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Jean Chrétien speaks at the 50 Years of Standing Up for Canada event in Toronto on Jan. 21, 2014.AARON HARRIS/Reuters

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien is defending Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's controversial decision to oppose Canada's air combat mission in Iraq, saying the fighter planes the Harper government is deploying are a "very marginal" response to the crisis caused by Islamic State militants.

"I believe the best ‎contribution Canada can make is by engaging in massive, not token, humanitarian assistance. It is why in answer to the questions asked of me, I support the position of Justin Trudeau," Mr. Chrétien writes in a column to be published in Friday's Globe and Mail.

The show of support represents a rare public statement from Mr. Chrétien who has largely avoided the spotlight since leaving office in 2003.

The office of Mr. Trudeau was informed of the content of the letter ahead of its publication, and quickly welcomed the endorsement.

"We are pleased to have Prime Minister Chrétien's support on such an important issue, with which he is so familiar," Liberal spokeswoman Kate Purchase said in a statement.

Mr. Trudeau has been mocked by his rivals, and criticized in the media, for his handling of the Iraq matter and his failure to stake a clear position on the divisive debate. In particular, a number of commentators have contrasted the Liberal position, which called for a military intervention of a "non-combat nature," with the NDP's clear position against the deploying warplanes to join a U.S.-led air strike campaign against Islamic State forces in Iraq.

Mr. Chrétien is now stepping in with his own counter proposal, presumably one the Liberals will embrace.

The former prime minister says Canada should instead contribute $100-million to the World Food Program to feed refugees displaced by the extremist jihadists.

And, Mr. Chrétien adds, Ottawa should commit to providing a home for 50,000 refugees fleeing Islamic State militants, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) .

The former prime minister, who while in power refused to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, says Canadians regularly congratulate him for this decision. That decision proved popular as the U.S. became bogged down in Iraq, ultimately losing nearly 4,500 soldiers to the conflict, which also left another 32,200 Americans wounded.

"There is one sentence that I hear over and over again: 'Mr. Chrétien, thank you for keeping us out of war in Iraq'," Mr. Chrétien writes.

"It is gratifying to hear because that decision more than ten years ago was not easy. The country was divided. Many columnists, pundits and editorialists were in favour of participating in the war," he says, noting Stephen Harper was among the pro-war ranks.

"No one was louder ... than Stephen Harper, then leader of the Opposition. He even went on American television and wrote in the Wall Street Journal denouncing the policy of the Canadian government," Mr. Chrétien said.

"The legacy of Western colonialism in the Middle East had not been forgotten and was only exacerbated by the Western military intervention in Iraq in 2003 with the consequences we face today. Unfortunately Mr. Harper did not understand that history in 2003 and does not understand it today.

"‎No one underestimates ISIS or its particular brand of barbarism," Mr. Chrétien writes.

"But the issue is what is the best way to combat it and what is the best contribution Canada can make. ‎If the military intervention is seen in the region as just another knee jerk Western show of force, we all know what the long-term consequences will be," he said.

"A wrong decision, like invading Iraq in 2003, can have disastrous results that reverberate for years, as we have seen. The rise of ISIS today is in large part a result of that war."

Canada is sending six fighter jets, two surveillance planes and a refuelling aircraft to participating in bombing attacks on Islamic State forces that have wreaked havoc across Iraq and imposed their own vicious interpretation of Islam.

Mr. Chrétien said this won't significantly affect the conflict in Iraq.

"I have enormous‎ admiration for the men and women in the Canadian armed forces. But the reality today is that the Canadian military contribution that the Harper government has authorized will be very marginal."

Mr. Chrétien flatly dismissed Mr. Harper's contention that opting out of combat in Iraq means sitting on the sidelines.

"He is absolutely wrong," the former prime minister said of the Conservative Leader.

"‎ISIS has created a massive humanitarian crisis in the region," he said. "Hundreds of thousands of people, men, women, and children have been displaced. Neighbouring countries are dealing with floods of refugees. The World Food Programme is almost out of funds and winter is approaching."

Mr. Chrétien said Canada has a history of enormous generosity towards refugees.

‎"For well over 50 years it has been the Canadian way to open our hearts, our doors, and our wallets to victims of great upheavals, whether Hungarians in the 1950s, Ugandans in the 1970s, Vietnamese boat people in the 1980s, or refugees from former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. And I am always thrilled by their great contribution to Canada once they come to our shores," he said.

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