Contradictory messages from two Harper ministers about Canada's potential role in strife-torn Mali have drawn questions from the official opposition about who is in charge of the government's foreign policy.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay openly speculated on Sunday about Canadian troops training military officers in the West African desert country, similar to the Canadian mission taking place now in Afghanistan.
"We are contemplating what contribution Canada could make," he said, noting that training is something Canadian troops are "particularly adept at doing."
At the same time, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird repeated that there will be no military mission in Mali, which is trying to regain its northern region from Islamist forces.
All of this has left the NDP's defence critic, Jack Harris, confused. He said Canadians need more clarity.
"It's not something that should be readily mused about publicly, particularly by the Minister of Defence when the Foreign Affairs Minister so strongly indicated that there is no military role for Canada," Mr. Harris said on Monday. "I just find it surprising that one minister would be so blatantly contradicting the Foreign Affairs Minister on such an important matter."
The Prime Minister's spokesman Andrew MacDougall dismissed any contradiction or split in the cabinet.
"The government's position is clear," he wrote in an email. "Canada is not contemplating a military mission in Mali."
He said Canada "applauds" the UN Security Council resolution passed in late December authorizing a one-year deployment of an African-led mission to help the Malian authorities take back the area "occupied by terrorists."
However, Mr. MacDougall added that Canada is "looking at ways to implement" the security council resolution's call "for support to regional and international efforts to address the situation in Mali."
It is also concerned that democracy return to the country after a coup last March.
Canada "stands ready" to assist, he said.
What that assistance will be – and whether the government believes a training mission is not a military mission – remains a mystery. Mr. MacDougall did not elaborate or answer those questions.
The NDP's Mr. Harris said it's clear that what Mr. MacKay is talking about would constitute a military mission.
"Mali is a situation where half the country is controlled by rebel forces, and clearly any activity there involving military assistance is a military mission," he said. "There is no doubt about that."
But, he noted that the UN resolution calls first for stability in the Mali government before any military intervention. It also calls for proper training of the military, which is notorious for human rights abuses.
Much more assessment must be done before Canada gets involved, he said. So far there has been no discussion in the House of Commons.
"Who is speaking for this government on foreign affairs," he asks. "Well, we don't know."
With a report from Geoffrey York