Canada’s reluctant participation in peacekeeping in Mali: What it reveals

April 24, 2019

When Canada announced that it would not be extending its commitment to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali beyond one year, few were surprised. But many are perplexed that Canada is reportedly unwilling to consider a UN request to extend its mission until a replacement Romanian contingent arrives in October, a mere three-months extension.

On April 5, a House of Commons all-party committee tabled a report on its fact-finding mission to Mali in February. Although not all members were in agreement, the committee’s Liberal majority recommended that the government “adhere to the one-year withdrawal deadline” for the Canadian contingent of the UN peacekeeping force. It noted that the government wants “to avoid a domestic operational capability gap.” For example, the Chinook helicopters used in Mali are regularly used in Alberta during wildfire season. The report also raised concerns about strain on equipment and personnel resulting from Mali’s hot and humid summer.

Are these arguments for Canada’s withdrawal from Mali compelling enough?

The Canadian contingent to the UN mission in Mali provides medical evacuations. This is a much more limited role than those taken on by other countries. Where is the unacceptable strain on equipment and personnel? And those essential fire-fighting helicopters? Well, wildfire season in Alberta started in March, and the helicopters were already scheduled to be in Mali until the end of July. Surely this loss of numbers was calculated before the Mali mission was agreed to.

So, what gives?

The lacklustre support for the mission in Mali seems to contradict the Canadian government’s commitment to smart pledges, which offer short-term Canadian support when it is needed and where it can be most effective.

Mali, as Roland Paris, University of Ottawa professor and former foreign-policy advisor to Justin Trudeau, noted, was “the biggest piece of Canada’s minimalist ‘re-engagement’ with UN peace operations.” Yet it seems that Canada can’t wait to get out. If even this limited role in Mali is unsatisfactory in some way, it is difficult to image an international scenario in which minimal and “smart” involvement by Canada will be wanted or welcome.

Canada’s support of UN peace missions stands in contrast to the position taken by the many developing countries that provide most of the personnel for UN peace missions, but also such developed and enlightened states as Ireland.

Speaking at a recent deployment of Irish troops to the Golan Heights, Irish Defence Minister Paul Kehoe claimed that peacekeeping is “part of our DNA” and characterized the role of Irish troops as providing “service to those vulnerable communities living where they are deployed.”

We once thought that peacekeeping was in the Canadian DNA. Canadian troops were known for the good and useful service they provided to communities in conflict- and catastrophe-affected countries.

The mission in Mali has shown that Canadian troops have the skillsets and the equipment that are needed to make a difference. And there is support at home for peacekeeping. According to a 2016 poll, 70 percent of Canadians support Canadian participation in UN peacekeeping. Yet somehow, Canada’s role in supporting peace and security around the world continues to diminish. Our role in Mali is unlikely to change the trajectory.

Ultimately, the Canadian government’s lack of flexibility and unwillingness to send troops to support UN peace missions reveals that Canada no longer sees itself as a peacekeeping nation. At least not in places that most need the support but don’t weigh heavily on the scales of national interest.

At the very least, the government should come clean to Canadians. Tell us, straight out, that we no longer support UN peacekeeping and that promises made are promises broken.

Photo: Members of the CH-147 Chinook medical team practice exiting the helicopter near Gao, Mali. This photo has been digitally altered by Canadian Forces for security reasons. (Photo: MCpl Jennifer Kusche)

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