Canada’s Peace Support Operations

House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence
feat. David J. Bercuson
September 25, 2018


Opening Statement

I have been asked to give my views on Canada and peace support operations.  But what does the Committee mean by peace support operations?  At one time perhaps three decades ago we would have been discussing peacekeeping.  If we are discussing peace support operations today, do we mean classic Chapter VI peacekeeping such as Canada did during the early Sinai missions of 1957 to the 1970s?  Or Cyprus?  Or a peace enforcement mission such as the Congo, where the UN played an offensive role against the break-away province of Katanga? 

We Canadians seem to have a unique relationship to UN type missions as they were practiced more than half a century ago.  Canadian myth, Canadian media, Canadians of a particular stripe have long put forward the idea that Canada’s military forces should be used for the ideal of preventative operations to preserve peace and not war. 

Why?  Because peace is an ideal we should all aspire to while war is the pursuit of national influence through violence, to paraphrase von Clausewitz.  War is the continuation of politics by other means, he wrote in On War and Canadians have long absorbed the notion that as an especially virtuous nation, Canada should not do war, but instead should help promote peace.

That does not reflect the reality of the world we live in today, perhaps it never really did.  When Canada embarked on its first real peacekeeping operation after the Sinai-Suez war of 1956, author Anthony Anderson shows in his recent book The Diplomat: Lester Pearson and the Suez Crisis, the St. Laurent government was looking for a way to save the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, then – as now – a military alliance designed primarily to deter a third world war.  Canada’s two principal alliance partners, Britain and the United States were at logger heads.  How might we bring them back together?  How could the Liberal government appease pro and anti-British voters?  How might  NATO be saved?  Most scholars have known this for a long time.  What Anderson showed in great detail was how close Pearson worked with John Foster Dulles and the US State Department because US interest at that time was virtually identical to Canada and that Pearson was the perfect cat’s paw for the US.  Without Dulles and the Americans, UNEF might never have occurred.

Classic Chapter VI peacekeeping, as the UNEF was once referred to, was in fact rare from the beginning.  When the UN intervened in the Congo in 1960 after a coup was launched to overthrow the new government of Patrice Lamumba, the UN mission sent there quickly veered away from the path of UNEF.  Only about 300 Canadians were involved in that operation, but they were not there to represent NATO interests; they were there because the government of John Diefenbaker had started to see peacekeeping as an activity that would benefit the international reputation of Canada with little loss of prestige in case of potential military disaster. 

In fact the Congo operation broke the UN peacekeeping mold in almost every respect and instead of acting as a semi-neutral party operating to enforce ceasefire agreements, became an intervention force to end the Katanga secession.  But other Canadian peacekeeping operations, such as the one on Cyprus, fit the mold well for a time, at least until the Turkish invasion of the Island in 1974.  When Canada was put in the position of sending troops in to intervene between two NATO allies, Turkey and Greece, Canadians were shot at and a few were killed.  Several observers have argued that in the case of Cyprus, UN intervention delayed any real effort to unite the island by the people of the island.

But what about now?  Canada has undertaken its first UN operation in some twenty years in Mali and Canadian troops there are wearing the Blue Beret as they once did in almost every peacekeeping, peace support, or peace enforcement mission since the 1950s.

The world of 2018 is very unlike the world of 1956.  I need not go into this here but to mention one major fact: the Cold War is over.  Canada is not in Mali to represent the interests of the western powers.  Canada is in Mali to fulfill an election promise made by the current government which wished to show Canadians that while Conservatives made war – in Afghanistan – Liberals made peace.  The fact that the Mali mission is taking place within a real war, with a small number of Canadian troops, who are there not to fight, if possible, but to perform helicopter support operations, is unimportant.  The Liberal government said it would return Canada to “peacekeeping” and so it has in a tentative, small and hopefully least dangerous way.  Check the box for when Canada attempts to win another seat on the Security Council.

If we look at Mali today within the broader picture of current Canadian troop deployments, what do we see?  It is really a potentially kinetic deployment that will keep Canadians a step or two behind the front in a vicious three way civil war among a total UN deployment of some 20,000 troops. 

We should look at Canadian defence policy today in two ways.  First, of course, is the policy laid out in Strong, Secure and Engaged, as promulgated last year after a pretty exhaustive review that began shortly after the 2015 election.  On the whole it is a good document but lacking in one major element – there is no foreign policy document into which it should fit.  So, for example, it announced a return to UN operations but does not really explain why Canada should do these missions with the small military we have, while there are two truly important missions for Canada in continental defence and guarantying the freedom of Europe. 

Given the size of the military today and the reluctance to spend much more on defence, how can we afford to contribute significantly to UN operations?  And if we do, where should we go and with contingents of what size?  Even more important, should we do so to prove a domestic political point – that Canadians love peace and are not warmongers – or because it fits within a larger narrative of what we are trying to accomplish in the world? 

So, election promise made, election promise kept, hopefully with little danger to Canadian lives.  But Mali is just one in a spectrum of missions we are performing today, most outside of real danger zones, but enough to show that we are a useful NATO member (and perhaps also to show that we don’t need to spend 2 per cent of our GDP on defence to really make a contribution to NATO).  If we are to hide as many of our deployable troops in plain sight, why not Mali? We touch yet another base and can get all those blue berets out of the warehouse and air them out again after a long hiatus.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Suite 2720, 700–9th Avenue SW
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2P 3V4


Calgary Office Phone: (587) 574-4757


Canadian Global Affairs Institute
8 York Street, 2nd Floor
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1N 5S6


Ottawa Office Phone: (613) 288-2529
Email: [email protected]


Making sense of our complex world.
Déchiffrer la complexité de notre monde.


©2002-2024 Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Charitable Registration No. 87982 7913 RR0001


Sign in with Facebook | Sign in with Twitter | Sign in with Email