OTTAWA - We are days from the 13th anniversary of a government decision that ultimately cost the lives of 162 Canadians, drained close to $20 billion from the public treasury and bedeviled three prime ministers.
How we got there is more than a historical footnote as Stephen Harper prepares to lay out the next step in Canada’s contribution to the war on the Islamic State.
Our parliamentarians have certainly not always covered themselves in glory as they approach the most solemn decision they will be asked to make.
After bedroom selfies taunting ISIS and tearful apologies for non-answers from Conservatives, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau Thursday felt the inexplicable urge to talk about the government need to “whip out our CF-18s and show them how big they are,’’ a frat boy penis joke that wiped out an otherwise thoughtful speech on the need for an honest war debate.
Still — somehow — there have been moments of maturity and gravity in the Commons that could make this Parliament look good compared to the Parliament of 2001, which acted out of the fear and uncertainty of the moment.
When Jean Chrétien announced the initial deployment of Canadian troops to Afghanistan as part of George W. Bush’s war on terror, he did so in the National Press theatre during the holiday Thanksgiving weekend.
He took no questions from reporters and didn’t bother to call the Commons back into session during the Thanksgiving break.
He announced an essentially meaningless “take note” debate for the following week. The only parliamentary vote backed our “courageous men and women” being sent to defend freedom and democracy.
Only Alexa McDonough and her tiny 13-member NDP caucus pushed for a real debate, but opposition leader Stockwell Day had already agreed that such a debate would tie the hands of our military and risk alerting Al Qaeda and the Taliban to coalition strategies.
This was the tenor of the times — it had been less than a month since Al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington.
Thirteen years later, this Parliament looks much more thoughtful and deliberative than the gang operating in the pressure cooker of the 9/11 attacks.
Opposition leader Tom Mulcair has been asking the proper questions of the prime minister in the daily question period.
He has pushed for details on the cost of this mission, its parameters and its duration. He has pushed for humanitarian help for the region.
Trudeau, without tipping his hand, demanded Harper make a clear, transparent, dispassionate case for war.
If we are asking Canadians to put their lives in danger, “We owe them clarity. We owe them a plan. But most of all we owe them the truth,’’ he said.
Friday, Harper also has the opportunity to do this right.
He must not only explain clearly to Canadians why he believes we should join allies launching airstrikes in Iraq, he should also tell the country what we are prepared to do to help those in the region who have been displaced and are suffering.
Because it is always easier to get into a war than get out, he must lay out the limits of our contribution. He must tell Canadians his exit strategy — not by arbitrarily circling a date on a calendar, but by explaining under what circumstances he would believe we have done our part or how or what change in mission would move us to the sidelines.
He must tell Canadians how we would define victory.
Harper has to explain why he believes the Islamic State is a direct threat to Canadians. There is no shortage of expert opinion skeptical of that.
If we are not going to put troops on the ground, Harper must state that clearly and if we are not taking part on any strikes in Syria that should also be explicitly stated.
The government must also commit to further debate and votes if it enters a more dangerous phase or a greater Canadian contribution.
And Harper must brief the opposition leaders on his plans or face accusations he is playing politics with a decision that could imperil the lives of Canadians.
In 2001, with a majority, Chrétien declared, “it is the responsibility of the government to make this decision because the government is the executive of Canada and we have the confidence of the House.’’
He had the opposition onside.
In 2014, with a majority, Harper has promised a vote, but if he does not sincerely lay out his case for war, his call for non-partisan support rings hollow.
He will have no political cover and he will wear this venture alone, success or boondoggle.