OTTAWA: Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper in an election debate Monday defended Canadian air strikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, while his political rivals called for a pullback.
The New Democrats, if elected, would end the military mission, while the Liberals said they would withdraw Canadian warplanes, but continue training Kurdish forces in Iraq.
“This (Islamic State) is a group that would slaughter literally millions of people in its wake, has a stated intention to launch terrorist attacks around the world, including against this country, and has indicated it has the capacity to do that,” Harper said.
“We have to… take on ISIS in the region, to keep pressure (on ISIS) so they can’t use it as a base for terrorist operations,” he said.
The aerial campaign, Harper added, is “the only way to keep them in their positions.”
Canada has deployed CF-18 fighter jets to the region until March 2016, as well as about 70 Special Forces to train Kurds in northern Iraq.
In the aftermath of two jihadist-inspired attacks in Ottawa and rural Quebec last October, a majority of Canadians have told pollsters they support the military mission against the IS group.
At Monday’s debate, New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair remained steadfast in his opposition to the bombing campaign. “We should not be involved in the combat mission,” he said.
Tying the Harper administration’s hawkish foreign policy to his ramping up of Canada’s spy agency powers, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau accused Harper of sowing fear.
Harper, he said, “Wants us to be afraid that there is a terrorist hiding behind every leaf and rock.”
In May, the Tories pushed through a bitterly opposed anti-terror law dramatically expanding the powers and reach of Canada’s spy service.
It criminalized the promotion of terrorism, made it easier for police to arrest and detain individuals without charge and expanded the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS)’s mandate from intelligence-collection to actively thwarting terror plots and spying outside Canada.
Harper has said the new measures are also needed to stem a tide of young Canadian men and women traveling abroad to join the Islamic State extremist group.
But critics decried bill C-51 as an unprecedented assault on civil rights, lacks oversight and is overly broad.
Trudeau suggested that Mulcair, who vowed to repeal the bill, was “playing a similar politics of fear . . . talking about police states and taking away our rights,” which Mulcair denied.
“The threat today is not CSIS, it is ISIS,” Harper retorted.
The leaders in this first-ever Canadian elections debate devoted entirely to foreign policy also sparred over Arctic sovereignty, foreign aid, the Syrian refugee crisis, Russia and Ukraine, Canada-US relations, the Iran nuclear deal, greenhouse gas emissions, and trade.
The Tories in nine years have signed free trade pacts with South Korea, Jordan, Honduras, Israel and several others, but Canada’s largest ever with the European Union has not been ratified.
Meanwhile, final Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks between 12 Pacific Rim nations, including Canada, are scheduled Wednesday to Thursday.
Mulcair accused Harper of signing deals with countries that have poor human rights records, while Trudeau lamented a lack of transparency in negotiations.
The two pointed to growing fears that joining the TPP trade bloc will lead to auto industry job losses and the gutting of Canada’s supply-managed dairy sector.