The following is a guest post by Marta Canneri, associate editor for the Education program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Canadian government’s announcement in March that it would deploy helicopters and troops to support UN peacekeeping in Mali is a partial fulfillment of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise to return Canada to peacekeeping. But the state of Canada’s military preparedness, and a closer look at the promises and commitments themselves, reveals that Trudeau has a long way to go before he can convince the rest of the world that “Canada is Back.”
The proposed deployment marks Canada’s first major UN peacekeeping contribution since 2000, when the Liberal-led government authorized the deployment of 250 military personnel to help secure the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Today, Canada’s participation in peacekeeping has dwindled to an all-time low—a mere twenty-two Canadian soldiers take part in four missions, and seventy peacekeepers are involved in a non-UN mission in the Sinai Peninsula. This is a far cry from its peak of 3,300 peacekeepers in 1992, when the country was a world leader in troop contributions. As the United Nations faces unprecedented demand for peacekeepers, Canada has dropped from the top contributor to peacekeeping in 1990 to a middling seventy-fifth in 2018.
Between 2006 and 2015, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper effectively withdrew Canada from peacekeeping. Following the lead of the United States and many other developed countries—many of which also decreased their peacekeeping contributions—Harper’s government focused instead on NATO and other security alliances to manage conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In November 2016, Harper made headlines by closing the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, a leading international training center charged with preparing civilians and military personnel for UN peace operations, which was “a devastating setback to Canadian preparedness.”
Harper’s departure from peacekeeping was part of a larger break from the United Nations. The prime minister made no attempt to disguise his disdain for the international body, once famously skipping a UN General Assembly session to tour a Tim Hortons research center. In 2010, Canada’s embarrassing loss in its bid for a UN Security Council seat was widely blamed on Harper’s anti-UN policy: until then, Canada had won a nonpermanent seat every decade since the body’s inception.
During the 2015 federal election, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau made increased involvement with the United Nations and peacekeeping a core part of his foreign policy plan, pledging to “renew Canada’s commitment to peacekeeping operations” and accusing Stephen Harper of “turning his back” on the world. Trudeau’s inaugural address at the UN General Assembly in September 2016 echoed this sentiment: “We need to focus on what brings us together, not what divides us. For Canada, that means re-engaging in global affairs through institutions like the United Nations.” Earlier that year, Trudeau announced that Canada would again bid for a nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2021. To win, he’ll need support from Asian and African countries, where peacekeepers are often desperately needed.
In August 2016, Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan and then-Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion announced a commitment of up to 600 troops and 150 police officers to UN peacekeeping operations. Though the pledge was welcomed by UN officials and other international leaders, it soon revealed a glaring contradiction between the Liberal government’s rhetoric on peacekeeping and its actual policy. In the months after his announcement, Trudeau reportedly turned down multiple requests from the United Nations, including offers to lead the UN mission in Mali and for deputy commanders of both the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic UN missions. Though the government reiterated their pledge at a peacekeeping summit in November 2017, the Liberal cabinet was repeatedly accused of intentional dawdling and broken promises by domestic and international actors.
Trudeau’s pledged contribution to the Mali mission is an important step toward fulfilling his foreign policy promises. But if Trudeau is serious about renewing Canada’s leadership in peacekeeping, it is not enough. After more than a decade of inactivity, Canadian military personnel are largely unprepared for the complexities of modern peace operations. A recent report [PDF] concludes that, when it comes to peacekeeping, the Canadian Armed Forces are simply no longer up to par. Under Harper, skills integral to peacekeeping operations—including negotiation, conflict management, and an understanding of UN procedures and capabilities—were deemphasized in favor of trainings better suited to combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Canadian military currently provides less than a quarter of the peacekeeping training programs and exercises that it did a decade ago, leaving an entire generation of Canadian military personnel ill-equipped for a modern peacekeeping mission.
The deployment in Mali, which is currently scheduled for one year, is expected to include two Chinook helicopters for medical evacuations and logistical support, four smaller Griffon helicopters to serve as armed escorts, and an estimated 250 Canadian soldiers. But with the UN mission in Mali known as one of the deadliest peacekeeping missions in the world—with 169 peacekeepers killed since 2013—Trudeau’s promised contribution will not be sufficient. According to a UN official, the two Chinook transport helicopters may not be enough to fill the gaps in the mission’s operational requirements. The Canadian government has also faced criticism that its one-year commitment is too short.
The Liberal government has been touting that “Canada is Back.” But if Trudeau intends to follow through on his campaign promises, there is still much to be done. Reopening the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre and reintroducing new training programs for Canadian military personnel devoted specifically to UN peace operations would help develop a Canadian military capacity that is commensurate with Trudeau’s commitments. The deployment in Mali still falls significantly short of the Liberal government’s August 2016 pledge of 600 troops for UN peace operations—Trudeau should follow up with ambitious plans for additional contributions, especially since the troops in Mali are due to be rotated out after a year. Canada still has work to do to repair its international reputation, and the pledge for the Mali mission is not a panacea.
In a 1967 private letter to the father of Justin Trudeau, and then-Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the diplomat Allan Gotlieb wrote, “like the Danes who made good furniture, the French who made good wine, the Russians who made Sputnik, Canada, as a specially endowed middle power, as the reasonable man’s country, as the broker or the skilled intermediary, made peace.” If Trudeau wants to revive Canada’s peacemaking reputation, he will have to put his money where his mouth is.