In The Media

Trudeau must be clear with voters about peacekeeping rationle or risk losing support: observers

by Marco Vigliotti (feat. Roy Rempel)

The Hill Times
August 17, 2016

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to be “realistic” with Canadians if he hopes to sell the public on the merits of accepting a dangerous peacekeeping mission in Africa, says pollster Nik Nanos.

While generally supportive of peacekeeping, Canadians are “skeptical” about its effectiveness and want honest answers from political leaders about what can reasonably be achieved, he said.

“Whenever we tested another type of mission, the key question is: can Canada make a difference and what type of impact is Canada going to have?” said Mr. Nanos, president and CEO of public opinion firm Nanos Research.

“It’s not enough to step up for any type of peacekeeping mission. [Government must] articulate the contribution that Canada can make and how it can make things better.”

The Liberal government is actively considering sending Canadian peacekeepers to help with one of several United Nations-led peacekeeping efforts in Africa. There has been no clear indication about which countries the government is mulling, though observers point to Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as likely on the short list.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan (Vancouver South, B.C.) just wrapped up a five-country tour on the continent that his office called a “fact-finding trip to inform Canada’s re-engagement in peace support operations.”

Speaking to reporters by phone from the DRC Monday, Mr. Sajjan hailed the tour, which also featured visits to Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, as “invaluable” in gaining an important on-the-ground perspective, though maintained that he hasn’t decided which mission Canada would participate in. Former Liberal senator and UN peacekeeping chief during the Rwandan genocide Roméo Dallaire as well as former UN high commissioner for human rights Louise Arbour accompanied Mr. Sajjan on the trip.

“I want to make sure I have all the necessary information. It’s also important for me to do a thorough debrief with everyone, interpreting the information we received,” said the minister, adding that he also needs to speak with his cabinet colleagues.

While the destination remains unknown, Mr. Sajjan said he has decided on the number of Canadian troops to send to the UN mission, enough to sustain a “long duration,” and would announce it at a later date.

The contribution, he said, would expand beyond a military response and could potentially involve cross-border operations.

“Police will be needed, capacity building will be extremely important. And also keep in mind it’s not just one particular area, hence the reason why we’re actually branching out on a multi-country tour,” Mr. Sajjan added.

Some observers are connecting the search for a suitable peacekeeping mission to Canada’s publicly stated desire to win a seat on the UN Security Council in 2020 (the two-year term would start in 2021) and calls from Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) to strengthen the country’s presence on the international stage.

In 2010, Canada failed in its bid to win a seat on the council for the first time, prompting some critics to place the blame on what they viewed as the former Conservative government’s more antagonistic foreign policy and disengagement from the international body and regions like Africa.

As talk of a new mission bubbles up, concerns are being voiced about deploying Canadian troops to violent conflicts that show little evidence of being resolved.

Most notably, Mali, which is grappling with a violent insurgency by Islamist rebels, is seen as one of the most dangerous peacekeeping missions in the world.

The UN-led mission in the country comprises more than 11,000 troops.

Earlier this month, the UN said more than 100 peacekeepers had been killed in the country since July 2013, reports Reuters.

Roy Rempel, who served as a defence policy adviser in Stephen Harper’s prime minister’s office, mused that the government could risk losing support if it is “unable to clearly explain the rationale for the mission, or if the mission has [an] unclear or very general objective.”

Any peacekeeping endeavour that centred on vague objectives such as nation-building as opposed to countering a specific threat would run the risk, he said.

“I would be concerned if the primary reason for the mission is based on the fact that the government is looking for something to do with the Canadian military that fits an ideological orientation,” like peacekeeping, said Mr. Rempel, now a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, in an emailed statement.

“That would not be a sound rationale for putting Canadian troops in [harm’s] way or expending major resources.”

The government must be “frank” with Canadians on the goals and risks of these entanglements, he added. 

For his part, Minister Sajjan has publicly acknowledged that these complex missions no longer fit the mould of traditional peacekeeping missions in which troops would stand between two identifiable sides from warring nations.

“I think we can definitely say what we used to have as peacekeeping, before, is no longer. We don’t have two parties that have agreed on peace and there’s a peacekeeping force in between,” he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail earlier this month.

Foreign policy isn’t a ballot-box issue: Rogers

Mr. Nanos, though, said it’s unlikely the Liberals would face serious political backlash for agreeing to participate in an operation that puts Canadian lives in danger.

This is because Canadians are acutely aware of the risk of sending troops to a war-zone, and participating in international peacekeeping missions conforms to widely held expectations of the foreign policy of a Liberal government, he said.

While Canada’s peacekeeping heritage is held in high regard among many Canadians, Canada’s troop contribution to UN peacekeeping missions has fallen from the early 1990s when thousands of soldiers were deployed. Today, it’s only about 100.


Discord within the opposition ranks also insulates the Liberals from potential blowback, Mr. Nanos added.

“Politically right now, [the] opposition parties are in disarray,” Mr. Nanos said, referring to the New Democrats and Conservatives currently without permanent leaders.

“Right now the reality is that even if Liberals have a problem, there’s no counterpoint, and there won’t be for a year.”

Chad Rogers, a Conservative strategist and partner with public affairs firm Crestview Strategy, also downplayed the possibility of significant political fallout from committing to a new peacekeeping mission, saying these issues rarely inform voting decisions.

“Show me the last Canadian election lost on a foreign affairs or defence issue,” he said.

Although the major parties espouse, at times, sharply opposing views on foreign policy, Mr. Rogers said he doesn’t think there’s a “huge political constituency” of Canadians driving these differing opinions, and voters largely see partisan politics as being constrained to the domestic sphere.

The government, however, could lose domestic support if these decisions reflect poor judgment, he said.

“If there’s bad government or incompetence or something that has a domestic political implication, can a government end up being accountable for it? Yes, but that’s not that, the policy issue of choosing to deploy,” Mr. Rogers explained.

Canadians, he added, are extremely proud of the contributions made by their troops and understand the inherent risks that come with peacekeeping and other military missions.

Mr. Nanos also said he doesn’t see the peacekeeping mission as a burning ballot-box issue, though framed it as an important opportunity for Mr. Trudeau to recast Canadian foreign policy to reflect his vision for the country.

“I don’t see it as a winning or losing issue, but it’s probably a brand-defining issue for the Liberal government and for Justin Trudeau specifically, in terms of his role as prime minister of Canada and where he wants to take the country,” he said, calling foreign policy a “platform” for looking prime ministerial.

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