On Canada and peacekeeping


in Bombs and rockets, Canada, Politics

This month’s issue of The Walrus opens with a letter from Major General Lewis Mackenzie (ret.). He was the man in charge of the Canadian peacekeeping force in Sarajevo in 1992, remembered particularly for re-taking and maintaining control of the city’s airport. He’s also a man who I met several times at UBC and whose insight and candour I appreciated.

The letter argues that it is factually incorrect to say that Canada is a peacekeeping nation. Mackenzie doesn’t argue this for the familiar (and true) reason that our outlay on foreign relations of all kinds has been cut in order to maintain the budgetary surplus, but because the kind of operations the Canadian Forces are engaging in no longer have the character of classic inter-positional peacekeeping, as envisioned by Lester Pearson and used with such good effect to end the Suez Crisis. I’ve discussed the composition and present deployments of the Canadian Forces in a previous entry. While I am less sympathetic to his argument that Canada has never been a peacekeeping nation, I think the argument that we no longer play that role is convincing.

The reasons for this are mostly fairly obvious. A line of lightly armed personnel with blue helmets between two armies is no longer the model for military intervention in conflict zones. Given that most wars are now civil wars, the armies may be neither disciplined, organized, nor clearly defined. Chaotic and dangerous places do not lend themselves to soft blue berets, as Mackenzie identifies, but to the flak jackets and “camouflaged Kevlar helmets” that are the kit employed by almost all Canadian Forces members overseas: especially in our largest deployment, in Afghanistan.

Is Mackenzie right to challenge the peacekeeping myth? It’s something Canadians use as a heuristic device for understanding how Canada behaves in the world: out there solving problems and putting out fires where they erupt, as opposed to the more brash and world-changing strategies of our great southern neighbour. Obviously, it’s not an idea that should be perpetuated if it’s blatantly false. I would argue that it is not, but that the gritty details of contemporary peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peace enforcement must be recognized in the public arena.

One of the most regrettable developments in warfare recently has been the progression from a blue helmet or a red cross being a protective symbol to it being irrelevant or even grounds for being targeted. Partly, that has to do with the conflating of war fighting and reconstruction roles to which both the United States and Canada have contributed. When some jeeps have food aid in them and others have ammunition, there is little chance of retaining trust and credibility for those who distribute the first. Likewise, some planes dropping food packets while similar ones drop cluster bombs. When aid providing non-governmental organisations (NGOs) get integrated into war plans, similar problems arise. For that reason, I applaud the way in which Medicins Sans Frontiers, among other groups, have resisted the pressure to become subjugated to the military planning of western states.

The complex nature of modern peacekeeping operations may not be accurately reflected in the media and the opinions of the public at large. I think that Mackenzie is correct to raise the issue, but simply doing so doesn’t offer us a great deal of guidance. It is plausible that the Martin and Harper governments have actively managed the representation of Canadian operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere to heighten the sense that they are similar to the ‘traditional style’ of Canadian peacekeeping. If so, it’s understandable, given how much of an identity issue peacekeeping has become in Canada. To the extent that such idealization helps create support to take the initiative internationally, there is some value. To the extent that they confuse the issue and obscure the real character of our actions, the illusions should be dispelled.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan May 15, 2006 at 1:18 pm


As I understand it, only about 85 Canadians are part of ISAF. For the unfamiliar, it is:

“The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is an international stabilization force in Kabul, Afghanistan consisting of about 9000 personnel. Authorized by the United Nations Security Council in December 2001, the ISAF was charged with securing Kabul and its nearby Bagram air base from Taliban and al Qaida elements and factional warlords, so as to allow for the establishment and security of the Afghan Transitional Administration headed by Hamid Karzai.”

The much larger deployment, of about 2300 personnel, is part of Operation Enduring Freedom. See the Current Operations page of the Canadian Forces (CF).

Incidentally, those 2300 represent the great majority of the 2,756 personnel the CF claims to have deployed overseas.

Milan May 15, 2006 at 1:22 pm

See, also, the NATO ISAF factsheet.

Chris May 15, 2006 at 2:26 pm

By and large peacekeeping is no longer an activity that developed countries perform, they generally assist in an ancillary support capacity. A quick glance at the undpko’s facts and figures reveal the top 10 contributors to missions: Bangladesh, Paksitan, India, Jordan, Nepal, Ehtiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Uruguay, South Africa.

By an large it seems like wealthy industrialized democracies have shrugged responsibility to regional actors. Canadians with blue berets make great newspaper photos though, and so the myth lives on.

Milan May 15, 2006 at 2:53 pm


That is also partly the product of economics. Whereas western troops cost quite a lot to train, equip, and deploy, those from places like Bangladesh are more easily integrated into cash-strapped UN missions. This is a phenomenon that Dallaire discusses in Shake Hands with the Devil.

R.K. May 15, 2006 at 1:10 pm

You definitely cannot call what Canada is doing with ISAF in Afghanistan ‘peacekeeping.’ Peacekeepers don’t use attack helicopters.

That said, if we’re serious about the ‘responsibility to protect,’ we are going to need to back up soft power with what you term ‘bombs and rockets.’

R.K. May 15, 2006 at 1:38 pm

It’s confusing that the NATO factsheet lists 900 Canadians participating in ISAF, but the CF Current Operations page doesn’t even mention it.

How operationally seperate are the US (Enduring Freedom) and international (ISAF) components of the total force in Afghanistan?

Anonymous May 15, 2006 at 8:28 pm

Funny how only Canadians ever identify Lester Pearson with the conclusion of the Suez Crisis. The fact is, both Egypt and Israel wanted a way to stop fighting. Likewise, Britain and France wanted a way to slink off without attracting too much additional attention.

Chris May 16, 2006 at 1:36 pm

The economics argument doesn’t make much sense, yes american/european troops cost more to train but they are also better trained and equipped so they should be used, and even if the cost per troop is lower for bangladesh etc these countries are not weatlhy and should not be expected to carry the lion’s share of international peacekeeping committments.

Political will as an explanation on the other hand….well that might hold more water.

Milan May 18, 2006 at 1:11 pm

A friend of mine, Tim Louman-Gardiner, has written a post on Afghanistan and the military.

. February 17, 2011 at 11:25 pm

Some have blamed the Harper government’s pro-Israel policy for this lack of influence, a view that neglects history. Lester Pearson, the secretary of state for external affairs in the St. Laurent government, did win his Nobel Peace Prize for his role during the Suez Crisis in 1956, and Suez is definitely in Egypt. But what most Canadians have forgotten is that President Gamal Abdel Nasser initially refused to allow Canadian troops to participate in the United Nations Emergency Force that Pearson’s legerdemain at UN headquarters created. Canada was part of the British Commonwealth and part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Britain and France had invaded Egypt. Moreover, the Canadian battalion assigned to UNEF, the Queen’s Own Rifles, wore British-pattern battle dress, carried British-style weapons, spoke English, and the Red Ensign they flew had the Union Jack in the corner. No wonder the Egyptians claimed that their troops could not distinguish them from the invaders.

It took the intervention of Maj.-Gen. E.L.M. Burns, the Canadian commander of the UN’s Truce Supervision Organization on the Israeli-Arab borders and the just designated commander of UNEF, to produce some legerdemain of his own. UNEF had offers of sufficient infantry, he told Cairo, but it needed logistics if it were to function, something that only a few countries could supply. Canada could offer supply and transport units. Reluctantly, Nasser and company agreed, and Canada’s military honour — but not the political life of the St. Laurent government that promptly lost power to John Diefenbaker’s Tories — was saved. So much for Canadian influence in the Middle East.

Also forgotten is that 10 years later, with the region again on the verge of war, Nasser peremptorily tossed the Canadians out of the UN Emergency Force, ordering them home just a few days before the Israelis smashed his own army for a third time in 20 years. Once again, Canada’s now-vaunted influence was in short supply.

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