Canada’s Contributions to International Peacekeeping

feat. MGen (Ret’d) Denis Thompson

Standing Committee on National Defence
April 24, 2018

Bonjour.  Je suis le Major-général (à la retraite) Denis Thompson et je suis ravi d’être ici ce matin pour vous parler au sujet du maintien de la paix.  Comme je n’ai que dix minutes, je vais vous parler strictement en anglais pour profiter de mon temps limité.

I had the good fortune of serving 39 years in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) from 1978 until 2017.  I was privileged to serve in the infantry with the Royal Canadian Regiment at home and abroad.  More specifically, all my overseas tours were in command appointments.  I was a platoon commander in Cyprus and Germany, a company commander in Bosnia, a battalion or battle group commanding officer again in Bosnia, a brigade or task force commander in Kandahar, Afghanistan, the commander of Canada’s Special Operations Forces and finally I returned in 2017 after three years as the Force Commander of the Multinational Force & Observers in the Sinai.  Bref, I’m a practitioner even if what follows sounds vaguely academic.

Peacekeeping (PK) is imperfect.  There are no rainbows, butterflies nor unicorns in the world that peacekeepers inhabit.  It’s ugly.  It’s violent.  It’s arbitrary.  At times, it seems blatantly unfair.  It certainly is not for the faint of heart.  Sadly, when it is under-resourced the consequences are disastrous, one could even say counter-productive.  And yet that is the reality within which peacekeepers function. 

PK is but one form of military operation on the spectrum of conflict, which ranges from conflict prevention to full-on war, within which the CAF are asked to participate.  The costs of managing such conflicts rises exponentially driven by the level of effort required to fix them.  Thus, if a conflict prevention mission costs $1, a related PK mission would cost $10 and a peace enforcement mission would need a $100.

Clearly it would be best to stifle or resolve a conflict before it erupts.  However, to quote my favourite scene at the conclusion of the movie The Mission: “We must work in the world and the world is thus.”  That world is one where a lack of political consensus rarely results in conflict prevention compelling the international community to field PK forces as a bandage to stabilize a conflict, allowing time for a viable political solution to be developed.  Often these PK missions are deployed in apparently benign environments where they are threatened by non-state actors who are not likely to follow any international norm, as the MFO is in Egypt with the presence of the Sinai Province of the Islamic State.

To be successful, a mission needs quality density from top to bottom.  That means competent, active force commanders overseen by equally committed civilian leadership (in the UN context, Special Representatives of the Secretary General or, as I experienced, the Director General of the MFO), supported by properly staffed headquarters that have access to and harness capable enablers (intelligence feeds, logistics support, helicopter and fixed-wing assets), and where the rubber meets the road, properly trained, disciplined boots on the ground in sufficient numbers to create an atmosphere of deterrence and reassurance.  This is what is meant by quality density and it applies across the entire spectrum of conflict.

In fielding PK forces quality density matters because it contributes directly to the credibility of a mission.  Canada has all the elements of quality density in the CAF and, it’s worth emphasizing, in its civilian agencies, too.  In my experience credibility is bestowed upon those who put boots on the ground.  And as I have already indicated, we are not talking about just any boots.  It serves little purpose to deploy expensive enablers that feed actionable intelligence to frontline troops if they will not or cannot act on it.

As I mentioned driving such forces requires committed mission leadership, which Canada possesses in and out of uniform.  We proved our mettle in Kandahar with the employment of a joined-up comprehensive civilian-military approach.  That mission, while certainly not PK, benefited enormously by the presence of Canadian boots on the ground; boots on the ground that in turn gave Canada its credibility and a seat at the table.

Is there risk?  Can soldiers be wounded and die?  Hell yes.  That’s not news.  It’s reality.  Since the dawn of civilization, the currency of nations has been measured in blood and treasure.  I have a personal aversion to referencing CAF soldiers as Canada’s Sons and Daughters.  That metaphor creates the impression that they are too precious to put in harms’ way.  What nonsense.  They may well be someone’s son or daughter, but they are also professional soldiers who join the CAF precisely because they want to be in harms’ way.

If you want to play a leadership role in the world then you need to accept the risk, in blood and treasure, by contributing boots on the ground to round out the quality density of a fully enabled PK mission.  By so doing, Canada would build credibility, garner leadership positions and over time re-emerge as a full player on the world stage.

Okay now that I have got that off my chest, I would like to register three other tangential points.

First, the Government’s Elsie Initiative is important as more women in PK acts as a form of enabler thus adding to the quality density of a PK mission.  It will succeed, if and only if it actually results in the fielding of women PKers at the business end (i.e. forming part of the boots on the ground).  It is but one small value-added element in an overall strategy that should include mission leadership (civilian and military), enablers (and I acknowledge the recent commitment of helicopters to Mali as one such contribution) and a formed combat unit to provide boots on the ground.

Second, I am a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and the Canadian Defence Associations Institute.  These two institutes, which count among the few in Canada, are populated with an impressive array of former diplomats, government officials, police and armed forces members.  Their members possess much unplumbed and non-partisan expertise that committees of this nature should call upon.

Third and finally, I’d like to close my statement by adding a personal biographical point.  I grew-up in New Lowell, Ontario, which is in Simcoe County just north of Toronto.  It is the small village that gave Canada Miss Vickie’s potato chips.  I know that you all secretly harbour a love of that particular potato chip.  That should be reason enough for you to weigh my words heavily.

Thank-you.  Merci.


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