March 10, 2008 (39th Parliament, 2nd Session)


Brent St. Denis


Mr. Brent St. Denis (Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to join the debate tonight, a debate that honours our troops in Afghanistan and everywhere they act on behalf of Canada in the world, and indeed domestically.
I echo the comments of my colleague from Waterloo. To have this debate and to recognize there are different points of view and at the same time to recognize that in this democracy debate is necessary is a good irony. It is good that we can have the debate in this place. We could wish that other countries like Afghanistan could enjoy the ability to have discussions like this without guns, bombs, bullets or treachery. We and our troops, men and women, are there on our behalf to advance those values that we hold as a nation.
There is not a member in the House who does not, regardless of his or her view, support our troops. I want to emphasize that is my view and the view of all of us here.
In so doing, I want to pay tribute to those soldiers, men and women of the military, who have lost their lives, about 80, and the many hundreds who have been wounded to one degree or another.
I am the vice-chair of the veterans affairs committee, which is doing a study of veterans benefits. We are seeing all too often in testimony the tragic impact on lives of post-traumatic stress disorder. There is no question that the operation in Afghanistan will produce, unfortunately, a goodly share of future veterans of today's serving military who will suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. However, that is the price of acting out the values of our democracy in foreign lands.
I also submit that the motion, to give credit to the Prime Minister and the Liberal leader, is the result of their efforts to find common ground that reflects the values of our country and that it is a Canadian motion, not a Conservative or a Liberal motion.
I have talked to previous NDP voters who are much happier with this balanced approach than with the approach that Canada should leave Afghanistan right away.
I represent the riding of Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing. A major part of my current riding was represented by the late Right Hon. Lester B. Pearson. It was 50 years ago last fall that he won the Nobel Prize for his efforts in the area of peacekeeping.
We do not use the word “peacekeeping” very much any more, but ultimately it is all about that. Whether we go through seasons when that word does not easily fit the circumstances, there would be few Canadians who would not agree that it is really what ultimately we are trying to achieve.
I know all too well the families of soldiers killed. They are from the little communities of McKerrow and Espanola in my riding. Two young men lost their lives in Afghanistan in the last couple of years. They know too well that there is a great sacrifice.
By the lack of emails, phone calls and letters from constituents telling me that this motion is a mistake, I have a sense, and I am sure most of my colleagues here have this sense as well, that we are doing the right thing.
We will have an election sooner or later and that election will rightfully be about differing views on the country's finances, child care, aboriginal concerns and so on. However, it should not be about Afghanistan. We have troops there and families at home are wishing them Godspeed in their time there and their journey home. I think we are doing the right thing by settling this matter.
Our troops want us to debate this. Ultimately they want clear direction from the Parliament of Canada. As our leader has said, it is not our job as parliamentarians to micromanage the work of the generals and their fellow leaders on the ground. That is not our role. Our role is to set the direction and the mandate.
To go back to our veterans affairs committee, we recently visited four military bases, from the west to the east of Canada, in our veterans health study. In my experience, not a single member of the military questioned the debate, not a single one. They understand that the war has passed and that as for the work of our veterans, whether it was in the first or second world wars, in Korea or elsewhere in peacekeeping, those efforts were in fact to preserve and promote democracy. It is an honour. We honour our military by having this debate.
Let me go specifically to the things that our party wanted to see as the Afghanistan mission moved forward. We knew that there would have to be change in the mission. We knew that there would have to be an end date.
We also felt strongly that we would have to move beyond the military engagement, at least as the military engagement presents itself to us right now. The military engagement should focus on training the security forces and providing security for development and the building of infrastructure, schools and so on. For this, it is understandable.
Canadians understand that we need a strong military to be in that village once it is secured to make sure that it is safe for the water system to be built or rebuilt, as the case might be, or for that school to be built, and for other important issues of local governments to be fostered.
We need a strong military. As for how the devolution or the evolution of the combat mission unfolds in the months ahead, we will leave that to our military leaders. They have our message that the counter-insurgency measures should be diminished and that the military role of combat where necessary is in support of securing the reconstruction and securing development. We understand that it is our military that will decide those issues.
It was also very important to us that the issue of detainee transfers be dealt with. Happily, there is at least some clearing of the air on that important issue.
Also, we are calling on NATO to step up. There are other member states of NATO that need to take more responsibility. It is not our role as Canadians to be there forever doing the work that others should be sharing with us. Canadians understand that, but at the same time, they do not want to see us leaving Afghanistan tomorrow.
I feel very strongly that ultimately we are helping to build a civil society there. It seems a long way off when we look at the terrible news that emanates from that country and that region on almost a daily basis, but we cannot lose hope. We cannot lose faith that people, individuals, families, and communities, ultimately want to live in peace. We cannot work out their differences that may exist from ages past in their communities. They have to work those things out themselves.
It is not our role to change people or to tell people what they should do in their communities. However, we can provide leadership by good example. We can demonstrate by good example the fruits that come from labouring together to have a country such as we do, where debate is in a chamber like this, where debate does not involve bullets and bombs. Sometimes it involves strong emotional debate, but ultimately it is a debate of words settled by a democratic vote.
Much has been and should be made of the place of women in Afghanistan. Just having celebrated International Women's Day in Canada, I think it is important to remind ourselves that while we have some ways to go in our own country in this regard, we are light years ahead, sadly, of countries like Afghanistan.
Again, however, the cultural mores of another country are not ours to change. Those will change over time. Again, we will provide leadership by example. We will provide the security that will allow for the fostering of more equality and women's rights, and rights for minorities not only in Afghanistan but right around the world.
Afghanistan presents a very complicated situation today, as it has for decades and generations, sadly.
We support our troops. We look forward to them coming home safely when the mission finally reaches its end.
I think Parliament is working. I want to commend this place for helping us achieve a remarkable consensus as we move forward.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Afghanistan
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