Mr. Speaker, I will split my time with the member for . What transpired before you had to make the decision to proceed with this motion goes to show the need for this motion to come before the House.
We reached the point where we had to bring this motion, for one simple reason. The government, the and the ministers simply do not have any moral credibility on this issue anymore. From the outset of this issue they have demanded that we take them at their word, but their word has no value anymore.
From the outset of this issue they have insisted there was no compelling evidence of detainee abuse or torture, but day after day and week after week the facts have continued to come out and the facts have said otherwise. From the outset of this issue they have attacked the patriotism and integrity of those who have demanded answers, accusing them of aiding and abetting the Taliban enemy. However, it is now their patriotism and integrity that looks shabby and shallow.
From the outset of this issue they have hidden very strong words, like “cowards”, behind the heroism and bravery of the soldiers on the ground. But now we know they have covered the facts on the ground in Afghanistan and they have launched an unprecedented smear campaign against the one person, Richard Colvin, whose evidence they could not silence.
We have asked for facts and received cynical spin. We have asked for accountability and received only evasion. We have asked for the truth and received everything but. All of this is because the and the minister have treated this from the outset as a partisan issue and not a moral issue, as a search for an alibi and not a search for truth.
The seems more concerned about his own reputation than he is about Canada's. The minister seems more concerned about keeping his ministerial limousine than about doing the right thing. It was sad to watch his performance in the committee yesterday. He spoke with mock indignation about outrageous and insulting allegations, conveniently forgetting the outrageous and insulting allegations he so cavalierly made against Mr. Colvin, a dedicated public servant who was powerless to defend himself.
He spoke with mock sadness about how we were denigrating the fine work of our soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan. It was an extraordinary position to take on the very day it was revealed that the government had somehow for two years overlooked the evidence of abuse provided by soldiers in Afghanistan who were acting in the finest Canadian tradition.
It has become all too clear that the government is simply unwilling to tell the truth. It has poisoned its own credibility. By their bare-knuckle, ultra-partisan approach to this most serious of issues, it has poisoned the well of trust in the House and in the committee. That is why we need access to all the documents related to these issues: non-redacted, unfiltered, unspun, and uncensored documents.
The minister appeared before the committee yesterday and said there are three investigations underway and that they should be sufficient to deal with this. First, he referred to the board of inquiry to investigate the treatment of individuals detained by Canadian troops in April 2006. That deals with the conduct of our soldiers on the ground. That is not the object of our inquiry in the committee.
Second, he referred to the Military Police Complaints Commission, which has been thwarted by a massive campaign of obstruction of justice from actually looking into this matter. Third, he referred to the committee on which I sit: the special committee on Afghanistan. That committee has been thwarted in its work by the government not producing uncensored documents in their entirety for the committee to see.
That is obviously why we need the documents. That is why it is urgent that this motion pass. It is not whether or not there was torture. There is an abundance of circumstantial evidence and real evidence of detainee torture in Afghan jails at the hands of the Afghan authorities.
Whether it is Human Rights Watch, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, the UN reports, the U.S. Department of State, or our own annual human rights reports from Afghanistan, all of them go to show that abundant circumstantial evidence existed about torture in Afghanistan. The lack of any specific knowledge of any specific incident is not a defence to the continuing ignorant or wilful blindness of the government.
I want to quote Mr. Justice O'Connor in his report of September 2006. He said:
Canadian officials should not wait for “verification” or unequivocal evidence of torture in a specific case before arriving at a conclusion of a likelihood of torture.
That is a statement from Mr. Justice O'Connor, who headed the Arar inquiry. That should guide us. That is in keeping with the Geneva Convention, which essentially says that if we have circumstantial evidence, whether or not we have knowledge we have the responsibility to investigate and be careful we do not send people to a risk of torture where there are substantial grounds for the risk of torture.
We now know the government, from early 2006 to sometime in 2007, continued to send prisoners to a risk of torture. That is what we need to investigate. Why did it continue? Why did the government not take any action?
This is not about the conduct of our military on the ground. They have acted in the finest of traditions, as we learned from General Natynczyk yesterday. They have always done the right thing.
Ultimately there is a civil responsibility for all the actions that happened in Afghanistan, and that responsibility rests with the and the . That is why we need the unfettered, uncensored, unspun, unfiltered documents, to look at their conduct and whether or not they acted appropriately.
We heard the arguments advanced by the government to have this particular motion ruled out of order. The Conservatives have relied on section 38 of the Canada Evidence Act. They have relied on their excuses that they will give whatever is legally available to Parliament.
Now we know that Parliament has the unfettered, absolute right to order the production of papers and persons in this country. To my knowledge this Parliament has never fettered and never limited its own jurisdiction. The committee stands in the place of Parliament, and the committee has that unfettered access to these documents.
That is why I was very cautious in asking the Law Clerk for an opinion on the application of section 38. He sent me an opinion on October 23, 2009, which was tabled at the committee, that said we have unfettered access to documents and to witnesses who come before us and that those witnesses would be extended the privilege and immunity from prosecution if they were deemed to have violated any laws.
Then, based on some opinion it may have from the Department of Justice, the government said the Law Clerk's opinion is wrong. I asked the Law Clerk to provide me with a further opinion. He provided me with a further opinion on December 7, 2009, which has also been given to the clerk of the committee. It is public.
Then, on December 9, we received a letter from the assistant deputy minister, public law sector, of the Department of Justice, where it is finally admitted that the minister and the standing in the House and in the committee have been misleading Canadians; they have been misleading this House. The letter admits that while section 38 of the Canada Evidence Act has no application to parliamentary procedure, suddenly we learn the truth from a deputy minister within the Department of Justice.
Therefore, their whole charade, their house of cards came tumbling down.
Mr. Speaker, I wish to thank you very much for allowing this to proceed. I believe my time is ended. I will be happy to answer questions.
Mr. Speaker, I would be grateful if you would let me know as my time draws to a close since I have an amendment to introduce. I want to thank the member for for his great work on this issue.
Recent events have confirmed that Canadians can be proud of the men and women serving in Afghanistan. It is not their actions that are being questioned, but those of the government.
Yesterday, General Natynczyk confirmed that a detainee transferred by the Canadian Forces was mistreated while in Afghan detention in June 2006.
The credibility of the is in tatters. Canadians cannot take him at his word. This Parliament cannot trust what he says. The issue here is trust.
General Natynczyk is making every effort to get at the truth, but the government is making no such effort. It continues to withhold certain documents and censor others. It has redacted with what can only be called Soviet zeal. It has intimidated witnesses and public servants. It has cast a chill over Canada's foreign service, as a growing number of former ambassadors have said publicly.
We must have the truth, uncensored and unredacted. That is the privilege of Parliament and the right of the Canadian people. That is the reason for today's motion. The government must account for an entire year of wilful blindness.
The Conservatives had credible information, even photographs, about torture and abuse, but did nothing to put an end to it. Instead they sought to cover up the facts. The issue here is the negligence of the Conservative government, not the behaviour of our soldiers. The questions raised will not be answered by the investigation announced yesterday by General Natynczuk.
We need a full independent public inquiry into the government's year of wilful blindness. This is not a partisan exercise because we are prepared on this side of the House for the inquiry to examine the whole length of the mission in Afghanistan beginning in 2001 under the previous Liberal government.
Let us remember how we got here. The sequence of events is extremely important.
On December 18, 2005, during a federal election, General Rick Hillier, then CDS, signed a detainee transfer agreement with the Afghan government.
The ministers opposite were sworn in on February 6, 2006, and the has admitted that he heard serious allegations of detainee abuse from the moment the government took office.
In March 2006, the U.S. State Department reported that Afghan authorities, and I quote: “tortured and abused detainees on a regular basis.” However, despite this information, the Conservative government carried on as usual. And a few weeks later, in spring 2006, the first detainees were transferred by the Canadian Forces.
In May 2006 Richard Colvin began sending reports of detainee abuse to his superiors.
On June 2, 2006, the Afghan independent human rights commission reported that a third of detainees handed over by Canadian Forces were abused or tortured in Afghan custody. On that same day Richard Colvin sent another memo with reports of torture in Afghan jails. Still the government did nothing.
Mr. Colvin sent three more reports before the end of 2006. He made additional reports in March, April, June and July 2007. Yet, 17 months, 17 memos, and still the government did nothing.
In 2006, the Canadian Embassy in Kabul had a report on human rights stating that torture was systematic in Afghan prisons. Once again, the government did nothing.
It was during the summer of 2006 that the detainee abuse confirmed yesterday by General Natynczyk took place. It was documented and reported by soldiers in the field who did their job. Still the government did not do its job.
In November 2006 the Department of Foreign Affairs actually issued talking points playing down reports of torture. Secret memos leaked to the press confirmed that the government's priority was spinning the issue rather than preventing torture from occurring.
In February 2007, there were three additional allegations of detainee abuse. That same month, the military police complaints commission initiated an investigation that was blocked by the government.
The government's year of wilful blindness only ended when graphic reports of abuse surfaced in the Canadian press on April 23, 2007.
It was not until May 3, 2007, that the government signed a new detainee transfer agreement. However, that did not put an end to the problems.
Mr. Colvin testified that inspections were infrequent because of a lack of resources. Even worse, he was instructed by his superiors to keep quiet and to stop documenting cases of detainee abuse and torture. Detainee transfers were suspended for the first time on November 6, 2007, because of reports of torture. They have been suspended a number of times since then.
Nevertheless, until yesterday, this minister and this government claimed that no detainee transferred by the Canadian military had been abused in Afghan prisons. We now know this is not true.
The record that I have just taken us through speaks for itself. For over a year the government had credible reports from multiple sources, independent credible Canadian sources, that Afghan detainees were being tortured in Afghan detention centres. These reports came from Canadian diplomats and soldiers in the field, and the government opposite did nothing.
It must account for that year of what can only be called wilful blindness. Its refusal to get to the truth is costing us our credibility as a nation on human rights and engages in a threat to the honour of Canada in the field, that honour which our troops so bravely defend every day. We need the truth. We need it now. Canadians deserve better.
Therefore, I would like to move the following amendment. I move:
That the motion be amended by adding immediately before the word “accordingly”, the following:
“All documents referred to by the Chief of the Defence Staff in his December 9, 2009, press conference; and all other relevant documents; and”.
Mr. Speaker, I stand today to express my opposition to the motion, as amended, now before the House.
I am convinced that it would be serious mistake for the government to produce the many documents referred to in the motion tabled by the hon. member for . Producing verbatim copies of these documents would jeopardize not only the security of Canadians serving in Afghanistan, but also Canada's relationships with other countries. Furthermore, the release of unedited versions of these documents would be clearly inconsistent with parliamentary convention related to the protection of sensitive information.
The Parliament of Canada has established important rules under the Canada Evidence Act in relation to the handling or disclosure of information concerning international relations, national defence or national security. The values underlying Parliament's intention to protect the national security of Canada from harm by unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information must inform the actions of ministers and officials.
Parliament exercises significant powers, yet Parliament also appreciate the importance of protecting confidential information. This is evident in statutes such as the Security of Information Act, the Canada Evidence Act, the Access to Information Act, the Privacy Act and the Criminal Code. The principle of public interest immunity is also well established in the common law. These principles also find expression in parliamentary convention.
The government's position on the matter is clear. We must make every effort to protect sensitive information that, if disclosed, could compromise Canada's security, national defence and international relations.
The government's position on co-operating with the parliamentary committee is also clear. We will continue to support the work of committees and provide any and all information that does not compromise the national interest.
The government rejects the notion, however, that parliamentary privilege somehow relieves public servants appearing before committee of their obligation to protect sensitive information that relates to national security, national defence or international relations.
As I am sure the members of the House will appreciate, there is a well-established parliamentary convention that committees will respect common law privileges and Crown immunity, particularly in relation to national defence, national security or international relations and not require the disclosure of injurious information.
The authoritative text, Parliamentary Privilege in Canada by Joseph Maingot makes this point clearly on page 191:
With respect to federal public servants who are witnesses before committees of either House, the theory of the compellability of witnesses...may come in conflict with the principle of ministerial responsibility. By convention, a parliamentary committee will respect Crown privilege when invoked, at least in relation to matters of national and public security.
To link this statement with the motion now before us, members of the House must acknowledge that important issues of national security are at stake and should therefore abide by parliamentary convention and respect the government's actions to protect sensitive information.
In essence, parliamentary convention must govern committee practices and procedures. Further support for this conclusion is provided by a 1991 report of the Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections, published as part of the Journals of the House. To quote from that:
The House of Commons recognizes that it should not require the production of documents in all cases; considerations of public policy, including national security, foreign relations, and so forth, enter into the decision as to when it is appropriate to order the production of such documents.
The House must exercise its powers responsibly. In some cases, the only responsible option is for the House and its committees to refrain from pressing the theoretical extent of their powers.
The government's concerns for national security informed an earlier decision to redact documents submitted to the Military Police Complaints Commission, also known as the MPCC. The decision reflects the fact that the MPCC operates in a significantly different legal environment than parliamentary committees.
On the subject of the extent of the redactions, no other tenable option existed once the MPCC decided to hold public hearings. The decision provided the MPCC with the power to compel testimony and to order the production of documents. The hearing therefore met the definition of a proceeding under section 38 of the Canada Evidence Act.
It is important to note that before the MPCC announced its intention to hold public hearings, government officials provided it full access to thousands of pages of unedited documents produced by Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence.
The decision to redact documents is not taken lightly and reflects the absolute need to protect sensitive information. Pursuant to section 38, officials redacted the documents. Copies of these edited documents were later provided to the Special Committee on the Canadian mission to Afghanistan.
While section 38 of the Canada Evidence Act may not apply directly to proceedings of a special committee, the values that inform that legislation, passed by Parliament, are consistent with the parliamentary convention that harmful information should not be disclosed in a parliamentary setting. Accordingly the process under section 38 of the Canada Evidence Act serves as a useful surrogate to identify information that should not be disclosed to the special committee due to concerns related to national security, national defence or international relations.
The government fully supports the special committee and believes it plays an important role in Canada's democracy. Respect for legal duties enacted by Parliament is also essential to the health of our democracy. Ultimately, however, restricting access to particular information is justified by a more important goal, one that serves the best interests of Canadians.
The Supreme Court has acknowledged that the government must, on occasion, withhold sensitive information. In the R. v. Thomson decision, the Supreme Court stated clearly, “all government must maintain some degree of security and confidentiality in order to function”. It also confirmed that an act of Parliament would apply to the House of Commons expressly, as in the case of the Official Languages Act or implicitly as in the case of the Canadian Human Rights Act.
In the case the House heard about a little earlier, the Canada (House of Commons) v. Vaid, which is a 2005 Supreme Court of Canada case, the Supreme Court rejected the argument that the Canadian Human Rights Act had no application to the House of Commons because it did not so expressly provide. The Supreme Court held that the argument was “out of step with modern principles of statutory interpretation accepted in Canada” and that the proper approach was to construe the words of the act in their entire context, having regard to the scheme, object and remedial purpose of the act.
Although our debate today focuses on a point of parliamentary privilege, we must never forget that it also directly affects the lives of Canadians serving on the front lines of a deadly conflict a half world away.
As members of Parliament, we must never lose sight of the fact that men and women continue to put their lives at risk to defend our country and all that it represents. We must not sacrifice the safety of these brave souls on the altar of parliamentary privilege. Yet this is precisely what the motion before us today proposes to do.
To understand what is at stake, one must recall that Afghanistan's Taliban government played a central role in aiding and abetting a series of terrorist attacks against Canadians and Canada's allies.
Seven years ago, Canada deployed troops, in support of the invasion led by the United States to oust the Taliban and diminish the capacity of terrorists in Afghanistan to strike targets in the west. While the mission has evolved somewhat over the years, thousands of Canadians continue to serve in Afghanistan as part of an international effort to root out insurgents and to promote peace, prosperity and justice.
Last year, the members of the House voted overwhelmingly in favour of extending the mission through 2010.
In recent weeks, top officials from the Canadian Forces and several federal departments have provided evidence about the legal status of detainees and about the practices and procedures Canadian officials followed to ensure that they honour international laws and conventions.
On November 4, for instance, Canada's Judge Advocate General, Brigadier-General Kenneth Watkins, stated that:
The policies and procedures put in place by the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan and the legal test that must be satisfied before detainees can be transferred are all meant to ensure compliance with these international legal obligations.
During the same session, the committee heard testimony about the series of increasingly rigorous agreements and practices implemented by Canada, expressly to prevent the abuse of detainees.
A December 2005 agreement between the militaries of Canada and Afghanistan, signed under the Liberal government, empowered the International Committee of the Red Cross to monitor and report on the status of detainees. A more robust follow-up agreement, signed in 2007, enlisted a second independent monitor, the Afghanistan International Human Rights Commission, and restricted the movement of detainees captured by Canadians.
In addition to these measures, Canadian officials continue to monitor the treatment of detainees captured by our soldiers. When these officials found credible evidence of abuse, Canada temporarily halted the transfer of prisoners to Afghan officials in November 2007. The transfer resumed a few months later, once those concerns had been addressed.
The release of at least some of this information would clearly undermine the safety of Canadian officials working in Afghanistan. Information about when and how Canadian officials visit a particular prison, for instance, would be of great value to the insurgents and to the terrorists. They could use this knowledge to attack our monitors and free the detainees.
One can only imagine how the enemy would interpret and exploit other top secret information. It would be a grave mistake to underestimate the terrorists. They are both sophisticated and brazen. Among the more than 100 Canadians to die at their hands are three civilian aid workers and one senior diplomat.
We cannot lose sight of the fact that our soldiers are not the only ones engaged in this dangerous mission. The Government of Canada must do its utmost to protect everyone it assigns to Afghanistan.
It is this duty to protect that inspires my opposition to the motion before us today. The Government of Canada must not abandon this duty in response to the committee's investigation into the conduct of Canadian officials responsible for prisoners captured in Afghanistan.
There can be no doubt that this government has in fact co-operated with the committee. The government has ordered senior military personnel, diplomats and other officials to appear, often on short notice and often travelling vast distances. Their candid testimony has enabled committee members to gain critical knowledge about the capture and transfer of detainees.
All of these witnesses recognize, however, that they must not disclose information that might compromise Canada's security or international relations. As dutiful, honourable public officials, these witnesses respect the laws passed by Canada and the policies implemented by government that protect confidential information.
The allegation that the Government of Canada seeks to obstruct or interfere with the committee's work by denying access to documents is completely untrue. The committee has requested a considerable number of documents, and government officials continue to work hard to satisfy this request. The process will take some time because many of the papers contain top secret information.
Parliamentary committees are essential and valuable components of Canada's democratic system. Canadians appreciate the analysis and the perspective that committees can bring to the issues of the day, but Canadians expect committees and Parliament itself to exercise those powers responsibly and reasonably and in accordance with parliamentary convention. Canadians do not accept that the relatively narrow interests of a single committee are more important than the safety of our men and women serving in Afghanistan.
Given these realities, restraint and caution must be our guide. The government must not release information under any circumstances that could jeopardize national security and international relations. I encourage my hon. colleagues to vote down the motion that is before us today.
Mr. Speaker, the opposition motion before us today is quite simply a response to a motion adopted by the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan on November 23, calling on the government to table a number of documents.
I understand that this motion is coming before the House at this point in the debate because the members of the special committee are using every possible means to try to conduct their investigation, and, as I will demonstrate, they are facing a number of obstacles. I believe that a motion approved by Parliament would put a bit more pressure on a government that is not very transparent—opaque, if you will—and also extremely isolated.
I just want to address the issue of the government's non-transparency and isolation. I believe that it is important to review the facts. It all started in 2005, 2006 and 2007, when the opposition members in this House asked the government questions about the treatment of Afghan detainees. When I refer to that period, hon. members will understand that I am referring to both the Liberal regime and the Conservative regime.
The response was always that there was no problem, that international laws applied and that there was no torture. As the years went by, reporters conducted some very serious investigations that contradicted what the government was saying.
That is why we must get to the bottom of things today, because a certain commission known as the Military Police Complaints Commission decided to conduct a full investigation into the issue. The commission faced major obstacles from the government, a bit like the obstacles the special committee is facing today: non-disclosure of documents, censored documents, witnesses who were intimidated or gagged, and so on.
What happened is that the Military Policy Complaints Commission was forced to stop its work, because the government did not want certain witnesses to appear and did not want to disclose certain documents unless they were completed censored.
The special committee decided to take over because we felt it was important. We took over, and now, we are dealing with pretty much the same behaviour, except that the government is having a much harder time because it has to deal with the opposition every day during question period.
Just now, I was talking about reporters. They do an excellent job of relaying public opinion, and that puts pressure on the government to change. We have not seen the end of this issue yet; we have been working on it every day. I was in the foyer before coming in to give my speech, and the situation was changing by the minute. We want to speed things up because we are about to wrap up the session. We have to uncover the truth. If the government thinks that we are going to put things off until the end of January just because the session ends tomorrow, it has another think coming. We have a job to do, and we must get to the bottom of this.
The government is not being transparent. It is on its own here because it has one theory, and pretty much everyone else has the opposite theory. All of the international organizations operating in Afghanistan, not to mention other groups, regularly turn up evidence of torture. There is plenty of evidence that it has happened.
I would like to point out that the Geneva convention covers more than just torture. One of the conditions for transferring detainees is that they not be tortured. However, there is another condition that involves avoiding the risk of torture. At this point, it is safe to say that everyone except the government acknowledges that there is a risk of torture and that torture occurs. Yesterday, the chief of defence staff, General Natynczyk, confirmed that there had been a case of torture.
We are absolutely convinced that there have been more such cases and that we, along with the people of Canada and Quebec, are witnessing a massive cover-up operation. I believe that the government will eventually pay the political price. What we have before us today is similar to the November 23 motion.
I would now like to describe the obstacles that the special committee on Afghanistan is facing.
The committee asked for a series of six documents, and asked to have them by December 2. As of today, we have received only two of the six documents we requested. Furthermore, these two documents are heavily censored. I cannot show these documents here in the House, but these reports are from the first series. These documents were presented during Mr. Colvin's testimony. But entire pages are blacked out.
I told the , when he appeared before the Standing Committee on National Defence, that this kind of page should not take much time to translate. A blacked-out page does not take very long to translate, and this keeps members from fulfilling their duty to investigate very serious allegations and to investigate what the chief of staff revealed yesterday.
These documents are very heavily censored. The government is invoking all kinds of national security clauses and dangers for soldiers. But the government employees who have testified, they have access to the uncensored documents. Members can picture the situation: the people before us had access to all of the uncensored documents. The generals even bragged about having seen the documents. They implied that we had not seen the documents because we were only members of Parliament, and that they held the truth, and that we did not have it. That is what was going on.
We cannot accept that documents are censored at this point. How can we adequately question the witnesses? How can we truly understand what is going on if we do not have access to these documents, and if the government has intentionally postponed their release? It is postponed again and again. That is why I thought it was necessary to say from the beginning that just because the House is adjourning tomorrow does not mean that everything will stop until the end of January. The Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan is discussing the possibility of sitting during the holiday period to continue examining and getting to the bottom of things.
I would like to come back to the point of order raised earlier, because I think it is important. It was raised earlier regarding the . The first witness to appear before the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan was the government's judge advocate general, General Watkins. What happened at the commission meeting also happened at the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan. Indeed, from the beginning of the questions, the general told us that, because of his relationship with his client, he could not disclose certain things. That is when things fell apart. We therefore decided to look into what our rights are, as parliamentarians, as members, compared to the legal rights of a judge advocate general defending the government's case. I should point out that the client with whom he had a privileged relationship was the Government of Canada.
We have raised some very important points and I think it is important to talk about them again. We, as members of Parliament, represent the grand inquest. Under the Constitution, the members represent the grand inquest for the House of Commons. We are the ones to decide to get to the bottom of matters. We are elected. We have the legitimacy of having been elected in our respective ridings. It is therefore our responsibility to get to the bottom of things, in our respective areas of interest, when we think something is not right. That is what parliamentary democracy is all about.
In the British tradition, the government is the defender, the protector of the realm, and we are caught in the middle. Who has first right? We believe that the right of parliament should take precedence. The legislative counsel of the House of Commons said we must interpret the legislation in a way that respects every aspect of the Constitution and furthermore, that when a law applies to the work of Parliament, the House is the only one that can decide how that law applies to it.
That is rather clear. It means that when provisions such as section 38 of the Canada Evidence Act are invoked, which prevents the disclosure of matters for reasons of national security, we believe, and so does the legislative counsel of the House, that it can be challenged.
The legislative counsel goes further: “If a law allows ministers or the government to conceal information from Parliament, that will mean that the government may invoke the law and avoid its obligation to account to the House. ” This would be unconstitutional because it is contrary to the fundamental principle of our parliamentary system. Moreover, the government's obligation to account to the House is a constitutional principle that cannot be set aside by mere legislation.
It is clear to us that when a committee asks for documents and especially when it asks that they be uncensored, the documents provided should not be censored. When a committee asks for documents within a period of time fixed by a motion, the documents should be provided within the time specified and not weeks or days later. Today is December 10 and the set of documents to which I referred earlier was to have been submitted before December 2.
We believe that Parliament's right must prevail, otherwise democracy no longer functions. A government might decide to withhold documents to protect its ministers. These are the very words of the legislative counsel who says it would be unconstitutional to do so.
Immunity is increasingly under attack. Parliamentary immunity is the means used by democracies to avoid being taken to court every five minutes by those with interests different from ours, which are to serve the people and democracy. The heads of major corporations may not agree with us. If restrictions are placed on what we say in the House and in committees, we are not serving democracy. That is why immunity was built into the system. When witnesses appear before committees, they must have immunity and the laws of Parliament must prevail.
Listen closely to what a senior official from the Department of Foreign Affairs said to Richard Colvin before he testified before the committee. When Mr. Colvin appeared before the committee, the Judge Advocate General had already been asked to consult with his client and submit his interpretation of our claim. We did not get a response, but the witnesses did, and this is what the senior official from the Department of Foreign Affairs said:
“GoC does not share the Clerk's view of the effect of the laws adopted by Parliament—”
We specifically asked the Judge Advocate General for his client's reaction and instead of giving it to us, he intimidates a witness.
He goes on to say:
“—and as a Public Servant [he means Richard Colvin] we trust that you will conduct yourself according to the interpretation of the GoC”.
In other words, if Mr. Colvin is asked to keep quiet, to disclose nothing and to withhold documents, he must comply. To heck with parliamentary law.
“Should there be any concerns expressed by members of the Committee, those concerns should be referred to government counsel”.
That is called depriving a witness of immunity and intimidating a witness because the government is telling him what to do. That is what it is called.
How can we move forward under such conditions? It is very clear that a witness has been intimidated and it is very clear that the government wants to obstruct the committee's deliberations. A witness has been intimidated and his immunity breached.
Before I run out of time, I would like to talk about ministerial accountability. Yesterday, three witnesses appeared before the committee: the , the and the current , who is the former Minister of National Defence. They explained at length that national security is important and so is the Canada Evidence Act.
With regard to the delays in disclosing information, they say that they are not responsible and that public servants are usually in charge of the files. They also blame bilingualism, saying that translating the documents takes time.
In the 16 years that I have been a member of the House, I have always heard the same thing. The best way to delay a committee's work is to say that the documents are not ready. That is a ministerial responsibility. But what have the three ministers and the government been doing? They have been shirking their responsibilities and blaming everyone else.
As for censorship, they say that senior Justice Canada officials—the minister mentioned this earlier—are the ones who determine whether a document could pose a risk to national security. They are the ones who decide whether or not to black out huge parts of a document.
So what about ministerial responsibility? I am sick and tired of hearing ministers say it is not their fault. They are always saying that public servants are the ones responsible, or the Canadian armed forces.
Who in this government is actually responsible for anything? When a person becomes a minister, that person has a job to do. That is what ministerial responsibility means. They have to be responsible and accountable to the people. We will not allow ministers to shirk their primary responsibility, which is to tell the people of Quebec and Canada exactly what is going on. That is important.
We are sick and tired of being told that they are not the ones who intimidated witnesses, that the person who did that was Shawn Barber, a senior Foreign Affairs official. I think the is the one who should take responsibility when one of his officials messes up.
We are also tired of seeing ministers take everything out on their underlings. The ministers are never to blame. They claim not to have seen a particular document because National Defence receives thousands of documents every day.
That is not what I call exercising ministerial responsibility. They are shirking their duty as ministers if they are not professional and transparent and they are not keeping abreast of what is happening in their department. It is not true that a minister who has just faced a barrage of questions goes back to his office, sits down and says that there is no need to worry.
When one has a ministerial responsibility, one calls in one's staff and asks them exactly what is happening. If a minister does not do that, then he or she is shirking that ministerial responsibility. It is the ministers who are to blame for the current crisis. It is certainly not the opposition, which is trying to get to the bottom of things.
The blame lies with the ministers and the . They need to step up to the plate and exercise their ministerial responsibility. That is why we are being forced to introduce a motion in the House to have access to documents.
They are refusing to give the Military Police Complaints Commission and the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan access to documents. Will they go so far as to deny Parliament access to the documents?
I would remind this government that it is in a minority position, not a majority position. That means that there are far more people today who have confidence in the opposition than in the government. If the government does not want to face that sad reality, too bad. We are certainly not going to abandon our role, which is to get to the bottom of things in a situation such as this.
One witness was silenced by a formal legal demand. The minister can go ahead and say that it did not come from him, but from a justice department lawyer. By the same token, the Minister of Foreign Affairs can say that it was a senior official in his department who did a given thing. But the fact remains that, ultimately, the minister is responsible.
To no one's surprise, we are going to support the opposition motion before us today. It will not stop there. I want the government to know that it is in for some problems. It can put up all the barriers it wants, but we will keep on defending democracy.
In the British tradition, we are the grand inquest and the government is the protector of the realm. It can go ahead and protect the realm, but its house of cards is going to come tumbling down. In fact, it has already started to fall.
We will be pleased to support the Liberal motion.
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to have an opportunity to join in the debate on the opposition day motion, calling for papers and documents to be presented in an uncensored form to the House.
However, before I talk about that, I want to emphasize what this whole issue is about. It is about Canada meeting its obligations under international humanitarian law.
I want to quote Brigadier-General Ken Watkins, who appeared before the Afghanistan committee several weeks ago. He was the one who laid out that transferring prisoners to a situation where there was a real risk of torture or abuse was contrary to international humanitarian law, the law of armed conflict. That is precisely the situation we are concerned about along with what Canada did in the period after it started taking prisoners.
I should have said, Madam Speaker, that I am sharing my time with the member for . Therefore, I will only have the first half of the 20-minute period.
The important point is the inquiry by the House of Commons committee on Afghanistan is in furtherance of trying to find out what the government did in order to meet its obligations.
What have we heard from the government? We have heard a defence based on, regardless of what happened, the fact that there is no proof any particular prisoner passed over by the Canadian Forces was subject to torture or abuse. This has been said many times.
On four occasions, on November 23, the stated, “There has never been a single proven allegation of abuse” involving a prisoner transferred by the Canadian Forces.
The said, on December 1, “Let me be perfectly clear. There has never been a proven allegation of abuse involving a transferred Taliban prisoner by Canadian Forces”.
On December 4, the said, “There has not been a single proven allegation of abuse of a Canadian-transferred prisoner”.
We know that is not true. We know that is patently false. The government has been providing false information to the House.
What are we to do about it? Our party has called for a public inquiry based on the revelations of our diplomat, Richard Colvin, who, starting in May 2006, was writing memos and letters, six of them in 2006 alone, referring to the problems and passing them out. We have not seen those memorandums yet.
In fact, we have seen one, and this is an indication of why there is a need for uncensored documents, dated December 4, 2006. The subject line is “Afghanistan: Detainee issues”. It refers to earlier memoranda of July 25, 2006, October 6, 2006, and November 24, 2006. This was given to the committee with nothing on it. It was blacked out for pages and pages on end. Three pages of the entire text of that memorandum were blacked out, with nothing being disclosed to the committee. The reply directed to an ambassador was also entirely censored, although “redacted” seems to be the favoured word. The committee and the public were deprived of knowing what in fact Mr. Colvin was saying and talking about under the heading “Afghanistan: Detainee issues”.
We need to know. If there is nothing to hide, then the committee can find a way, as has been suggested, at looking at these documents, whether it be in an in camera meeting or whether a privy councillor opportunity or option is chosen, whatever way is needed, to ensure issues of national security are protected. The fact is this information needs to be made public and known.
Yesterday General Natynczyk confirmed what had been reported in the press, that, yes, Canadian detainees passed over were abused. The Canadian Forces took them back. Another individual they did not pass over because the interpreter overheard the Afghan police talking about killing the individual.
This confirms the concerns of Mr. Colvin and others about extrajudicial killings. This confirms the notion that the soldiers knew, in the summer of 2006, that there was a real risk of prisoner abuse or torture. In fact, they not only knew but they took pictures. They were taking pictures before they passed them over because they were concerned they might be abused, as had happened before.
That knowledge was live, on the ground and in the field in Afghanistan at that time, yet the government continued to order prisoners to be passed over to the Afghan authorities. That is the problem and we need to get to the bottom of it. The government does not want to have a public inquiry, which the House called for on December 1 when it voted on our opposition day motion. The motion was supported by the Bloc Québécois and the Liberals.
The government still refused to have a public inquiry and it refused our requests when the full extent of the lack of forthrightness by the and his misleading of the House on this issue came forward. Our request for him to resign and our insistence that he take responsibility as minister for misleading the House have both been refused.
We still have the committee at work and we do have the supremacy of Parliament, but we cannot have a situation such as the suggests. Some individuals, using their discretion, are saying that members of Parliament cannot find out about what is going on. That is their position, but that is the wrong position. This has been very clear in the documents and the authorities. The claims of Crown privilege do not diminish or derogate from the power of a House to require attendance, testimony and production of documents.
A very comprehensive study was published called “The Power of Parliamentary Houses to Send for Persons, Papers & Records” by the member for , an MP, lawyer and member of the House. He compiled all the authorities that related to the ability of a House and committees to get documents. There are provisions for a request by the government for committees not to take the parliamentary power to the extent.
With respect to federal public servants who are witnesses before committee... the theory of the compellability of a witness to answer questions generally may come in conflict with the principle of ministerial responsibility.
By convention, a parliamentary committee will respect Crown privilege when invoked, at least in relation to matters of national and public security.
In the final analysis, witnesses must rely on the collective common sense of the members of the committee and their good graces.
The Crown has the right to claim privileges, but the supremacy of Parliament is incontestable. While they may claim it, the power of Parliament is predominant and overrides that. This is a perfect example of where that needs to be the case. We have a Parliament where the majority of the members of Parliament sit in opposition to the government. The government is seeking to use means to prevent Parliament from exercising its power of being supreme through its committee.
This is an example of an important constitutional matter, the supremacy of Parliament over the executive. There may need to be means to ensure that something that should genuinely not be disclosed to the public is not, but being disclosed to the public and being disclosed to members of Parliament are two different things. I think members of Parliament understand and know that.
We support the motion. We think it is time that Parliament ensured its privileges are respected and that members of Parliament can be counted on to do their job and act in the public interest.
Madam Speaker, I want to start off by sharing with members of the House some of the information to which we have had access.
The debate today is around access to information, so that we can actually get to the bottom of what is happening, and perhaps is happening, with regard to the transfer of detainees from Canadian Forces to Afghan authorities.
One of the things that has been available to members of Parliament and the public is testimony from the Federal Court. I am going to be reading into the record some of the evidence that was provided during a testimony cross-examination of Kerry Buck, of course, a government official.
The questions were regarding what was happening on the ground in terms of investigation and follow-up. One of the challenges in this debate has been trying to figure out who is responsible for what, and most of the thrust of Mr. Colvin's message was trying to figure out what the roles of each of the institutions were: Canadian Forces, DFAIT, et cetera.
In this testimony, that is available and it is not censored, there was a question from the lawyer to Ms. Buck, asking:
In the next bullet he says [the detainee] that he was hit on the feet with a cable or a big wire and forced to stand for two days but that's all and he showed the Canadian officials a mark on the back of his ankle which he said is from the cable?
Ms. Buck answered:
Yes, that's the allegation.
The lawyer then asked:
Has that allegation been investigated? Do you know?
This is where it is important. Ms. Buck said that they really were not responsible for investigating.
We have heard time and time again from the government that there is not one scintilla of evidence that a detainee who was passed on from Canadian Forces to Afghan officials was tortured. The problem, and we see this in testimony here that I am reading into the record, is that there was no follow-up because the role was this. The Canadian Forces passed on detainees to the Afghan officials. After that, there was no investigation of allegations. In fact, it was reliant upon the Afghanistan independent human rights commission and the Red Cross to do that.
Here is where it gets interesting. When we have testimony of marks and individuals making allegations about being beaten, et cetera, there is an attempt to find out who is responsible. The government agrees that there are allegations and it claims that none of these allegations were ever proven, but it begs this question. If there were allegations, who was following up? If it was not a Canadian official, then obviously Canada will not know what is happening.
The question then is, who was doing it? We find out that there was no connection between the Canadian government and the follow-up to any investigations. I will just give a bit of the record to underline what I am saying.
Ms. Buck said:
Allegations are allegations. Some will be valid, some will not be valid.
At least she acknowledged that some of the allegations could be true. The question posed to Ms. Buck then was:
But we don't make any of our own independent assessment of the potential strength of the allegations?
Here is the answer. She said:
We don't. It's not our role. It's not our role.
The question then was:
It's not our role to determine whether there might be some kind of risk that detainees are being tortured?
The answer was:
No, it's our role to determine risk, but it is not our role to determine credibility of the allegations, to determine veracity of the allegations. We don't investigate those allegations. We record them.
The problem with that is the following. If we look at the evidence that we have available, we have the ICRC, and there have been articles written about this, having met with Canadian officials, saying, “You have a problem with the transfer process”.
It was not referring to the fact that detainees were passed over. It was what happened to them after, and the follow-up and the investigative procedure. We have Ms. Buck saying, for the record that they do not do that.
Mr. Colvin was saying at the same time that there was a problem, which he said in one of the memos that we did get, which was highly redacted and goes to April 2007. He said, “The position of the Red Cross is that each nation has international legal obligations regarding the transfer of detainees”.
What that means is not simply that we have a legal obligation to say we have handed them over, but to follow-up. This is where there has been a black hole. The government has always said there is no proof of any detainees being tortured. That was blown out of the water yesterday, but Conservatives continued down this path of basically saying that once we hand them over we are not responsible.
Some of the memos indicate that there was a debate, and this is reading the tea leaves, between DFAIT and Canadian Forces as to who was responsible once those detainees were handed over. I am reading a redacted memo from Mr. Colvin which said: “However, I would like to note that the ambassador remains strongly of the view that initial notification should be of handing over detainees should be by Canadian Forces and that secondly, notification of the Red Cross and the Afghan independent human rights commission should be sent as soon as an Afghan detainee is detained by Canadian Forces, not only in connection with his transfer to the government of Afghanistan custody. This would serve two important purposes. One is that it would underline DND's ownership of detention and DFAIT would assume responsibility for follow-up once a detainee is transferred to the government of Afghanistan”.
Here we have the debate Mr. Colvin has laid out of who was responsible. Was it Canadian Forces? Was it DFAIT? The generals and General Hillier, et cetera, all said that once they were handed over it was not their role any more. The soldiers who were writing in the field, and we heard from the Chief of the Defence Staff yesterday, said they were worried about handing them over because of what would happen. They said not only what would happen to this one particular detainee but it had happened before. So they did due diligence. They did their job. They took pictures. They wrote notes.
However, what we have here is the gap that there was no process to follow-up. The debate was saying whose role was it after a detainee had been handed over? Why were they concerned? Because as we have gone over many times, the Red Cross, the Afghan independent human rights commission, the state department, our own human rights reports done by DFAIT, all said there were problems with torture in Afghan jails. There were extrajudicial killings. The soldiers knew that. We had evidence yesterday from the Chief of the Defence Staff who said in the notes that were handed over: “Overhearing Afghan officials saying they were going to kill one of the detainees”.
The problem was obvious to everyone. The issue was, what did the government do about it? In this memo that was not highly redacted says there was a debate. Who was responsible? Colvin's note said that initially it was the Canadian Forces, after that it was the DFAIT officials. What we have though from Ms. Buck, what I already read into the record, is that we were not responsible for investigating after. There is a huge hole here.
Under international law, we are obligated to follow-up if there is a risk or a probability. That is very clear. So we need from the government all of the evidence.
It leads to my final statement on this and I will sum up, how can we trust the government with the present detainee transfer agreement, which I have concerns about in terms of investigation, et cetera? If we know before that the government was not investigating when it knew there was torture and there were international law obligations. From all the data in the redacted censored documents we have, there was a debate and a concern within departments, by the Red Cross and others. Conservatives seem to have ignored it.
Finally, we call on the government not only to bring forward these documents so we can have an actual overview of this without all the censoring but we need to obviously have an inquiry. If it is not able to do that, then it has lost the trust of this Parliament to actually be upfront and we remain concerned about the present agreement.
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to debate the motion today and I want to start by outlining where I will be going. I will look at the context of how we got here. I want to talk about the government obstruction, the rights of a committee, the importance of this issue to Canadians and, clearly, why we need a public inquiry.
There is no question that this is a very serious issue. As a parliamentarian, I need to have access to information in order to carry out my responsibilities, which include oversight of government.
The issue we are debating today has nothing to do with the actions of our forces on the ground. They are doing an outstanding job and we know that. We know that the men and women are performing in a first class way in the field. Having been there on two occasions, I know that for a fact. I know that our diplomats and our military are discharging their responsibilities. The question is whether the government is discharging its responsibility, not only to Parliament but also to Canadians.
It needs to be emphasized again that as parliamentarians and part of the special committee set up to oversee the work that we are doing in Afghanistan, we need to be able to inform Canadians. We cannot inform Canadians unless we have readily available information.
The question is also about Canada's international obligations, obligations in terms of the Geneva Convention and the issues of human rights. Again, when it comes to that, our soldiers are following the absolute letter.
The issue is clearly what the government knew if and when there were abuses when Canadian detainees were transferred to Afghan authorities, whether the Afghan police or the Afghan national army.
There is need for accountability. Government has to be accountable, and in this country the government is ultimately accountable to Parliament. Parliamentarians, if they have any role, it is the role of oversight. If they are to have meaning, and this is important on both sides of the aisle, they must have the ability to have oversight, to call for documents, to call witnesses and to be able to ask the questions that are sometimes uncomfortable for government but are needed in order to get the answers. Wherever that questioning goes, it is obviously important.
I give the example that we have, at the moment, a number of allegations out there. These allegations are difficult to deal with if we do not have the documents. We have had witnesses before the special committee who have obviously seen the documents, but they have seen them unredacted, without the black marks all over them. I know I am not allowed to use props, so I will not, Madam Speaker, you have probably seen them on television, but there are pages that are simply black. We do not know what their dates are or who was involved, because certain words are blacked out. Therefore, as a member of that committee, as vice-chairman of that committee, I cannot really determine very much if all I see are blacked out documents.
Talking about climate change, it is amazing the number of trees that we have cut down to produce these simple documents that do not tell members anything. Subcommittee members certainly are aware that many of the witnesses who came before the committee had access to those documents unfettered. I think it is very disturbing that witnesses would be able to look at the documents, but somehow members of the committee cannot.
Therefore, the purpose of today's motion is to deal with this issue. Later on I will get into the rights of the committee and, of course, the legal issues we are dealing with.
When we ask if the government is covering up torture, one would conclude that might be a logical assumption if the government is not in fact prepared to provide the evidence that committee members need. One would assume, unless, by chance, the government side of the committee has seen everything and we have not, that it would be of value to all members of the committee to have the unfettered documents. Apparently members on the other side believe that we can do the work without having the documents.
This country has a long tradition for human rights. It has a long tradition in the world on the issue of protecting the individual. Our central foreign policy has traditionally been on the issue human rights and the protection of the individual and the right to protect.
Therefore, it is absolutely critical that when there are allegations going back as far as 2006, we are able to investigate them in a manner consistent with the parliamentary motion of March 2008, which gave the committee that oversight of the very issue we are talking about.
A public inquiry then is what we are eventually going to be talking about, but in terms of the specifics of this committee, the committee has heard witnesses and different views. We have heard from Mr. Colvin, a respected diplomat. We have heard from three respected generals, and from Mr. Mulroney, our current ambassador to China. The issue is that we have heard testimony, but conflicting testimony.
Obviously if these individuals have access to documents that may shed light on where we can find the truth, we cannot do that unless the documents are produced.
The government has, from the very beginning, said there have been no credible cases of abuse. That has been the line in the House from day one, that we do not have any credible evidence. How can the government be absolutely certain?
On Tuesday, the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Natynczyk, who is a great Canadian and a very honourable individual, came before the defence committee and indicated that to the best of his knowledge, the individual in question in the Noonan report was in fact not a Canadian detainee transferred over to the Afghan national police. The general then took the extraordinary step yesterday of convening a press conference to indicate very clearly that new information had come to light and that, in fact, it was a Canadian detainee who was transferred.
The question of course then is what information came to light and why does the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan not have that information? Clearly, the general has information that led him to say, no, what he had said on Tuesday was not correct and that on Wednesday, he had new information.
Everyone seems to have information except the very members of the committee who are charged with the responsibility of dealing with this issue. That is why we are saying that not only is there a cover up but also that we need a full public inquiry. Without a full public inquiry it seems that we are simply a Hollywood backdrop here. We are not able to get the kind of information we need. I cannot believe that members on the other side are not as frustrated as those of us in the opposition.
The government cannot, in my view, and I am sure many of my colleagues would agree, deny any further that there is no credible evidence. I say this because when Colonel Noonan did his report, they took photos of the individual before they turned him over, to be clear that there were no signs of any abuse, and they also took detailed notes. Later we found that there was.
The Canadian soldiers did their job. We are asking the government to do its job by providing the information that we need.
Again, General Natynczyk received information. He has now indicated that it was a Canadian detainee who was turned over. We need to know on what basis the general decided to go public and say this was in fact the case. Without that information it is difficult for us to do very much.
I realize that perhaps the motive or intent of the government is that the committee not be able to do its work successfully. I know the government would like this issue to go away. I know the government would like us to say that Christmas is coming and this will soon be off the front pages and we will not worry about this and that when we reconvene at the end of January, we will move on to something else.
However, this is a fundamental issue for Canadians. This is the issue of our role in the world, our role in terms of human rights. It is not something that we can slough off. It is not something we can say that because we are going to have Christmas break, we will not worry about it and everything will be fine.
We need to know what the government knew. Again, this has nothing to do with the performance of our soldiers on the ground. I keep hearing members on the other side saying that we do not support our soldiers, but there is not a member in the House who does not support our troops.
However, the issue is that we do not have confidence in the ability of the government to provide the truth, if it is not willing to give us information. We have two binders of information that are basically useless, because the information was redacted to the point where nobody could take it seriously. It is not easy to read a line and then a few words later on there are a few more words blocked out, and so on. There are pages that are completely blacked out. Who is the government kidding? As for the situation now, the government has denied the request of the committee on November 25 to see the uncensored documents. We said that we needed to see the documents.
There is a concern about whether or not this information should be in the hands of Parliament. We heard from Rob Walsh, a well respected law clerk and parliamentary counsel, whose view is that section 38 does not apply and that in this case, in fact, the supremacy of Parliament dominates.
Therefore, there are clearly ways for a committee to operate with a few sensitive documents, although these documents are obviously not sensitive for certain journalists who have had unfettered access to them. They are obviously not sensitive for certain witnesses who have come before committee and have had access to them in full. However, elected members of Parliament who have a responsibility for oversight apparently cannot be trusted with this information. As a member of the Privy Council, I cherish that title; but, unfortunately, I no longer have the ability to access such documents.
The reality is that either we are serious about this issue and serious about getting to the truth and about our international image and human rights, or we are not. If we are not, then the role of the committee is called into question. We have a parliamentary motion from March 2008 that was extremely clear on the issue of oversight, and particularly on anything to do with detainees. Therefore, this is absolutely fundamental to me.
The House of Commons public accounts committee recently tabled a report that outlines the constitutional right of Parliament to demand information and how parliamentary supremacy triumphs over all laws. In a letter dated December 7, my colleague from , our defence critic, indicated very clearly that parliamentary supremacy does in fact triumph and that we should have access to the documents. This was not something written on the back of an envelope; it was a very detailed letter outlining our case. Let me quote from that letter, which states in regard to the relationship between the government and the House and its committees that:
The law of parliamentary privilege provides that this relationship operates unencumbered by legal constraints that might otherwise seem applicable.
Therefore, we need to have this information and to be able to judge for ourselves.
The member for goes on to outline the following:
Sections 37 to 38.16, CEA, do not provide that they apply to the House or its committees and therefore cannot be read as applying to Committee proceedings or overriding the Committee's exclusive authority with respect to its proceedings.
Finally, if that is not clear enough for members on the other side, though I know it is clear enough on this side, let me just add the following. In keeping with the principles of responsible government, no part of the responsibilities of government can, by law, be categorically excluded or removed from its constitutional accountability to the House and its committees. Otherwise it would soon become only partial accountability and perhaps, after some years, no accountability at all.
It would be very troublesome to me if the government were not accountable at all. We are very fortunate that in this country we have a very functional, lively, probing opposition. The function of the opposition, of all three parties in opposition, is to keep the government on its toes. We look at cases in some countries around the world where the opposition is viewed as more of a pain. I am sure that members of the government see us as a pain from time to time, but the right of this opposition is to keep members of the government on their toes.
The right to order the production of documents is a matter of law. That is what we asked. On November 25 we said that we wanted to see these documents, unfettered. Mr. Walsh, again, said that if the committee asks for information, it gets it. Unfortunately, it is now December 10 and we do not have that information. The government should be following the rules. It must provide the documents that are requested.
This is troubling. This morning a poll indicated that Canadians are quite troubled. We are not just talking on behalf of ourselves. Canadians get it. Canadians understand the importance of this issue and what it means for Canada internationally.
At a policy level, responsibility lies with the government. It is up to the government to provide the information. I am sure if my friends on the other side were over here, and I know this for a fact because I have sat over there, they would be howling and screaming that we were obstructing the ability of a committee to do its work. In fact, the government is obstructing. As the government, it knows that we do not have the access that we need.
Obviously, protecting the rights of the detainees was part of that resolution. In terms of NATO it is our international responsibility to do that. We cannot knowingly turn a blind eye. My great fear is that the government wants to turn a blind eye and move on. This is unacceptable.
One of the things we are doing in Afghanistan, working with the justice ministry and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, is we are enhancing human rights. We are talking about and seeing the application of the rule of law. If we are no better than the Taliban, then we are not doing our job. In fact, we are much better. What we are doing is we are saying to the Afghan government that in order for it to deal with these kinds of issues, this is what it needs to know and this is how to apply it. When I was in Kandahar and Kabul I saw for myself the type of in-depth instructions that Afghan police and soldiers get.
Unfortunately, there have been abuses. Even one credible case, which we now have from back in June 2006, means there could be others. Until the other day, the government said there were none. It accused us of all sorts of things. The reality is that one is too many. Obviously that is of great concern and why we therefore need a public inquiry. Only a public inquiry headed by a judge will get to the bottom of this, because the judge will have the ability to get all of the information needed in order to conduct the inquiry.
We saw what happened to the Military Police Complaints Commission. That has been shut down. The government has called public inquiries on other things, but on something as fundamental to Canadians, fundamental in terms of human rights, fundamental in terms of the rule of law, the government is stonewalling and saying no.
After yesterday, I would suggest there are no more excuses. There are no more deceptions. There is no more stonewalling. We need it. In fact, there is a resolution which the New Democratic Party put forward and which we endorsed as a majority in this House calling for that.
I would suggest that we will not get the facts as long as the government continues to obstruct. Therefore, a public inquiry is needed. It is needed to clear the air, and it is certainly needed for Canadians.
Madam Speaker, I thank you for giving me the floor.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part in this important debate to discuss an issue that has been widely discussed in this place, in committee and certainly throughout the country. I should indicate that I will be sharing my time with the .
I am joining in the debate to state clearly, once again, that the disclosure of the documents that are sought, the government information and legal proceedings and what Canadians would receive, is done through a process that falls under the responsibility of the Department of Justice. It is a process that is independent from politics.
Earlier in the day we heard from the . He stated in a very articulate and straightforward way the process by which redactions are done. He clearly indicated that it is non-partisan, independent public service in his department who make these determinations.
I also want to put on the record and restate that Canadians should understand that the reputation of the military is completely intact. There has been nothing done that would indicate they have acted other than honourably in conducting themselves on this mission, as they have consistently throughout our country's history.
Canadian men and women, civilian and military, have done an outstanding job. They have been working selflessly. As we speak they continue to do so in bringing security and peace efforts to improve Afghanistan, a country that has been under siege for decades. They do so at great risk to themselves and their families. Certainly at this time of year our thoughts and prayers are with them in that regard.
While they are putting their lives on the line along with colleagues from 60 other nations, including our NATO partners, they are doing so to help people build Afghanistan to a stable society and democratic country. This is a Herculean task. It is a country where we want to see Afghans one day have a semblance of normal life; that is, to enjoy some of the same rights and privileges we are so lucky and fortunate to enjoy in Canada: stability, education, basic health care, employment and the prospect of a better future.
Through our whole of government mission, the least the government can do is to make sure our dedicated men and women in uniform and the many civilians who are there building that country can do their difficult work as safely as possible. That means providing the right protective equipment. That is something our government had prided itself on. We have provided that equipment: tanks, helicopters; UAVs; and road clearance materials to detect the deadly improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which have taken so many lives.
I met a young captain on the elevator at the Department of National Defence this morning. He told me that he and his crew had defused or disabled over 800 of these devices in the past month. There is incredible heroic work being done, and it has surely saved and preserved life inside Afghanistan.
The Government of Canada has a fundamental obligation to ensure that the lives of civilians and Canadian Forces personnel in Afghanistan are not put in further jeopardy or given additional risk by releasing information that may be part of operational security or affect relations with our allies, international organizations, or confidential sources who often provide us with information to help prevent enemy attacks. The government's primary obligation is to protect and promote the lives of its citizens, including our men and women who are deployed.
Special care is also being taken to avoid a situation by a careful review of thousands of documents, pages of which might contain information that could be helpful to the enemy. Governments should do this with the greatest care and responsibility. It is done by officials who are specially trained with an eye to that detail, and it is done independent of the political branch of government.
As I have stated before, section 38 of the Canada Evidence Act applies to all proceedings before bodies with the power to compel the production of information where international relations, national defence or national security interests would be at risk. We will continue to provide all legally available information when issues come forward and when documents are requested. We have produced documents, and we will do so, in accordance with the law.
Provisions of legislation such as the Canada Evidence Act, the Access to Information Act, the Personal Information Protection Act and the Security of Information Act, which Parliament passed in order to prevent public disclosure of information that is sensitive or would affect national security, are justified.
In fact, these laws protect the security of our country, and the security of Canadian citizens and our representatives as well as members of the Canadian Forces who work in dangerous places in order to put our values into practice. All members will certainly agree on the importance of the protections afforded. That is why certain parliamentary conventions acknowledge that they are necessary.
When one looks at the legal aspects of this, certainly our courts understand the importance of such protections.
To place this argument in a better context, to take it out of the parliamentary and sometimes partisan atmosphere we work in, let me share a quote from the Federal Court case of Singh v. Attorney General. In this case, Mr. Justice Andrew MacKay, no relation, stated:
Canada's international relations, in particular relations with our allies, rely on the exchange of information for common benefit. There is a public interest in maintaining the confidence of foreign governments so that Canada's agencies, particularly those concerned with security, will continue to receive timely information from others that may be relevant to Canada's interests. Confidential information, by definition, is information that is passed along in confidence that it will not be disclosed without the permission of the provider or the source. If Canada does not enjoy the confidence of its allies, our international relations and security may well suffer. The public has a very high level interest in maintaining that confidence.
Mr. Justice MacKay went on to say with respect to national security:
To effectively provide a defence against terrorism and to participate in a global effort to constrain it, it is imperative for Canada to maintain as highly confidential the investigational interests of our security services, the sources of their information, the technologies and techniques they employ, the identities of their employees and particularly their informants. Canada's security agencies must maintain the confidences and the cooperation of foreign agencies that have shared confidential information with our services in the expectation that it would not be divulged. The public interest served by maintaining secrecy in the national security context is weighty. In the balancing of public interests here at play, that interest would only be outweighed in a clear and compelling case for disclosure.
Every clear-thinking member of the House, certainly those who have served in cabinet and even now in opposition, must surely agree with those sentiments.
Another clear example is the case as recent as October of this year, when Chief Justice Allan Lutfy of the Federal Court ruled on an access to information request. The applicant sought specific information related to persons detained by Canadian Forces in Afghanistan: their names, identification numbers, operational detail, circumstances of capture and the like. The Chief Justice stated:
I find that the information in issue...including the nature of the operations and the location, date, time and other circumstances surrounding the capture of the detainees. On the record before me, I am satisfied that the disclosure of this information in 2007 could have been of assistance to the enemy of the CF in Afghanistan, could have caused harm to members of the CF and others in that country and could reasonably have been expected to be injurious to the defence of Canada or its allies within the meaning of s. 15 of the Act. The determination made in 2007 by National Defence not to disclose this information was made on reasonable grounds.
This is partial advice from our courts, and it is additional information that should be recognized and taken into consideration in this debate. As parliamentarians, we must recognize our responsibilities and the necessity of safeguarding sensitive information.
The process under section 38 of the Evidence Act serves as a useful surrogate to identify information that should not be disclosed. Simply put, there is no mechanism to ensure the protection of information that is injurious to our national security, national defence, international relations, and information disclosed in the committee context.
This is why we will continue to follow the process. The law is in place to ensure first and foremost the security of our men and women in uniform and civilians serving so valiantly in Afghanistan and other places around the world. I would hope that members would take this matter seriously and not pass this motion, in the interest of their lives and the lives of their families.
Madam Speaker, it will come as no surprise that I cannot support the motion before House today.
There is a good reason why the government has taken the measures it has with regard to documents, and that is safety, the safety of our men and women in uniform, their civilian colleagues, other government agencies and departments as well as the protection of our partners and allies. Unfortunately, it may be too easy to demand the provision of written documents as if their disclosure had no impact beyond these chambers.
The Canadian Forces, working alongside over 60 other nations and international organizations as part of the UN mandated NATO-led mission, are playing a leadership role in delivering real results as an integral part of Canada's whole-of-government team in Afghanistan.
Several years ago, when our troops first deployed to Afghanistan, we knew there would be many challenges. After all, Afghanistan had suffered decades of war and misrule. The government lacked the capacity to deliver the most basic service. Still today the insurgency remains ruthless. The Taliban attacks with roadside bombs, vehicle bombs, suicide bombs. They threaten, they intimidate, and the results can be devastating. Sadly, we have paid a heavy price for progress in Afghanistan.
To date, Canada has lost 133 selfless men and women in uniform, one diplomat and two aid workers. Our injured and fallen came from places like Mill Cove, Montreal, Fredericton, Conception Bay, Thunder Bay, Victoria, Iqaluit and Edmonton. They made a substantial differences in places like Panjwaii, Daman, Spin Boldak, Ghorak, Khakrez and Kandahar City.
They left behind a legacy of hope and confidence for the Afghan people, a legacy held high by our more than 2,800 men and women still serving in theatre. It is their valour, their dedication and their selflessness that really make a difference. That has established and reinforced the reputation of our Canadian Forces as one of the best militaries in the world.
We hold them to the highest standards of professional conduct and, through their blood, sweat and tears, they never let us down. In Afghanistan they are defending the basic values we all believe in and stand for day in and day out in this very chamber, things like freedom, democracy, rule of law, values that generations of Canadians who have proudly worn the maple leaf have fought and died for.
Despite the dangers, the devotion of our men and women in uniform has allowed us to deliver on our pledge to the international community, on our promise to the Afghan people. We are offering them dignity, security and justice and a better future.
The Canadian Forces are providing the essential protection that is fundamental to creating the secure environment necessary for governance, humanitarian development and the training of a military and police force to occur. We are partnering with Afghans to do so because it is their country.
It has been clear from the start that a well-trained, well-equipped Afghan National Security Force is essential if the Afghan government is to assume increasing responsibility for its own security and development. Thanks to the Canadian Forces, the Afghan National Security Forces are growing. They are growing in confidence, in capacity and in capability.
We have seen some of our greatest success through our operational mentoring and liaison team. Currently Canadian men and women in uniform in our OMLT are mentoring five Afghan army battalions and their headquarters. We also have civilian and military police trainers and mentors supporting the Afghan National Police reform.
From a fledgling force a few years ago, ill-equipped and lacking proper training, the Afghan National Army has, with the support of the Canadian Forces, matured into a credible force. The progress it has made is impressive. Afghan forces are now conducting more than two-thirds of the combat operations in and around Kandahar City.
Progress is empowering Afghans. It is allowing them to move beyond ongoing security concerns to rebuild their schools, their roads and their sense of pride in their country. While progress may appear slow, it is taking hold and touching the lives of Afghans every day.
The ultimate goal is to help create a better governed, more peaceful and more secure Afghanistan for Afghans, a goal that the Canadian Forces, indeed the entire whole-of government effort, is helping to make a reality.
That leads me to our responsibility back here at home.
First, contrary to a couple of comments across the floor earlier today, this government did not leak any documents to any media. The Government of Canada has an obligation and a moral duty to see that the lives of Canadians Forces personnel in Afghanistan are not put at additional risk by the release of information that may be of an operational security nature. We are required by law to protect sensitive information relating to international relations, national defence or national security, whether in written or oral form.
I am sure you can agree, Madam Speaker, that this is not about politics. It is about protecting Canadian lives. It is about protecting the lives of our partners and allies. It is about protecting the relationships with our partners in Afghanistan, which are so crucial in helping us conduct our mission.
The responsibility of protecting or disclosing sensitive information lies with independent, non-partisan public servants. It is these public servants who review suggested redactions provided by the respective departments. It is their duty to balance the public interest in disclosure against the public interest in non-disclosure, and there is no political interference in this process.
In the end, we are working to preserve hard won trust and respect of our allies and we are ensuring that good people's lives are not put at additional risk by the potential release of information that may be of a sensitive nature.
What if irresponsible actions of the House make us fail in that duty? We need to think about that. Canadian soldiers, civilians, Afghans working for us, some of them in the most perilous situations, and translators. Afghans who translate for us are the most endangered people in the entire country.
We can be sure that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are listening in to what is going on in Canada every day. They are probably listening in today. They may be murderers and terrorists, but they are not stupid and they do know how to conduct operations. They are paying attention.
If we violate the trust of our own men and women in uniform and our allies and the people who count on us, who will ever trust us again? If our Canadian soldiers or the people who trust us die because we have divulged information or because we cannot get information from organizations like the Red Cross or others to protect them, then I hope the folks across the way would stand up and take credit for that.
I know Canadians understand the great sacrifice and commitment of our forces in Afghanistan, the noble work they do to solidify our vision of Canada that holds its own on the international stage and the fact that our armed forces are one of the best and most respected in the world.
We have every reason to be proud of the role our troops are playing in routing the insurgency and planting the seeds of development and good governance, the seeds for a positive Afghan future.
After all they have sacrificed and achieved for Canada, our brave men and women deserve our continued vigilance so they can continue to accomplish the goals that we have set for them.
We are embarking on a very dangerous process today. I spent 31 years in regular force uniform and another 5 years as an honourary colonel. I can tell the House that the men and women of the Canadian Forces do know who their friends are in this Parliament. It is the people on this side of the floor because I speak to them every day. I do not expect—