The Scene. “General Natynczyk said what the government has been saying all along,” the Prime Minister explained en francais with his first opportunity.
Across the way, Gilles Duceppe burst out laughing.
Sixteen times these past few weeks members of this government told the House that not a single proven allegation of abuse suffered by a Canadian-transferred detainee could be found. The Defence Minister, the Transport Minister and the Defence Minister’s parliamentary secretary all testified as such.
Two days ago, the Globe reported otherwise. General Walter Natynczyk insisted that a close reading of the situation in question demonstrated the detainee, later beaten by Afghan authorities, was not so much detained and transferred, as merely questioned. And government ministers insisted on accepting Gen. Natynczyk’s version of events.
Only just before noon today, Gen. Natynczyk summoned the cameras and notepads and announced that he was wrong, that new information indicated the detainee in question was not just questioned, but in fact taken into custody. And so suddenly, it seemed, there was some explaining to do.
Perhaps stumped by the Prime Minister’s first response, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff tried again, this time in English. “Mr. Speaker, when General Natynczyk corrected his account this morning, he did so, he said, in order to restore trust in his office and in his institution,” he said. “The issue here is trust. We cannot trust this government. We cannot trust a word that comes out of the mouth of the minister. When will the Prime Minister fire him and call a full, independent, public inquiry?”
The Prime Minister stood to repeat himself. “Mr. Speaker, the facts of the case in question of course confirm what we have been saying all along,” he said.
Now it was the Liberal side that laughed incredulously, apparently having missed Mr. Harper’s comments in the other language.
“Which is that,” the Prime Minister continued, “when the Canadian Forces see substantive evidence of any case of abuse, they have taken corrective action.”
Indeed. This government has referred previously to “credible evidence” and “credible allegations” and “substantial evidence” and “credible information” and even “credible, sustained information and evidence.” But then John Baird has said that “there has not been a single proven allegation of abuse of a Canadian-transferred prisoner.” And Peter MacKay has said that “there is no credible evidence, none, zero, to suggest that a Taliban prisoner transferred from Canadian Forces was ever abused.” And Laurie Hawn has said that “there has not been a single substantiated allegation of abuse of a Canadian transferred detainee.”
“The issue is whether the government did the right thing,” Mr. Ignatieff ventured with his third opportunity, straining it seemed to properly convey himself to the Prime Minister. “For more than a year, it had credible reports from Canadian diplomats, from Canadian military of abuse of detainees in Afghan prisons. It did nothing. Will it now admit that it made a mistake? There was a year when it did nothing. Will it appoint an independent judicial inquiry to get to the bottom of this affair, and will it fire the Minister of Defence?”
The Prime Minister begged to differ. “The only nothing here is that the opposition has had nothing new to ask about in three years,” he huffed.
Ujjal Dosanjh took a couple turns at shaming the government side. Peter MacKay stood to respond amid a chorus of calls from the Liberal side to resign. Mr. Dosanjh dared the government to call an inquiry. Mr. MacKay pumped his fist and spoke glowingly of the country’s diplomats and soldiers.
The questions persisted. There were groans from all sides and accusations of who was saying what about whom. The Bloc’s Claude Bachand demanded the Prime Minister apologize to the House. Mr. MacKay stood to respond, but was forced back down by louder calls to step aside.
Jack Layton picked up the inquiry. The Prime Minister dismissed his concern. Mr. Layton lost his patience. “Mr. Speaker, will they stop already?” he begged, proceeding to point and yell and visibly demonstrate his frustration.
Dominic LeBlanc stood to prosecute the case. “Mr. Speaker, with the chief of the defence staff’s revelations this morning, the Conservative story on detainees has now been totally discredited. Every time the Conservatives come up with a new story, the truth comes out and they are forced to create a new falsehood to cover up the untruth of their last falsehood,” he said. “Story after story from the government is untrue. Answer after answer is total fiction. Why does the minister not finally come clean, stand up in the House and tell Canadians the truth?”
“Mr. Speaker, saying it louder with more feigned indignation does not make his question true,” Mr. MacKay demurred.
As the Defence Minister stood to take a question from the Bloc’s Francine Lalonde, a rendition of “Na Na Na, Hey Hey, Goodbye” rose from the furthest reaches of the Liberal benches. Mr. Ignatieff admonished them to cut it out.
After still more back-and-forth, claims and counter-claims, Mr. Ignatieff rose again, capping the day with a buffet of questions. “Can the minister tell the House what new information led him to change his story? Will the minister understand that this constant charade of changing his story will not do? Will he further understand that a military inquiry into this matter is insufficient because it does not deal with political responsibility? When will the government do the right thing and appoint a public inquiry to get to the bottom of this?”
Mr. MacKay offered what he could. “Mr. Speaker, the new information was the new information provided by the Chief of the Defence Staff, Walter Natynczyk, this morning, which came from field notes that were made at the time of the incident. So, something that happened almost three years ago, while I was in a different department, that was not known by the Chief of the Defence Staff, is hardly something that I would know,” he said. “What it does prove is that when credible evidence comes forward, Canadian soldiers act meticulously, ethically, marvellously, each and every time. We applaud their efforts. We applaud their courage. They did the right thing.”
More still from Mr. Ignatieff. “Mr. Speaker, again, the issue is whether the minister will bring to the committee, this afternoon, the new information that has made him change his story, once again,” he clarified. “Will he appreciate that this constant changing of stories reduces the trust that Canadians have in this minister’s capacity to tell the House the truth? Will he finally agree that it is more than time to appoint a public inquiry, with a judge, to get to the truth of the matter?”
The Liberals stood to applaud. The Defence Minister stood with both caveats and assurances. “Mr. Speaker, again, General Natynczyk spoke the truth, this morning. He received new information this morning, which he shared with me,” he said. “This information, by the way, was recorded on a battlefield, at a time when soldiers were under extreme stress. There were different versions of what took place, in this instance. All of that was laid out by the General, in his press conference, this morning. He has called for a military board of inquiry, which will occur. That will allow the facts to be disclosed. As is always the case, we have been forthright, we have been straightforward, and we will continue to do so.”
Never mind anything you’ve heard to the contrary.
The Stats. Afghanistan, 23 questions. Foreign affairs, four questions. The environment, three questions. Taxation, two questions. Employment, the Olympics, labour, Aboriginals, the RCMP and consumer safety, one question each.
Peter MacKay, 16 answers. Stephen Harper, eight answers. Bev Oda, three answers. Mark Warawa and Jim Flaherty, two answers each. Diane Finley, Vic Toews, James Moore, Rona Ambrose, Chuck Strahl, Peter Van Loan and Leona Aglukkaq, one answer each.