Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Charlottetown.
I rise today in support of a motion before this House to extend the Canadian mission in Afghanistan to 2011 and to redefine that mission as one of development, training and security.
I know every member of this House takes this matter with the greatest of seriousness. Calling upon the men and women of our armed forces to place themselves in harm's way thousands of miles from their families and communities is one of the most solemn acts that we as elected officials can undertake.
I am gratified by the civility with which this debate has so far been conducted. As others have noted, this matter is just too important to be used for partisan political gain. Canadians expect more than that from us and this week they are getting it.
This debate weighs the well-being of Canadians against the obligations we as citizens have to the world beyond our borders. Whenever I am faced with an issue such as this, I am drawn back to my own experience before I entered politics.
In the early 1990s, I served as the head of the Ontario Association of Foodbanks. I am sure many of us remember what dark days those were, especially for those at the lower end of the spectrum. Faced with the consequences of massive cuts to social programs by all three levels of government, the association presented the governments with an ultimatum. We announced that if these cuts were not reversed in the near future, we would close our food banks.
The allotted time passed and the cuts were not rescinded. That presented food banks with a dreadful dilemma, many members will remember. Our credibility rested on our following through with the threat of closing our food banks, but the fact remained that thousands of people in need depended on us, and those numbers were only growing. We quickly saw that we had no choice at all as food banks. There was only one side in this conflict, the side of those in need, and so we kept our food banks open and we kept up the fight for increased social spending, a struggle that continues today. However, I have never again put any cause, no matter how just, ahead of the welfare of the innocents.
When I look at the situation in Afghanistan, I am compelled to ask a very difficult question. If Canadian Forces withdrew in 2009, what would happen to the people of Afghanistan? What would happen to those in need? What would happen to the innocents?
I do not ask the question rhetorically. I have put it to dozens of people who know much more than I do about the situation on the ground in Kandahar. I put the question to a Canadian soldier from my riding who is currently stationed in Kandahar, literally encamped in a tent on a mountainside. He told me that if Canadian troops were to leave, the Afghanis he sees and works with every day, people he has come to know as neighbours and sometimes friends, would, without question, be terminated.
I put the question to women's groups who told me that they have evidence the Taliban knows the identity and location of key women leaders in the Kandahar region. If Canada leaves and the Taliban regains a foothold, I am told that one of their first tasks will be to find these women, arrest them and perhaps kill them.
It is my view that we have no choice but to remain in Kandahar until 2011. Our troops will now serve in a new role and it is one that is as innovative and effective as Lester Pearson's approach to the Suez crisis a half century ago, but now Canadians will not be serving as peacekeepers. They will be serving as peace builders.
As Canadians, we hope the people of Afghanistan will be able to enjoy peace, justice and security, an open government based on accountability and the rule of law, an economy that offers honest and humane opportunities to provide for their families, and educational and social services that are available to all.
We are aware of the heavy price that some have paid to advance these goals. This is brought home by the bodies of the Canadian soldiers that we have all mourned together in this House. We join them and their families and friends in their sorrow and grief at lives lost, bodies broken and spirits shattered, but we must remember that the people of Afghanistan have suffered as well through the long years of violence, conflict and war.
Canada has led the combat fight for years and has had many successes, however, it is now time to realize our greater role as a nation. We are the catalyst for reconciliation of people and communities torn apart and, as such, we must now renew our pledge to work for peace and development. In this context, the Liberal Party's vision for Canada is one of moving forward to a long-lasting peace by respectfully acknowledging the need for our combative past.
This takes me to the question as to how Canada can best support reconstruction and development in Afghanistan, an area of expertise where Canada has enjoyed a virtual unchallenged legacy of success. Some have even branded us as Boy Scouts in the world, however, I believe this is a brand we can be proud of.
There are many Canadian NGOs and other organizations, and I have spoken with many of them, who are working to improve conditions in Afghanistan. We commend these organizations.
The Canadian government, through CIDA, is assisting Afghanistan's reconstruction but it must do more and it must be accountable and transparent in the way it does it. Afghanistan will require economic and other forms of support well into the future. Government reports have drawn our attention to the high cost of outfitting the Canadian Forces for continued counter-insurgency operations into the undetermined future. To be more effective in building peace, we believe that a significant shift in Canada's concentration of financial resources toward long term human development is essential and necessary.
We are aware of the difficulties experienced by development and humanitarian agencies about what they refer to as the militarization of aid in Afghanistan. I have seen this and I know that it happens. It is the close identification of military operations and basic assistance. Aid must be delivered without compromising internationally recognized principles of development and humanitarian assistance.
What will this changed mission look like? Our troops will work directly with the Afghan people. They will oversee the building of dams to irrigate valleys and, at the same time, help to train Afghan security forces so that when the water flows the land will be safe enough for cultivation. They will literally turn battlefields into farmers' fields.
Canada has an obligation not to abandon the people of Afghanistan. I read in the paper yesterday that someone said that the reason the Liberal Party was supporting this motion was because we did not want an election. That is not true of me and I would appreciate not being included in that kind of comment. It is also not true of many of the Liberals who are sitting here on this side. We believe we just cannot abandon the people of Afghanistan.
Today, all of us in the House acknowledge the grave responsibility that we have in making difficult decisions regarding reconciliation, diplomatic and development efforts for the future of our military forces in Afghanistan. We ask that the government consider a compromise for the good of Canada but, moreover, with the knowledge that the people of Afghanistan now have the chance for a lasting peace.
The men and the women of our military now have the opportunity to finish the work they have sacrificed so much for already. I have no doubt that if we in the House stand with them, our own troops will succeed.