The Conservative government has announced that Canada is sending an Air Force combat group to the Middle East to fight in the war against the Islamic militant group, commonly called ISIS. Evan Annett provides a Q&A info sheet on ISIS, who they are, where they came from and who they are fighting. In another article entitled, “Harper seeks six-month military mission to Iraq, with no ground troops,” the authors, Steven Chase and Kim Mackrael, detail the Canadian mission as presented by the government on October 3rd, 2014.

Getting Started

Appropriate Subject Area(s):

Social studies, history, current events

Key Questions to Explore:

  • How does Canada justify its war with ISIS? What other kinds of responses to the crisis should Canada have considered?

New Terminology:

ISIS, ISIL, Sham, Caliph, Sunni, Shia, peshmerga, Zoroastrianism

Materials Needed:

Globe articles, Internet (very little)


Study and Discussion Activity

Introduction to lesson and task:

In recent months, ISIS has horrified the world with graphic videos of its members beheading American and British journalists and, most recently, a British aid worker. On Friday, October 3, 2014, Prime Minister Harper announced the government’s plan for a combat mission to fight ISIS and his majority later sealed the deal in the House of Commons. In taking this action, Canada is joining most of its allies in their attempt to rid Iraq and Syria, especially, of this militant group that is marking a bloody path through these countries, seizing control of cities and regions and imposing a radical, strict version of Islamic law.

The United States is leading the charge, with the goal of wiping this terrorist threat off the earth, something that many observers suggest is not likely and perhaps impossible to achieve. To date, the US and its allies have carried out numerous bombing missions in northern Iraq, damaging the ability of ISIS to raise money from exporting oil. Canada has effectively declared war on ISIS and is planning to send six CF-18 fighter jets with about 600 support personnel to join the two dozen advisers already in the region. Some humanitarian aid is also planned. Neither the NDP official opposition nor the Liberals support the military mission, arguing that Canada’s role could be more like that of Germany, which is supporting its allies but not with combat troops or planes.

Students will use the articles as source materials to inform themselves about the crisis and the mission. They will then work in groups to critique Canada’s stand, and to brainstorm non-military responses that they feel would have been worthy of consideration. They will then work to find consensus on what they feel is the most appropriate course of action.

Action (lesson plan and task):

  1. Engage students in a short (five minute) discussion about ISIS in which you can discover what they already know about the crisis.
  2. Use your preferred online source to pull up a map of Iraq that shows the influence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Some suggestions: MSNBC, The Economist  Ensure students know where the affected countries are geographically, and mention that Syria is currently engaged in a protracted civil war and that the anti-government forces have at times been aligned with ISIS.
  3. Next, ask for volunteers to read the ABCs of ISIS aloud to class. Encourage students to interrupt the reading for clarification of terms.
  4. Continue the discussion until you are satisfied students are sufficiently informed to finish an assignment on Canada’s involvement in the crisis.
  5. Organize your students into groups and provide each student with copies of the article by Steven Chase and Kim Mackrael. Task them as follows:

Read this article aloud in your group. Discuss the pros and cons of the government’s decision to take on a combat mission. Critique the following quotations from the article, in part by addressing the questions below each:

“Mr. Harper is also leaving the door open to launching air strikes in Syria, next door to Iraq.”

Mr. Harper says these strikes would only happen if they were approved by the Syrian government. Since Syria is in the middle of a civil war and since the official government is generally seen as a brutal oppressor of its own people:

    • What kinds of problems might be created by air strikes over Syria?
    • Why do you think Canada would consider broadening the attacks from Iraq to include Syria?

“Mr. Harper justified the combat mission by saying Canada must protect itself from a jihadi group that has threatened this country and its allies, and also has a moral obligation to degrade the Islamic State’s capacity to commit atrocities against the people in Iraq and Syria.‘It has tortured and beheaded children. It has raped and sold women into slavery. It has slaughtered minorities, captured prisoners, and innocent civilians … whose only crime is being or thinking differently,’ the Prime Minister said.”

    • With more than a dozen allies sending combat aircraft to the area, how much difference will six Canadian warplanes make?
    • What does “degrade the Islamic State’s capacity to commit atrocities” mean to you?
    • The United States has vowed to defeat ISIS, while Canada commits to “degrading” its influences. Why do you think each country has different goals? How might this create problems in the future?
    • Other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, routinely carry out beheadings. Children are criminally assaulted and killed in other countries by other militant groups. Why is Canada more concerned about ISIS than other militant oppressors in the world?

“He (Mr. Harper) acknowledged that joint military action would not likely eliminate the Islamic State, but nevertheless aims to significantly reduce its power.”

    • President Obama says the goal of US military action is to eliminate the Islamic State. If Mr. Harper disagrees, how might this cause problems in the future?

Finally, take the last of your time to brainstorm other possible responses Canada might have considered, short of combat bombing missions. Note that Canada has already also committed to humanitarian aid and support.

In your discussion you might consider these questions:

    • Do you think Al Qaeda and ISIS and other militant groups are more interested in expanding their actions to North America or do you think their goal is simply to get America and western powers out of their region?
    • What might happen if the United States and all its allies were to leave the region and never return? Would this be a better outcome or worse for Canada, Iraq, Syria and even Afghanistan?
    • We hear that ISIS has threatened Canadians in their own homes. Do we think these are credible threats or posturing? Is it possible that these kinds of threats are relatively common and may come from a variety of groups but that we are not told about them? If so, what is the effect of focusing on the specific threats of ISIS?

Canadians are going to the polls next year and the Conservative government is on record as claiming to be more capable of handling serious international affairs, such as military missions. It contrasts itself with the opposition parties, which are presented as being more pacifist and less able to lead Canadians in times of crisis. To what extent, if any, do you think the current government is using this crisis to increase its chances of winning the next election? Do you think this is morally the right thing to do? To what extent, if any, are the opposition parties also using this crisis to bolster their own chances of election?

Finally, poll your group to see who supports the government’s military mission and who does not. Have each briefly explain their positions.

Consolidation of Learning:

Group presentations at the end of the class period; more class discussion of the issues.

Success and Additional Learning

Success Criteria:

  • Successful completion of group activity; constructive and relevant discussion; students take informed positions on the issues.

Confirming Activity:

  • Have students write a paragraph defending their position on Canada’s response to ISIS.