The Commons: John Baird exceeds himself

What’s a government to do when the troops say otherwise?

The Scene. The altogether undramatic sentence, taken from the notes of a Canadian soldier serving in Afghanistan, appeared more than halfway through a story in this morning’s paper. “Local ANP elements were in possession of a PUC detained by CDA troops and subsequently transferred to ANP custody.”

The ANP, in this case, is the Afghan National Police. PUC is apparently short for person under control. And CDA would seem to be a quick way of saying “Canadian” with fewer consonants and vowels. While in the possession of the ANP, having been detained and transferred by the CDAs, it seems that the handcuffed PUC was beaten bloody with shoes. So much so that the CDAs felt it necessary to remove the PUC from the possession of the ANP, the entire incident apparently corroborated by the sorts of soldiers everyone has made clear they support.

This is problematic for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is this government’s repeated reassurances that “there has never been a single, solitary proven allegation of abuse involving a transferred prisoner from Canadian Forces.”

It was on such grounds that Michael Ignatieff rose at the start of Question Period this afternoon to inquire as to precisely what was going on here. And it was here that John Baird, outdoing even his own standards for rebuttal, seemed to imply that Mr. Ignatieff should cease with his inquiries on this file.

“Mr. Speaker, the story which the leader of opposition raises is one that was raised in this House more than two and a half years ago,” the Transport Minister lamented. “The Vice Chief of Defence staff, now the CDS, had issued a statement over two and a half years ago stating that the Afghan in question was not detained, was not captured and was not transferred by the Canadian Forces. I hope the member opposite will stand in this place and apologize to the men and women in uniform.”

There were various catcalls and whoops from the Conservative side, various government members apparently quite eager to side with Mr. Baird’s testimony. Mr. Ignatieff was less convinced.

“Mr. Speaker, the point is the Canadian Forces did their job. The question is whether the government did its job,” he offered. “The issue here is the minister says one thing, but a Canadian field officer’s diary and sworn testimony says another. I would prefer to believe the testimony of the officer and not the minister opposite. Can he give me a reason to believe anything he says?”

A Conservative voice loudly proclaimed “shame” upon the Liberal leader.

Up came Mr. Baird, pumping his fist and speaking quite forcefully, if not particularly dealing with the question at hand. “Mr. Speaker, for more than three years we have seen the Liberal Party and the members opposite smear our brave men and women in uniform,” the Minister declared. “The Chief of Defence Staff, a man who has bravely worn the Canadian uniform for decades, has been abundantly clear. He issued a statement more than two and a half years ago, stating that the Afghan in question was not detained, was not captured, and was not transferred by the Canadian Forces. The leader of the opposition should be up on his feet commending the work of our troops and commending the contribution they have been making under difficult circumstances, and he should stop this fear-mongering.”

Mr. Ignatieff shook his head, perhaps upset, perhaps simply bewildered. He stood seeming quite frustrated, pointing his left index finger and straining the range of his vocal chords.

“Mr. Speaker, this is precisely a case where the Canadian Forces did their job. They saw someone being beaten, his face covered in blood, and they did the right thing,” he pronounced. “This side of the House did the right thing. For a year the government had credible evidence that this had occurred and it did nothing. What kind of government, what kind of Canadian government refuses to act on credible accusations of torture, evidence of torture and in this case evidence provided by Canadian Forces?”

Mr. Baird stood once more to repeat himself. “Mr. Speaker, let me be as clear as I can. When Canadian Forces personnel, when Canadian officials are presented with clear and substantiated evidence, they have always acted,” he said. “Let us be very clear on another point. The Afghan in question was not a Canadian detainee, and our men and women in uniform did the right thing. They should be honoured for that contribution, honoured for their sacrifice, and the member opposite should apologize to those men and women in uniform.”

Several Conservative backbenchers stood to applaud this, the Transport Minister having apparently succeeded in accomplishing something.

The Stats. Afghanistan, 11 questions. The environment, eight questions. Employment and foreign affairs, five questions each. Mail delivery, labour and taxation, two questions each. Product safety, infrastructure and firearms, one question each.

John Baird, seven answers. Laurie Hawn, six answers. Bev Oda, five answers. Jim Prentice, four answers. Christian Paradis, Rob Nicholson, Rob Merrifield, Jean-Pierre Blackburn and Rona Ambrose, two answers each. Leona Aglukkaq, Jim Flaherty, James Moore, Tony Clement, Helena Guergis and Vic Toews, one answer each.