Defence Minister Jason Kenney says the military never told him Canadian fighter pilots had been accused of killing civilians when they bombed an Islamic State fighting position on Jan. 21.
It's a startling admission from the Conservative minister because the Harper cabinet member is effectively saying the Forces kept him out of the loop.
As The Globe and Mail first reported Friday, the Canadian Armed Forces has known for seven months of an allegation that its CF-18s killed non-combatants during an air strike northwest of Mosul, Iraq – and kept it under wraps until this week.
Mr. Kenney, who is running for re-election in a Calgary riding, remains minister during the campaign under way now.
His chief spokesman, speaking to The Globe on Friday, said this week's revelation was news to the Calgary MP. "The minister was not made aware of allegations of civilian casualties connected to RCAF strikes," Daniel Proussalidis said of briefings provided by the Forces.
The spokesman said Mr. Kenney "was consistently briefed that there is no evidence to indicate that RCAF air strikes have resulted in civilian casualties."
Late Friday evening the Forces acknowledged they did not tell Mr. Kenney, saying they told his predecessor, Rob Nicholson. A cabinet shuffle in early February brought about a change of ministers and the military said it saw no reason to loop in Mr. Kenney because they'd found no evidence to back up the allegation.
The Canadian Armed Forces has advertised since the beginning of the aerial combat mission last fall that it has a no-civilian-casualty policy when selecting Islamic State targets – and that this approach had limited its choice of sorties there. The military says it found no evidence to back up the accusation.
Canada's CF-18s have been attacking targets in Iraq since November, 2014, as part of the U.S.-led air bombing campaign to help Iraqi ground forces recapture their country from extremists who have seized large swaths of territory. Canada also began air strikes in Syria last April, after the Conservative-dominated House of Commons voted to expand the bombing campaign.
Both the NDP and the Liberals have opposed this aerial combat mission and voted against it in the Commons.
The revelation this week from the military is the first time the Forces have divulged an allegation of civilian casualties in the campaign against Islamic State – also referred to as ISIS or ISIL.
Citing "security reasons," the military refuses to identify the source of the accusation, including whether it came from soldiers, such as Canada's Peshmerga allies in northern Iraq. All it will say is that no evidence has been found to back up the accusation.
The Canadian Armed Forces says the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq reviewed the matter and found no proof that civilians were killed.
The military has been asked repeatedly since last fall whether Canadian CF-18 Hornets have inadvertently killed or injured civilians during the U.S.-led air war against Islamic State terrorists. A military spokesman neglected to mention the January allegation when asked directly, at a July media briefing, about possible civilian casualties. In early August, Mr. Kenney told reporters he was "not aware of any claims of civilian casualties as a result of the RCAF bombing ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria."
The review of the Jan. 21 bombing was conducted by the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve headquarters, the Forces say. This included reviewing photos and videos of the attack.
The U.S military says it determined, "based on the best available information," no civilian casualties resulted from the incident.
"With regard to each allegation, we review whatever information we have … including information provided by third parties, such as the proximity of the location to an air strike," said Lieutenant Commander Kyle Raines, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau on Friday called news of the accusation of civilian deaths "serious allegations," and said Ottawa has an obligation to be "open and transparent" on the matter.
"Canadians have a right to know what our military is engaged in around the world," he said.