Return to peacekeeping ends quietly

July 19, 2019 by David J. Bercuson
Members of Canada’s UN peacekeeping mission in Mali pose for a group photo with a CH-147F Chinook heavy transport helicopter near Cao, Mali, in January.
Cpl. Ken Beliwicz

The Canadian experiment in United Nations peacekeeping—the mission to Mali—is ending with a whimper, not a roar. The return to peacekeeping by Canada, long-promised by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, will be over after a year, as Canada had promised. The three CH-147F Chinook heavy transport helicopters and five CH-146 Griffons to escort them, along with approximately 250 ground troops who accompanied them, are being brought home.

The Liberals promised that Canada would return to blue helmet operations in the last federal election. To some Canadians who were not happy about using the Canadian Armed Forces as an actual military force fighting a war in Afghanistan, the promise seemed to point the way to the good old days. That was when a much-publicized contingent of Canadian troops would don blue berets or blue helmets, put “UN” on their vehicles, and go out to save humanity. 

It was all a piece of the package of “sunny ways” that Trudeau promised Canadians in domestic politics and international affairs. Peace-loving Canada would leave combat operations behind and once again take up the cudgel of helping the United Nations install peace in troubled areas of the world.

It took the Liberals long enough after the 2015 election to decide where they were going to return to Canada’s historic peacekeeping mission. After all, we weren’t going back to Cyprus, where we had languished for decades, and virtually all other UN operations were very dangerous missions where UN troops were trying to hold back vicious rebels, guerrillas or terrorists who were feeding on the fears of civilian populations in failed or near-failed states. The decision was not made until two and a half years into the government’s mandate.

It was easy then to appeal to the history of Canadians in peacekeeping because so few Canadian voters in 2015 remembered those banner days of Canadian blue helmet operations. They ought to have. From the 1956 Suez War until the end of the Cold War in 1989-90, Canada—which had a much larger military than today—took part in almost every UN peacekeeping mission, as a representative of the West. We represented Western interests and we helped achieve Western objectives. But we had the numbers to do it all, which we do not have today. 

With the end of the Cold War, we found ourselves in conflicts that did not reflect the Cold War—the Balkans, Somalia—and in which our troops were facing hostile forces from one or two belligerents at the same time. In these conflicts, we sent troops to keep the peace when there was no peace, we took casualties and with the exception of the Medak Pocket in Croatia, we stood around and watched unspeakable atrocities taking place. Our troops were taken hostage. Some were killed. Many Canadians asked, “What good are we doing?”

When we got involved in Afghanistan—by Jean Chrétien in late 2001—then extended our mission from special forces to aid the United States in Kandahar Province, we could not continue peacekeeping missions. We simply did not have the troops or mission support to take on two different missions at once. So, our contribution to blue helmet operations was virtually choked off.

We fought a long war in Afghanistan and the entire Canadian military was effectively mobilized for that purpose. Afghanistan was a black hole into which virtually all we had and all we did, from public relations to combat infantry, went. 

Then arose a great hue and cry from some Canadian quarters: why are we fighting a war? Whatever happened to our legacy of peacekeeping? But with a small military and commitments made to our NATO allies, what else could we do?

One of the great mysteries of the mission to Mali is why the government refused to extend the mission beyond the one year we had promised? If we were really the world’s Boy Scouts, shouldn’t we have helped out and extended our mission until the Romanians arrived?

We did not because we could not. With several NATO missions undertaken in Eastern Europe, helping in the Ukraine and in Iraq and Syria, we are now tapped out. We have neither the troops nor the logistics to do more.

There is a lesson here for those Canadians who continue to have blue helmet fever. When a small military has to choose between a symbolic mission under the UN flag and a NATO mission designed to deter, we must choose NATO every time.

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