As Canadian fighter jets flew over hostile Libyan air space, all four political parties put aside pre-election posturing for a few hours Monday to support Canada's role in the mission to contain Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
"We are compelled to intervene, both [as]a moral duty and by duty [to]NATO and the United Nations," Defence Minister Peter MacKay told the House of Commons Monday, opening debate on a motion supporting the deployment. The Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois unanimously supported the Conservative motion.
That support came, however, with conditions. NDP Leader Jack Layton called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to involve members of the opposition in overseeing the operation.
"It's essential to draw a lesson from the war in Afghanistan and give parliamentarians a surveillance and oversight role," he told the Commons.
Opposition politicians wanted to know when the mission would end, what would constitute success and what it could cost.
The government had no answers, because no one does. But "we will enforce the no-fly zone for as long as it is required," said Laurie Hawn, parliamentary secretary for Defence.
If the mission is not completed in three months, the motion calls for the government to once again consult the House.
Four of the six CF-18s deployed to the Mediterranean in support of the coalition took part in Monday's mission from their forward base in Trapani, Italy, supported by two Polaris air-to-air refuelling aircraft.
Although the Canadian fighters supported other aircraft on that mission, they are expected to engage in direct air-to-ground attacks in the near future.
"Simply put: We want to disable their air force," Mr. MacKay told reporters at a briefing.
The Canadian contribution to the coalition's mission is substantial, given its ongoing commitment in Afghanistan. About 140 Forces personnel have been sent to the region in support of the CF-18s and the two refuelling planes.
As well, the frigate HMCS Charlottetown has joined the coalition's offshore flotilla. This follows on two C-17 heavy-lift and two C-130J Hercules transport aircraft, which were earlier dispatched to assist in evacuating Canadians from the troubled nation.
Another half-dozen CF-18 fighters are on standby for deployment to the Mediterranean if needed by coalition forces.
There is some confusion concerning the chain of command, since the United States is anxious to withdraw from its temporary role of co-ordinating strikes against Libyan targets and enforcing the no-fly zone.
While Mr. MacKay could not predict exactly who would answer to whom, he said senior Canadian military commanders in Europe were integrating well with the coalition command structure as it evolved.
"It is my understanding that this mission may very well morph into a NATO-led mission," he said.
While constitutionally, the federal government can commit forces without consulting Parliament, Mr. Harper has adopted the convention of seeking parliamentary approval for deployments that involve military force. Mr. Harper worked the phones over the weekend to secure support for the motion.
Still, many MPs were uncomfortable about the sudden rush of Canadian flyers and sailors into harm's way on a mission that had not even been imagined a few weeks ago, part of the evolution of the Canadian military into both a more robust and a more aggressive force.
"We're shifting from peacekeeping to peacemaking," warned Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis. "There is a very fine line and sometimes we go out of bounds."
The vote in the Canadian House of Commons followed a similar debate at Westminster, where the British House of Commons voted 557-13 in favour of the action against the Libyan government.
With reports from The Canadian Press