March 17, 2003: Canada announces it will not join the US invasion of Iraq, while secretly promising military support
"If military action proceeds without a new resolution of the Security Council, Canada will not participate." – Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to Parliament, March 17, 2003
“The message from the Canadians was pretty clear. We are not putting boots on the ground in Iraq. We will say good things about the United States and not-so-good things about Saddam Hussein. [However] we will keep our ships in the Persian Gulf helping in the war on terror – and any way else we can help.” – Paul Cellucci, former US ambassador to Canada, 2011
On this day in 2003, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien announced to the House of Commons that Canada would not be participating in the US-led invasion of Iraq. However, on the same day, top Canadian diplomats secretly met with their American and British counterparts promising Canada’s military support in the “war on terrorism.” According to a classified US diplomatic memo of the secret meeting obtained from WikiLeaks, US officials were told that Canadian naval and air forces positioned in the region could be “discreetly” put to use during the invasion.
The classified US note explained that despite public statements, Canadian military assets, including ships in the Strait of Hormuz, will be “available to provide escort services” and will be “discreetly useful to the military effort.” Shortly after the US-led invasion began, and in deep contradiction with Chretien’s public sentiments, US Ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci told the Economic Club of Toronto that “ironically, the Canadian naval vessel, aircraft and personnel in the Persian Gulf […] will provide more support indirectly to this war in Iraq than most of the 46 countries that are fully supporting our efforts there.”
Chrétien’s public declaration that Canada would not join the war sparked criticism from the Bush administration and from opposition leader Stephen Harper, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal that it was a “serious mistake.” In contrast, many Canadians celebrated his decision, which some thought proved Canada’s independence from US foreign policy. In reality, evidence of Canada’s involvement and support for the invasion behind the scenes provides a different story.