Canada's Defence Minister is refusing to disclose how many times Canadian troops have engaged in firefights with Islamic State militants over the past year.
Harjit Sajjan on Thursday repeatedly declined to provide this statistic, even as the Trudeau government announced it is extending military operations in Iraq for two more years at a cost of $371.4-million to taxpayers. The new end date is March 31, 2019.
The Liberal government is facing a resurgence of public scrutiny over Canada's intervention in Iraq – a deployment Ottawa is adamant does not constitute a combat mission – after a Canadian sniper recently killed an Islamic State fighter from a distance of more than 3.5 kilometres.
The Liberals, who made a 2015 election campaign promise to "end Canada's combat mission" in Iraq, insist the military commitment is not a combat mission. Both the government and the military say the operation in Iraq is an "advise and assist" mission where Canadian special forces are merely offering Kurdish fighters – and, increasingly, Iraqi government forces – guidance on how to prosecute the war against the Islamic State.
One metric that might offer some insight into how much fighting Canada is doing in Iraq would be statistics on how many times Canadian troops have engaged in fire fights with the enemy.
Mr. Sajjan, however, suggested on Thursday that providing this information would be tantamount to bragging, saying he wasn't interesting in make it public "as a way of getting some political points here."
He was first asked in a call with reporters how many times Canadian troops fired first on Islamic State fighters over the past year.
And after he declined, the minister was asked by a second journalist how many times Canada's soldiers have engaged in firefights over the first six months of 2017.
The minister again refused. "We're not doing what the previous government did and … every time there is an engagement, [putting] it out on the Web."
He said he would prefer to "allow the military flexibility to do their work."
The rules of engagement allow Canadian troops to fire first on Islamic State fighters if they detect hostile intent, in order to protect themselves, civilians or Iraqi forces, the Defence Minister said.
"They're engaging to save lives," Mr. Sajjan said. Referring to the Canadian sniper's recent long-distance kill, he said: "This was a great example of our members saving somebody's life when other means were not suitable for that task."
Conservative defence critic James Bezan said Mr. Sajjan's refusal to divulge the number of engagements with Islamic State fighters runs contrary to the openness promised by the Liberals when they took power. "The Liberals ran on a platform of being transparent and this is anything but that."
The military began disclosing the number of times Canadian troops were engaged in firefights with Islamic State under the Harper government.
Mr. Bezan, whose party is very supportive of the Iraqi deployment, said it's clear Canada's intervention there is no longer just a training or "advise and assist" operation. "There is no question that this is an involved mission that involves offensive combat tactics," he said, noting there are photos on social media of Canadian soldiers using anti-tank missiles and rocket-propelled grenades. "Our guys are involved in the fight and it's unfortunate the Liberals don't want to be transparent about it."
The Conservative MP criticized the government for waiting until Parliament had risen for the summer before announcing the extension of Canada's deployment in Iraq, leaving no opportunity for the House of Commons to debate or vote on the decision.
Canada's existing commitment to the war against Islamic State includes about 200 special forces soldiers in northern Iraq. The government will also furnish a C-130J Hercules aircraft to provide tactical airlift and has granted Canadian troops the authority to assist new partners "within the Iraqi security forces" fighting the Islamic State.
The focus of efforts against the Islamic State remains retaking Mosul from the jihadi group.
"The coalition has made significant progress in the fight against Daesh in Mosul," the government said in a statement, using another name for the Islamic State. "Daesh's atrocities have led to countless tragedies, not only because of the impact on their immediate victims, but because of the subsequent humanitarian crises and increased forced migration that has affected millions of innocent lives throughout the region. The world has united against Daesh and Canada will defend its interests alongside our allies while working with local partners to establish more stable and secure conditions."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was critical of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for revealing the extension after MPs had gone home for the summer.
He also said Mr. Trudeau's definition of what constitutes combat appears to have changed.
"This major extension comes amid serious questions about the nature of the mission. Reports that Canadian snipers have shot and killed at least one opponent from great distances, and that our troops are operating close to the front lines in Mosul cast doubt on the government's claim that this is a non-combat mission."