Justin Trudeau accused of both withdrawing and not withdrawing from ISIS fight

A week after presenting his government's plan to combat ISIS, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hears complaints from Conservatives and New Democrat about the Canadian mission.

Commons sketch | The Conservatives and New Democrats give the Liberals a fight on 2 fronts

Appearing in question period for the first time since announcing his government's new plan to combat ISIS, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was attacked by Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose for pulling out of the combat mission and by NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair for committing to a combat mission. (Sean Kilpatrick/Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press )

Rona Ambrose used the word "fight" six times in the space of 30 seconds in the House of Commons this afternoon.

"Mr. Speaker for the last year, our fighter jets have brought the fight to ISIS because it's the right thing to do," she told Parliament. "The fight against ISIS is a just fight. But the prime minister is taking us out of the fight against ISIS. If he won't fight terrorists, just when will he ever fight?"

Debate about the Canadian contribution to battling ISIS depends on how one defines that word. And, of course, how one thinks a fight, however defined, should be properly fought.

Ambrose's question, though perhaps designed to be unanswerable, was of a rather philosophical nature. In response, Justin Trudeau assured Ambrose that his government had gone looking for "the best possible way Canada could help in stabilizing the region" and had subsequently put forward a "comprehensive and strong plan." 

The Opposition leader was unimpressed.

"Mr. Speaker, training and diplomacy and humanitarian efforts are important, but they are not fighting," Ambrose said. "They're not."

Before expanding on her general disappointment, Ambrose felt it necessary to remind everyone of Trudeau's phallic joke of 2014 when he suggested Canadians should be more involved in humanitarian aid rather than "trying to whip out our CF-18s and show them how big they are?"

"He just doesn't get it, Mr. Speaker. There are times when military action is necessary And fighting is necessary. But he's taken us out of that fight," she charged. "If he will not fight terrorists, just when will he ever fight?"

That we should necessarily fight "terrorists" with airstrikes is perhaps a broad proposition. Canada is not, for instance, pursuing al-Qaeda, whose affiliates were recently responsible for the deaths of five Canadians in Burkina Faso. (In her first question, Ambrose had highlighted the human atrocities of ISIS, but there was no call to bomb Boko Haram.)

The position that the Islamic State should specifically be targeted by airstrikes is held by the leaders of a half dozen other countries. 

That Canada will no longer participate in those activities — at least directly — is of some import, even if the sum total of Canada's contribution in this regard was six planes (accounting for five per cent of all strikes).

To defend himself, the prime minister quoted the words of an American colonel who had apparently recently ventured that, "We are not going to bomb our way out of this problem, right? It's never going to happen. So we've got enough bombers ... but we can't lose sight of the fact that we have to train this Iraqi security force."

Canada's new contribution of training was described as "extraordinarily helpful."

"Canada is doing what our allies need for us to do," Trudeau declared.

But even if bombs won't solve the problem, no one is suggesting that the problem can be solved without bombs. And therein lies a complication the Liberals have never quite resolved. ("Mr. Speaker, the prime minister has not given Canadians one single good reason why we should stop bombing ISIS with our fighter jets," Conservative critic James Bezan later lamented.)

Ambrose & Trudeau

6 years ago
Duration 1:15
Ambrose and Trudeau spar over ISIS plan

Standing to respond to Trudeau's declaration, Ambrose chuckled slightly.

"Mr. Speaker," she responded, "training is helpful, but it is not fighting."

Perhaps. But shortly thereafter the prime minister would be presented with exactly the inverse. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair is of the opinion that the training is analogous to fighting, at least combat.

"Mr. Speaker, during the election, Canadians were led to believe that under a Liberal government the mission in Iraq and Syria would be scaled back and that Canada would no longer participate in a combat mission. However, General Vance said that with the Liberals' new mission, the lives of the men and women of the military are actually at greater risk. Then over the weekend, the Minister of National Defence also admitted that this is indeed an expansion with increased risk," he said.

"Can the prime minister please explain how we can call this a non-combat mission when there is in fact more risk for our troops on the front line?"

Trudeau attempted now an appeal to history. 

"Mr. Speaker, on the beaches of World War II and in the trenches of World War I, Canadians have never shied away from standing up and doing what is right," he said. "We are actually …"

The Conservatives howled and the Speaker was compelled to intervene.

"Our troops will always have the capacity to defend themselves when fired upon," Trudeau concluded once order had been restored.

Mulcair pressed Trudeau harder.

"Mr. Speaker, the prime minister just gave two examples of combat missions," he came back. "Which is it? Is it a combat missions? Yes or no?"

The New Democrats applauded the demand.

Trudeau did not respond directly.

"Mr. Speaker, our government is stepping up to the fight," Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan would later say.

"Mr. Speaker," Bezan responded, "it is a non-combat mission, so we are not in the fight."

So there. And so the Liberal government stands accused of not fighting and of being too closely involved in the fight, of not doing enough of this and of doing too much of that. The government will take Canadians out of the air, but will put more Canadians on the ground. 

That the Liberals should find themselves somewhere between the Conservatives and New Democrats might make a certain kind of sense. But it also means a fight on two fronts. 


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.