Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer blasted Justin Trudeau’s government over its handling of alleged Canadian members of the so-called Islamic State who are currently being held in Syria and are asking to return home.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Scheer said the Liberals have failed to take meaningful action to bring alleged ISIS fighters to justice who have “committed atrocities.” The opposition leader cited reporting by Global News that revealed at least 13 Canadian detainees are being held in northeast Syria, including Muhammad Ali who claimed to be an ISIS sniper.
“It’s been months since the prime minister has failed to introduce any measures to hold those who have already returned from fighting with ISIS to justice,” Scheer said. “He is offering poetry classes instead of keeping these individuals behind bars. These are people who have committed some of the most heinous atrocities imaginable.
“If the prime minister has failed to hold those who have returned home from fighting with ISIS responsible already, why is he reaching out to try and bring more home?”
The tense exchange followed an ongoing debate about what the government should do with alleged Canadian ISIS members and their families who are currently being held in camps in northern Syria. Almost 900 foreign ISIS fighters, as well as over 500 wives and more than 1,200 children, from almost dozens of different countries, want governments to take back their citizens.
The Trudeau government has said little on what it will do with alleged Canadian ISIS fighters. Last year, the Liberals repealed changes made by the Harper government to the immigration act that would strip citizens of their Canadian status if convicted of terrorism, treason or espionage.
“With respect to the foreign fighters, I think we need to remember why they are where they are right now,” Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters on Monday.
“I think what is important for Canadians to know is that we take our public safety extremely seriously. That is our absolute top priority, and I have absolute confidence in all my cabinet colleagues.”
Tory immigration critic Michelle Rempel said it was “unacceptable” that Ottawa hasn’t taken a stronger stance and outlined a plan to bring those responsible for ISIS atrocities to justice.
“The hallmark of this government is a lot of pleasantries and not a lot of action. That is unacceptable to put it mildly in this situation,” Rempel told Global News. “ISIS has committed genocide. We know who those people are either by self-confession or direct evidence.”
On Monday, Global News revealed portions of an hour-long online exchange between a Canadian consular official and Jack Letts, a British 22-year-old with Canadian citizenship who is imprisoned by Kurdish forces in Syria.
The transcript between Letts, also known in the British media as “Jihadi Jack,” and Global Affairs offer a rare look into how Ottawa is dealing with Canadians who are currently being held by Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
“If it would be possible, would you like to come to Canada? Back to the U.K.?” the consular official asked in a January conversation.
“I want to live a normal life. I want to come to Canada,” Letts replied.
“I made a mistake coming here, I know that. If you want to put me in prison, I understand that, I do not mind,” Letts said. “I have made mistakes, probably prison is good for me. But just not here. The situation here is terrible.”
Letts travelled to Syria in 2014 but has denied being an ISIS member and his parents said there was no evidence he ever joined the terrorist group. Because the U.K. has shown no interest in assisting him and he is Canadian through his father, Ottawa has taken on the case. One difficulty with the Letts case is that he being held by the Kurdish YPG militia, which has been targeted by Turkey who consider it a terrorist group.
WATCH: Canadian ISIS fighter captured in northern Syria says he wants to return to Canada
Documents shared with Global News also reveal Canadian officials have been in contact with the Kurdish authorities over concerns about torture allegations and medical attention for the detainees.
A Kurdish official told Global News there had been “dialogue” with Canada over the detainees, including a meeting in Iraq, but that “suddenly the Canadian government stopped this process and we don’t know why.”
Global Affairs Canada has said it was aware that Canadians were detained in Syria but its “ability to provide consular assistance in any part of Syria is extremely limited.”
“Canadian diplomats have established a communications channel with local Kurdish authorities in order to verify the whereabouts and well-being of Canadian citizens,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “Reports of an agreement concerning the repatriation of Canadian citizens from Syria are false.
NDP public safety critic Matthew Dubé told Global News that while public safety is paramount, Canada was obliged to take responsibility for its citizens and urged Ottawa to bring back Canadian wives of ISIS fighters and their children.
“It doesn’t sound like that’s the case at the moment, but I would hope that they would make every effort to bring the women and children back,” he said.
“As much as we may loathe what these people stand for and what they’re doing in some cases, I think that putting them into prisons here and having them go through the Canadian justice system is obviously at the core of a society that’s rules-based and respects the rule of law.”