Canada's Defence Minister says the country's exclusion from a key U.S.-led meeting this week on the campaign against Islamic State is no big deal and that Ottawa isn't being cut out of key decision-making after the Trudeau Liberals announced plans to pull Canadian jets from the fight.
As The Globe and Mail reported Tuesday, Canada wasn't invited to a high-level meeting of what the Pentagon calls "significant contributors" to the effort.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, speaking after a federal cabinet retreat in New Brunswick, insisted Canada's absence at this gathering of core countries is no big deal.
"Meetings happen all the time," Mr. Sajjan said after a federal cabinet retreat in New Brunswick. He rejected the notion that Canada's status has been downgraded now that Mr. Trudeau is making plans to withdraw CF-18 fighter jets from the air campaign against Islamic State – Canada's only combat contribution to this effort.
But a senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute said he interprets the development as a signal that Canada is losing influence over the fact it's committed to stop the bombing and hasn't laid out yet what new role it will play in the campaign.
"Not being at the meeting means we won't be part of the discussion. We will be informed about the outcome," David Perry said.
The meeting of defence ministers from the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Australia and the Netherlands is set for Wednesday in Paris.
It was just last week that Mr. Sajjan acknowledged Canada's coalition partners would prefer this country continue taking part in the bombing campaign against Islamic State militants who control a large portion of Syria and Iraq. "Of course they want to keep our CF-18s there," he told CBC.
The Pentagon on Tuesday tried to sound a diplomatic note, saying Canada remains a good partner and the meeting in Paris is an informal get-together. "The meeting in Paris this week is not a formal coalition meeting," said the U. S. defence official.
"The United States and Canada are great friends and allies and together with coalition partners we will continue to work to degrade and destroy ISIL [an acronym for Islamic State]."
Former Conservative defence minister Jason Kenney says there is no question that Canada is now taking a back seat in planning the campaign against the Islamic State.
"The U.S.-led coalition has two concentric groups that are consulted: the 60-plus countries who have in some way committed to opposing ISIL and the 20-plus countries who are actually involved in combat operations," Mr. Kenney said. "We were very much part of the latter and have now been relegated to the former."
Canadian CF-18 fighter jets are still conducting bombing missions in Iraq and Syria, even as the new Liberal government decides how to honour Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's election pledge to end the combat mission.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan accused Mr. Sajjan of lying about his reasons for not attending the Paris meeting, noting the Defence Minister told journalists last week he was skipping it because he had "multiple meetings that are coming up with NATO partners down the road" on the matter.
He said the Defence Minister was offering "patently false" information to Canadians about why he will be not be in Paris. "For a government which talks about openness and transparency, this is extremely disconcerting."
Mr. Bezan pointed out that last July the former Conservative government played host to a similar meeting of the core anti-IS coalition in Canada. "This development demonstrates that the Liberal Party's policy on fighting [IS] is incoherent and the decision to withdraw Canada's CF-18s is seen by our allies as stepping back, rather than standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them."