Not even a missile attack can shake House's commitment to low-level dysfunction: Aaron Wherry

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answered questions in the Commons about the U.S. missile strikes in Syria — but only after a point of order, an intervention from the Speaker and other confusion.

After some confusion in the Commons, Trudeau takes questions about U.S. missile strikes in Syria

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks about the U.S. airstrikes in Syria during question period on Friday. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

On the morning after the president of the United States sent 59 cruise missiles into Syria, the first major military act of the wildly unpredictable Trump era, there was some confusion as to whether the prime minister of Canada had the unanimous consent of the House of Commons to stand and deliver a statement on the situation. 

Shortly before 11 a.m., 15 minutes after the prime minister had been rumoured to speak, the NDP's Matthew Dubé stood on a point of order to ask where Justin Trudeau was. Kevin Lamoureux, the deputy Liberal House leader, suggested that Dubé talk to his own side about whether they had agreed to let Trudeau speak.

Back to Dubé, who stood and testified that there was such agreement. Then to Candice Bergen, the Conservative House leader, who informed the House that her party was also agreed.

The Speaker finally rose and suggested the parties take the discussion to the lobby.

So let it be noted that not even an act of war can shake this stolid House from its commitment to low-level dysfunction.

Otherwise, the sudden escalation of an intractable tragedy was a moment that seemed to call out for urgent comment. And so the nation's leaders were pressed into action.

Thing is, there is only so much anyone has to say.

PM 'dangerously naive'

In lieu of a statement, the prime minister put in a rare appearance at Friday morning's traditionally neglected session of question period.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre immediately accused him of being "dangerously naive."

"Yesterday, he said that the United Nations Security Council needed to have a meeting, pass resolutions, and hold an investigation to find out who was originally responsible for the chemical attacks against Syrian civilians including children," Poilievre explained of Trudeau.

"Only hours later, the United States launched missile strikes against the origins of those very chemical attacks. Why is it that the prime minister continues to put all of his faith in the Security Council, which has failed to confront [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad?"

Poilievre would later suggest that Trudeau, in supporting U.S. President Donald Trump's actions, had committed the dreaded act of flip-flopping.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre accused Trudeau of being 'dangerously naive' for putting so much faith in the UN Security Council. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

In fairness to Trudeau, bombing Syria wasn't even Trump's position Thursday. And then suddenly it was.

Prior to that, the House of Commons hadn't been particularly seized with the matter.

On Wednesday, a day after the world became aware that a deadly chemical attack had occurred in the northwestern province of Idlib, the Conservatives asked one question, while Peter Kent, their foreign affairs critic, made a statement declaring, without specifics, that Assad must be held to account.

There were zero questions about the matter during question period on Thursday.

Of course, Syria is a deeply complicated situation that defies simple solutions. And Canada is not in a position to lead an invasion.

But now someone else had done something, and suddenly there was support for just that sort of thing.

This being a time of two leadership races, there were all the more politicians with reason to comment. Lisa Raitt, a Conservative candidate, demanded to know the extent of Trudeau's knowledge and support of the U.S. attack on Shayrat airbase. A pair of her campaign rivals, Erin O'Toole and Michael Chong, both issued statements supporting the American offensive, but O'Toole added criticism of Canada's contribution to the fight against ISIS.

NDP leadership contender Peter Julian tweeted approvingly about the comments of U.K. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and said Canada must not intervene militarily. Leadership rival Niki Ashton called for further investigation of the chemical attack.

What Trudeau knew and when

In the House, Trudeau at least had useful information to provide.

Last night, he said, the American secretary of defence briefed Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who promptly briefed Trudeau. Trudeau spoke with Trump this morning.

That much at least seemed to counter the charge, made by interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose in a statement on Friday morning, that the Trudeau government had been "out of the loop."

"In the face of such heinous war crimes, all civilized peoples must speak with one voice," Trudeau explained. "That is why Canada fully supports the United States' limited, focused action to degrade the Assad regime's ability to launch such attacks. We continue to support diplomatic efforts with our international partners to resolve the crisis in Syria."

Six years into the conflict, it's not clear what hope there is for diplomacy. But nor is there an obvious case for Western intervention. Or even any indication that Trump wants to go for another round of missiles.

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      Trudeau wouldn't tell the House why he was newly certain of Assad's guilt, but he would later tell reporters that it was the Americans who provided such assurances.

      With his second question, Poilievre declared himself unpersuaded by the prime minister's stated support for the Americans.

      "When will the prime minister stop being so dangerously naive and confront this dictator and tyrant?'" he asked, after again dismissing the UN's effectiveness.

      Exactly how the Canadian government should confront Assad was left unspecified.

      In response to further mockery of the United Nations by Conservative MP Gérard Deltell, Trudeau stressed his government's belief in multilateralism and a diplomatic solution in Syria, but he would also speak, vaguely, of sending a message to those who support the Syrian government: they are "partly responsible for these chemical attacks."

      Under questioning by the NDP's Murray Rankin, Trudeau seemed to imply the Trump administration wasn't planning further strikes.

      Unknown impact of missile strikes

      When Rankin was later questioned by reporters, he said that without more information, New Democrats weren't in a position to say whether they supported the American attack.

      "It is not clear what the impact of these missile strikes will be on the conflict," the NDP said in a statement.

      Indeed, by the afternoon, it was being reported that the airfield targeted on Thursday night was still in operation.

      By Monday, the House might be more interested in other things.

      With any luck, by the time the prime minister next needs to speak to the House about an urgent matter, the parties will have worked through their current relationship issues.

      About the Author

      Aaron Wherry

      Parliament Hill Bureau

      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.


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