Mr. Speaker, it is a great privilege to stand in the House today in support of our government's motion on the future of Canada's mission in Afghanistan. This motion is not a Conservative position nor a Liberal position. It is a motion that represents the values and goals of a vast majority of thoughtful Canadians.
This is an important question, one that beckons us as parliamentarians to understand and express the very essence of our national purpose and identity, to recognize the commitment and courage of those who have fought to uphold our ideals and values and to commit, or not, our Canadian Forces, humanitarian workers and diplomats to responsibilities that will put them in harm's way. I can think of few other questions this House might consider that carry as heavy a burden. We must wear that responsibility proudly and thoughtfully.
One of the backdrops for this debate that has arisen on a regular basis is the notion, the myth really, that we are historically a nation solely of peacekeepers. Members speaking against this mission are inclined to use this argument in suggesting that Canada's current mission in Afghanistan is a departure from that supposed pattern and they are generally eager to extricate us from any combat role so that we can supposedly resume our traditional missions involving only peacekeeping.
One can see the reasons for this. Many in Canada value our peacekeeping heritage, as do I and my colleagues. It is appealing and perhaps more comforting for us to consider ourselves as peacekeepers. It allows us to be more easily differentiating ourselves from other countries in the world. Peacekeeping seems to be more noble and right and keeps us from taking sides, to be the respectful and peaceable country that we are.
We might take comfort in the fact that Canadian peacekeeping missions were less violent and that no shots were fired. However, that was little consolation to the peacekeeping soldiers who were not always able to avoid combat, the soldiers who had to withdraw and stand by while innocent civilians bore the brunt of the conflict.
There is simply no question that the nature of peacekeeping is changing. In 1991, Canadian Forces represented about 10% of UN peacekeeping personnel. By 2007, we had less than 1% committed to this type of mission.
I contend that the excesses of this myth, this misconception, is a disservice to the debate on the role of our military, be it for the future of our mission in Afghanistan or for any other missions we might undertake. It confuses the issue because Canada's contribution to collective security since the second world war, indeed, since the turn of the 20th century with the Boer War, has not been neutral. Canada has always taken a stand in favour of our national and strategic interests and our democratic values.
It is appropriate that members of the Liberal Party have worked to forge a consensus on the motion before us. Leaders of that party and former Liberal prime ministers knew and articulated the objects of collective security very clearly. In fact, I find it humourous when members of the fourth party quote none other than Lester Pearson in defence of their indefensible position.
Pearson understood and was a fervent supporter of collective security. He served as a private in the first world war and in the second world war as a diplomat for Canada. He worked with Prime Ministers St. Laurent and King and others who stood for a strong, assertive Canada, not relishing in the drama or tenacity of war, but for the logic and advantage of working with our allies collectively to defend against aggressors who would use violence and oppression to further their political ends in the pursuit of power.
In 1951, when he was the secretary of state for external affairs under Prime Minister St. Laurent, the hon. Lester Pearson addressed the Empire Club of Canada in Toronto and he stated:
We should accept without any reservation, the view that the Canadian who fires his rifle in Korea or on the Elbe is defending his home as surely as if he were firing it on his own soil.
He went on, adding and referring to considerations of how much or little Canada should contribute to collective security, saying:
...we must play our proper part, no less and no more, in the collective security action of the free world, without which we cannot hope to get through the dangerous days ahead.
Lester B. Pearson's words retain their relevance and wisdom to this day, but most assuredly Mr. Pearson was a humble man, because Canada did much more than was required of it. Mr. Pearson and his fellow soldiers in World War I certainly did, and our soldiers in Afghanistan are doing so today.
Prime Minister Pearson's sentiments shaped Canada's foreign policy and military posture in the years ahead. At the height of our peacekeeping missions in the 1960s and 1970s, there were upward of 1,600 to 1,700 personnel deployed for peacekeeping. Our Canadian Forces involved in peacekeeping performed admirably and helped to stave off conflict between warring states.
During that time, Canada had upward of 10,000 troops stationed in western Europe as part of our NATO commitment to the cold war. Our largest deployment of that era was in maintaining a defensive posture against the threat of Soviet expansion. The threat was real and Canada understood that. In Pearson's time, Canada still devoted more than 7% of GDP to defence.
If we are to stay with our Canadian tradition of contributing to collective security in the world, it will increasingly mean taking on more dangerous missions, and Afghanistan is no exception.
Unfortunately, an Afghanistan that is grasping for the chance to be free and stable forever does not suit everyone. There are elements there, violent Taliban extremists, for example, drug traffickers and renegade warlords, who would vastly prefer an Afghanistan that would be their own personal playground, never mind the 30 million or so ordinary Afghans who would once again be relegated to a miserable fate under their regime.
I contend that Canada's mission in Afghanistan is entirely consistent with Canada's historical role, a mission that is every bit as just, noble and meaningful as those of the nearly 100,000 Canadians, men and women, who gave their lives over the last century to protect and defend our security, indeed, the collective security of our world, shoulder to shoulder with their allies.
In the Afghanistan mission, we join with 37 other countries, 24 NATO countries among them, backed by no fewer than eight UN Security Council resolutions, at the invitation of a democratically government, in a country that is among the poorest in the world, where democratic governance and basic human rights were non-existent just a short time ago, indeed, where women and girls were denied any form of status, health care or livelihood.
Our efforts there are improving the lives of millions of Afghans who have suffered through decades of war. We are there helping them take their future into their own hands.
We can and will do this, not just to achieve the ability for Afghans to chart a new course for themselves: we will be advancing Canada's and Canadians' interests and safety in the process. Experience has shown us that when the world turns its back on the likes of the Taliban or al-Qaeda having their own way with a nation-state or people, global security, including the safety of Canadians, is put at risk. Protecting the safety of Canadians is the first and overarching responsibility our Parliament assumes.
With this motion, Canada has taken a clear position. It asserts that path with conditions for greater allied support so that we can leave Afghanistan in 2011 with the full knowledge and confidence of Afghanistan's new capacity for its own security and reconstruction.