THUNDER BAY – Leaders Ledger – In any Democracy the power of the elected government is superior to that of the military which is always politically neutral. The glue that holds the system together is trust; between those two institutions and between those institutions and the people. A report this week, for a moment shook my trust, so let me explain what I found and why in the end my trust remains unshaken.
Almost a year ago I participated in an “outreach” program for Members of Parliament that allowed me to visit a Canadian Forces facility and spend some time with the men and women of our armed forces. My time with the troops helped me understand what a typical day is like for them, the challenges they face on the job, and how they maintain the security of our country. I spent three days at sea with the HMCS Ville de Quebec which was docked in Halifax at the time, and will be docked in Thunder Bay from August 16-19th. It was a wonderful experience that I will never forget, and I met some great people who work hard every day securing our borders and defending our interests.
It seems that this particular outreach programs for Members of Parliament was available for as long as anyone can remember in Ottawa, but was abruptly scrapped this year in order to save money, or so goes the official line from Defence Minister’s Peter MacKay’s office. The savings in question though would be very minimal given that only few MPs participate each year, and especially so when compared to, say, the $28.3 billion F-35 purchase. Many wondered if there could have been other reasons for its abrupt cancellation.
In an embarrassing disclosure for the Harper Government, information has come to light that some military personnel were gathering personal information on MPs participating in this outreach program and passing it along to the Defence Minister’s political office. At this point, no one truly knows for sure what information was passed along, from which participants it was gathered, or for what purpose it was used. However, it is thought that information on at least two opposition Members of Parliament was used by the Minister in an effort to embarrass them during Question Period.
Upon learning of this unfortunate situation I immediately began to try and recall what I had disclosed to accompanying personnel during my trip. Outside of the live fire drills the atmosphere on the HMCS Ville de Quebec was friendly, but I still wondered if there was there something I said in a casual conversation that may be used against me in Question Period or which could come up during a heated election campaign. After reflecting on my experience I have a pretty good idea that it will not.
During my time on the HMCS Ville de Quebec I was able to personally get to know several of the frontline personnel on that vessel and I believe that, to a person, they are honourable and understand clearly that their role is to protect the territory, interests, and rights of the people who live in our country while not interfering in our political system. Thanks to my time on the HMCS Ville de Quebec I now have much better idea of what day to day life is like for our service personnel and have even more faith in their ability to protect our country and defend our rights. I have no concerns whatsoever about their integrity, but someone’s integrity is clearly lacking in all this.
Enter Peter Mackay’s office. The Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Lt. – Gen. Andre Deschamps, testified before the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence last February. In response to a question about reports that military personnel were requested to provide ‘research’ on opposition MPs to the Minister’s office, he said; “We [Canadian Forces and the Royal Canadian Air Force] provide information when it is requested of us by anyone requesting it, as long as it is not classified or does not cross the boundaries of protected information.” Taking this testimony and the context of the question into consideration, it seems clear to me now that the Defence Minister and his political staff have requested information about the opposition, and that the military has been providing this information to the Minister and his staff as if there were no problems with the practice.
The Canadian Forces and our men and women in uniform take great pride in protecting our territory, defending our rights, and pursuing our interests as directed by their civilian commanders, and they deserve better than to be treated as some sort of ‘opposition research’ division in Conservative Party headquarters. Peter MacKay and his political handlers must remember that in a democracy the military are politically neutral and they should resist the temptation to call upon them to help in their underhanded efforts to smear their political opponents.
The cancellation of this outreach program is truly a shame, but I would humbly suggest as an alternative that Mr. Harper replace the Minister of Defence and eliminate the use of military aircraft for personal fishing trips if he really wishes to save our money. What’s more, there is little doubt that such a decision would also increase the trust between the Canadian Forces, the Government of Canada, and the people they serve.
John Rafferty MP