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Stephen Harper stands up for troops - but falls silent on Peter MacKay

Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds during Question Period in the House of Commons on Wednesday December 9, 2009.

Adrian Wyld

Stephen Harper defended his top soldier and the Canadian Forces today but never backed Peter MacKay amid opposition demands that he fire the Defence Minister over his handling of the Afghan detainee controversy.

The opposition is upping the ante, applying more pressure on Mr. MacKay, with all three leaders today calling directly on the Prime Minister during Question Period to push his minister aside.

"We cannot trust a word that comes out of the mouth of the minister," Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said. "When will the Prime Minister fire him and call a full, independent public inquiry?"

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For each and every call for Mr. MacKay's firing, the Prime Minister would only say that the military acted correctly and with integrity.

Yesterday, only the NDP defence critic Jack Harris had called for Mr. MacKay to step down.

But the story has changed dramatically in the last 24 hours.

Earlier today, Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk called a press conference to reverse himself on testimony he gave before the Commons defence committee yesterday.

He is now admitting that a prisoner severely beaten in 2006 by Afghan interrogators had earlier been taken into custody by Canadian soldiers.

"The Chief of Defence Staff's comments today confirm that the prisoners handed over by Canada were in fact tortured in Afghanistan," NDP Leader Jack Layton said, in calling for Mr. MacKay to be fired.

He also called for an inquiry into the situation.

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"Now more than ever the majority of members in this House are calling for a public inquiry. And it's legitimate. We need to put an end to this cover-up. … When will we have a public inquiry?"

The Prime Minister said the facts have been clear for several years. He said in 2006 the military suspected abuse of an Afghan prisoner and steps were taken to correct it.

"That is further indication that Canadian Forces are doing what they have to do and should do in this situation," Mr. Harper said.

This was the first time in a week that the Prime Minister has attended the daily Question Period. He has been travelling for most of the fall and has just returned from a trip to China and Korea.

The NDP Leader shot back that Mr. MacKay was wrong in claiming that there has been no evidence of abuse.

"And he should take responsibility and resign and if not the Prime Minister should demand it today," Mr. Layton said to claps and cheers from his caucus.

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The Prime Minister did not deal with the resignation demand. Rather, he praised the military and General Natynczyk for correcting the record "once again showing they act with the highest of integrity."

He challenged the opposition to say otherwise about the military, adding that his government is going to "stay on course and continue to back our military."

Not once did he mention or say a kind word about his Defence Minister, which is in contrast to the enthusiastic support he gave to Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt last June when she was under fire for leaving documents in television studios and for being caught on tape making disparaging remarks about a cabinet colleague and referring to the isotope crisis as a "sexy" story.

This left Mr. MacKay to defend his own record. He noted several times that he was not defence minister during the time of the controversy, although he was foreign affairs minister.

He said, too, that he only heard of the discrepancy in the top soldier's testimony this morning when he was told by Gen. Natynczyk.

He also said that the information came from field notes recorded on the battlefield "at a time when soldiers were under extreme stress."

"So, something that happened almost three years ago, while I was in a different department, that was not known by the Chief of Defence Staff, is hardly something that I would know," he said in response to a question from Mr. Ignatieff.

Indeed, Mr. MacKay has repeatedly said that he was relying on information from the soldiers in the field.

"What it does prove is that when credible evidence comes forward, Canadian soldiers act meticulously, ethically, marvellously, each and every time."

(Photos: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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