canada make a difference in the crisis?

Federal government working with allies on 'additional steps in the days ahead'

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has used strong words to condemn ISIS atrocities in Iraq. But the actions to date have been limited. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

As attacks and atrocities from extremist group ISIS mount in Iraq, Canada's political leaders have all offered strong words of condemnation.

Speaking to reporters in Whitehorse on Thursday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper described ISIS's tactics as  "unspeakable barbarism."

"The desire to essentially commit genocide against any group of people in the region who are different, these are shocking developments," the prime minister said.

"It's a deplorable situation," Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair said during an event in Amherstburg, Ont., "and I think that Canada should continue to work with our allies."

Canada is in "ongoing contact" with its allies, as official government tweets and other statements repeat, and "together, we will be announcing additional steps that we will be able to take with them in the days ahead." 

But what steps?

Humanitarian assistance

"What I think Canada needs to do, most important in terms of changing the dynamics, is to provide humanitarian aid now, because it's needed now — not weeks from now or months from now — it's needed right now for people who are suffering and have been the victims of barbaric acts," New Democrat Peter Julian said Thursday on CBC News Network's Power and Politics.

"I think Canada could do much more," he said.


On Aug. 10, International Development Minister Christian Paradis announced a $5 million contribution to aid organizations already established in Iraq. Of that, $2.25 million was to be "immediately allocated." 

The remaining $2.75 million would be spent after "consultations" with the government's "partners in Iraq." Two weeks on, no additional information has been available from the government.

That announcement brought to $16 million the amount of Canadian assistance to Iraq since the start of 2014: $6.8 million focused on "victims of civil unrest" and $9.5 million for programs to refugees from the continuing conflict in Syria who had fled to neighbouring Iraq. 

(In comparison: Since January 2012, Canada has spent $353.5 million on humanitarian assistance in response to the conflict in Syria.)

Support for refugees

Julian also criticized Canada's slow response on the refugee front.

"We've certainly seen with both the Syrian conflict and in Iraq an opportunity for Canada to accept more refugees, and that has been slow in terms of the numbers of people who could actually come and re-establish themselves here in Canada."

On Tuesday, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said Canada was "at the forefront" of efforts to help refugees, reminding reporters that since 2009 Canada has resettled more than 18,000 Iraqis, many of them religious minorities.

"That's a record that speaks for itself," Alexander said. "We're going to resettle 5,000 more Iraqi and Iranian refugees who are now in Turkey in the months and years to come."

But Canada's commitment to resettle roughly 20,000 Iraqi refugees, particularly those from the Christian minority, predates the current conflict.

Resettlement work was complicated and delayed with the closure of Canada's visa offices in Syria in 2012. The office had been central for processing Iraqi refugee applications, as many had fled to Syria.

Military intervention

Canada's only military deployment so far was announced on Aug. 15: two transport aircraft to move military supplies donated by other countries to Kurdish military forces in northern Iraq, involving 30 Canadian personnel.

No statement by any government official has suggested the Canadian military will do more. Other allies, most notably the Americans, have re-engaged with airstrikes against ISIS.

Liberal MP John McKay, speaking on the same Power & Politics panel as Julian, didn't rule out his support for more military involvement.

"It would certainly have to be given very serious consideration because this is in effect an attack on the very core notions of what civilization means," he said, calling the crisis on the ground "an almost a genocidal situation" where people are being "persecuted, killed and mutilated on the basis of what they believe."

"Any civilized nation, any nation that calls itself civilized, has to address that situation and cannot leave it unaddressed. So I think that's what in effect makes you pause very carefully to think about what this might involve," he said.

Mulcair told reporters he expected Harper to follow the "longstanding tradition in Canada" that before you put boots on the ground, you have to go back to Parliament." 

The House of Commons does not reconvene until Sept.15.

Diplomatic efforts and security concerns

Does the world take notice when Canada condemns ISIS?

Derek Burney, a former diplomat and chief of staff for Brian Mulroney who's co-authored a new book on Canadian foreign policy, Brave New Canada, told the CBC this week he doesn't think so.

We do tend to exaggerate the extent to which Canada is either an honest broker or a significant player.- Derek Burney, former diplomat

"We do tend to exaggerate the extent to which Canada is either an honest broker or a significant player in the Middle East," he said, pointing out that Canada doesn't really have substantial interests in the region.

"Let's face it: even the United States, with its enormous capacity for influence in the Middle East, is not exactly front and centre influencing events, either in Israel or in Syria certainly or in Iraq," Burney said.

Nevertheless, Canada's Ambassador to Jordan, who is also responsible for the Canadian mission in Iraq, was in Northern Iraq last week to meet with Kurdish officials.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird tweeted a photo of Bruno Saccomani visiting a battalion on the front lines in Nineveh.

While Saccomani was busy on the ground, Baird's ambassador for religious freedom, Andrew Bennett, called this week for other Muslim countries in the region, including important trading partners of Canada's, to use their considerable influence to stem the violence.

"[Countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Qatar] may become victims themselves if they don't stop these people out there," Baird's parliamentary secretary Deepak Obhrai said this week.

'Strong influence'

"They have quite a strong influence in the Muslim world and their voice would add quite a bit of clout to the international condemnation," Obhrai said. "It would be helpful if these countries took a stronger stand."

"I think [the Canadian government] should also use whatever contacts they have left in Tehran  which I don't think they have  to again call out the [Iranians] to support a notion of pluralism," McKay added.  (Canada ended diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012.)

"Unless the leading powers of that region actually start to approach the notion that pluralism is a meaningful concept — that people have an absolute right to believe and to act in the way they believe — then this will continue to happen over and over again," McKay said.

Canada is not alone among western countries in the struggle to stop ISIS recruitment at home, when the citizens travel to places such as Iraq and Syria and join extremist forces.

"The risk is real and that is why we have to have proper resources within Canada to track that sort of thing," Mulcair said.

"This is a radicalization that seems to be taking place and it is not a single point source there seems to be several sources for it, so I don't think any country can consider itself completely immune."