The first dozen Canadian troops reached Mali this week in partial fulfillment of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pledge to renew Canada’s peacekeeping efforts.
But when those troops are joined later this summer by a full contingent for a year-long UN mission in the West African country, will their work reflect the image Canadians hold close of the blue beret peacekeeping that won Lester B. Pearson the Nobel Prize?
A tour that’s being heralded by some as a long overdue return to peacekeeping has others shaking their heads.
“It’s insane, utterly insane,” says Jack Granatstein, a retired historian who has written extensively about the Canadian military and foreign affairs.
“It’s being sold to the public as a return to peacekeeping. It’s a war.”
The federal government announced the Mali deployment in March, following up on a campaign promise to re-engage with the UN’s peacekeeping efforts. Canada, which once ranked first for peacekeeping contributions, has fallen to 75th per UN figures dated May 31.
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Mali will be the third time Canada has sent substantial peacekeeping troops abroad this century. Troops went to Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2000 following a cease-fire between the warring nations. Years later, Canada sent troops to Haiti for stability purposes in the wake of political upheaval.
Trudeau acknowledged that Mali will be different.
“Canadians are rightly proud of the history we have around peacekeeping… but we know that the nature of peacekeeping has changed,” he said in April.
“No longer are you lining up peacekeepers between two warring states that are meeting on the border. We’re now talking about failed states, we’re talking about counter-insurrection, we’re talking about counter-terrorism.”
That’s not peacekeeping, says Sean Maloney, a professor of history at the Royal Military College.
“We deploy different types for different threats to achieve different objectives,” says Maloney, who was the military’s historian during the war in Afghanistan and deployed in Bosnia, Kosovo, and throughout the Middle East.
WATCH: Trudeau says ‘nature of peacekeeping has changed,’ promises to commit troops
“Some of them will be peace support operations or stability operations or stabilization operations. We’ve stopped using peacekeeping quite a while ago because it doesn’t fit.”
Peacekeeping is meant to be impartial and carried out with the consent of the parties involved, although the UN has acknowledged the increasing complexity and difficulty of the operations.
In Mali, a country in turmoil since its president was overthrown in a 2012 military coup, the UN has to contend not just with enforcing a peace agreement between the government and separatists but also radical Islamist groups.
“You’re not making peace in Mali,” says David Bercuson, director of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. “There’s a three-way civil war going on.”
There’s a Canadian narrative, Bercuson says, that peacekeeping was noble and unselfish. He rejects that. And yet, he says, use the word and “emotional perceptions are triggered among those Canadians who are old enough to remember peacekeeping as it was done up until the mid-’90s.”
The federal government has tapped into that, Maloney says, and he worries it came at the expense of a difficult conversation about Canada’s purpose in Mali.
“What’s it going to accomplish? That’s a brutal question but what are we accomplishing by deploying people?” he says. “Is there an end state? What do we want to see Mali look like after a year? What effect are we going to have in a year flying around Mali?”
There are good reasons to go, Dave Perry, vice-president and senior analyst at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute told Global News earlier this year. In particular, he noted the fact that several of Canada’s close allies are there.
Go for humanitarian purposes, Robert Fowler, a Canadian diplomat held hostage for four months in Niger, argued in The Globe and Mail.
“It is true that neither this mission, nor Canada’s small contribution, will offer a permanent solution,” Fowler wrote. “But, even if there is to be no ‘mission accomplished’ moment, and the jihadi threat to the Sahel region will not be eradicated, the mission will improve the lives of millions of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.”
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So far, the Canadian government has promised two Chinook transports as well as four Griffin escorts to replace a German contingent providing medical evacuations and transport over disputed territory. That’s not a lot but it is good news, says Walter Dorn.
Dorn, a professor in defence studies at the Canadian Forces College, has been tracking the fulfillment of Trudeau’s peacekeeping promises. Mali, he hopes, is just the start.
“By keeping stability in Mali, we can prevent the outflow of refugees, we can help give the Malian people more decent lives, and we can also do more business there.”
He acknowledges it’s a more dangerous mission than Canadian peacekeeping of years past but rejects the idea that Canadians don’t know what we’re getting into. Peacekeeping is not without risks, Dorn says, and those who associate blue berets with Rwanda and Bosnia know that.
“It’s quite messy and quite dangerous,” he says. “If that’s the tradition then there’s a lot of similarity to what we’re doing now.”
The reality is that Canadian Forces are trained for war, says Joel Sokolsky, a professor of political science at the Royal Military College. They’re not out looking for one, but they are focused on deterrence.
“It’s why there are planes in the air, why there are ships at sea,” he says. “If we were just doing peacekeeping, we wouldn’t have the armed forces that we have.”
WATCH: More than 200 soldiers from Garrison Petawawa conducted some military training in Peterborough on Tuesday before deployment to Latvia.
Sokolsky co-authored a report released by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute this week calling on Canada to renew its commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) operation in Latvia. The mission, called an “enhanced forward presence,” is meant to beat back Russian pressure on Eastern Europe.
By “making a credible commitment of its own,” Canada could help encourage the United States to stay involved with NATO, the report says. It also notes the commitment is “low risk, low cost, low domestic visibility, and high payoff with our allies.” Canada’s Latvia commitment is, the report notes, “a genuine Canadian international ‘peacekeeping’ operation.”
“We think that people don’t regard us highly because for some time, we haven’t been doing peacekeeping,” Sokolsky says.
“This earns the sort of respect Canada wants with the countries that count most to Canada.”
But if the federal government gets hung up on keeping its UN peacekeeping promises, Maloney says that could leave a Latvia renewal in doubt or leave Canadian Forces stretched too thin.
“We need to stop deceiving people about what’s going on by playing to an obsolete myth,” he says. “We need to think about national interests — what do we want, and how are we going to get it, and where does the use of military force fit into that?”
— with a file from The Canadian Press