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Canada’s Peacekeeping Role: Then and Now

Remarks by David Kilgour, MP for Edmonton Southeast

University of Alberta International Week 2004, “Picking Up the Peaces”

Shell Canada Lecture Theatre, Edmonton

26 January 2004

Ladies and gentlemen:

Making peace a viable solution in the world has to be more than a promise of a distant hope. And in Canada we can proudly boast peacekeeping is a major national tradition in Canada. More than 125,000 Canadian military personnel and thousands of civilians have been deployed in conflicts from Ethiopia/Eritrea, to East Timor, Kosovo, Bosnia, Cyprus, Sierra Leone, Central America and a host of other "hot spots"—including, most recently, Afghanistan.

From Lester B. Pearson’s day to now, most Canadians have supported an active, international role for our country in peacekeeping missions. Canada is home to the world’s first monument to peacekeepers, in the heart of Ottawa. Peacekeeping is now an integral part of our national identity or "national DNA" if you prefer. Canadian troops have served in over 72 missions since 1947, many of these as peacekeepers in conflict zones across the world. We are prepared to share our knowledge and resources by teaching peacekeeping skills to troops from other countries as well. Last week, Bill Graham and Aileen Carroll attended the inauguration of the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Accra, Ghana. Canada has contributed $3 million to this centre, which is designed to strengthen the ability of Africans to handle conflict.

These examples indicate the importance of Canada’s role in international peacekeeping operations and as an effective political and human mediator in this complex world. Our efforts in promoting and enforcing international sanctions through quiet international diplomacy, monitoring agreements, and sitting at the table at international/regional dispute conferences should not be overlooked or undermined.

A Bird’s-Eye View: Canada and the World

Any discussion on peacekeeping is not complete without including the fragile relationship between peacekeepers, state authorities, rival factions, civilians and NGOs on the world stage. By listing these, one can conclude the dynamics of finding peaceful resolutions to some very real and human problems is ongoing, challenging and incomplete.

            Many recent events support the argument that randomness of human and individual circumstances related to different conflict situations limits the uniformity of peacekeeping guidelines. This, some have argued, has resulted in the marginalization of the peacekeeping process due to indigenous reasons; be it local interests, diplomatic tensions and a host of other external factors.

            Others have noted that the effectiveness of UN policies as questionable. The UN has historically paved the road for addressing “root causes” of conflict through long-term conflict prevention strategies, but theoretical solutions, critics point out, have not translated into real world solutions. This I feel makes the discussion on peacekeeping and Canada’s unique role in it much more viable and immediate.

Our Present Capacity

            To be accurate, Canada’s peacekeeping capacity is increasingly diminished.  Canada now ranks 34st in terms of personnel contribution among UN peacekeeping nations, well behind Bangladesh, Zambia, Nigeria and Uruguay. Only 206 Canadians are currently serving under the UN.  It’s important to note, though, that Canada also contributes to NATO and other missions and I understand that our rank would be much higher if those troops—particularly the over 1,000 now in Afghanistan-- were also counted. On any given day, according to the Defence Department, 8,000 Canadian troops are being deployed to, returning from or serving on missions around the world—and many of these are peacekeepers. 

However, in the opinion of many over the past 20 years our military has suffered from chronic underfunding. Our forces are overstretched and simply unable to deploy in many areas where their presence is badly needed. I’m sure that Col. McQuillan, Officer Pemberton and Captain Nairne can tell us about challenges they’ve faced in this regard on the ground.

Roméo Dallaire

Rwanda is a haunting example of our challenge as a peacekeeping nation. Romeo Dallaire was deployed as the UN mission commander there with one Canadian assistant and no Canadian ground troops under his command.  The lack of troops—and the entire handling of the mission from national capitals and New York-- was to have appalling consequences, as he recalls in his book Shake Hands with the Devil. Only after the worst of the genocide were Canadian troops released from other missions to join him on the ground.

Dallaire tells a story which is relevant to the discussion at hand. From time to time, he would send platoons into the countryside to provide help and obtain information. One came upon a village whose inhabitants had recently been slaughtered by one of the marauding militias. It was a scene from the apocalypse - people were dead or dying, lying in ditches, children decapitated. It was well known that this village had a high incidence of AIDS, and if the soldiers helped the wounded and dying they would face the risk of exposing themselves to the virus.

The dilemma for the platoon leader was whether he and his troops should get out of their vehicles, get down in the ditches and help those who could be helped - at great risk to their own safety. Or should they just move on to the next village, and see if they could be of some assistance there? Reportedly, they did take the time to help the survivors.

Later, the platoon leader reported this to Dallaire. He called the troop leaders from the 26 countries under his UN command into his office. He told each of them the story and asked, "Would you get down in the ditch, and help out, risking your own well-being, or would you move on to the next village?" Twenty-three of the twenty-six replied that they would move on. Three, however, said they would stay and help: Ghana, Holland and Canada.

Dallaire, who recounted this incident, then asked the audience a question: "Where do you get your values?" As Canadians, we need to decide whether peacekeeping remains one of our core values. If it does, then we must give our peacekeepers the resources and attention they deserve.

Lester Pearson

Lester Pearson, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, spoke of the vital role of peacekeepers during the Suez crisis. He said:

“We made at least a beginning then. If, on that foundation, we do not build something more permanent and stronger, we will once again have ignored realities, rejected opportunities, and betrayed our trust. Will we never learn?” 

In short, there are some hard decisions to be made. I sincerely hope that we have learned from our past. I look forward to learning more this evening from the practising peacekeepers who’ve been on the ground. 


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