Peacekeeping? It’s an Age Thing


Image credit: MCpl Jordan Lobb - Canadian Forces Combat Camera


by Jean-Christophe Boucher
CGAI Fellow
November 2020


Table of Contents

Peacekeeping? It's an Age Thing

Peacekeeping has been a central theme of the Canadian foreign policy conversation for over 60 years. Indeed, since 1956, when Lester B. Pearson played a leading role in developing the concept in response to the Suez Crisis, Canadian attachment to peacekeeping has been an integral part of our collective narrative and has shaped our national identity in both French and English.[1] In spite of our support for peacekeeping, actual Canadian contribution to UN missions has been marginal since the mid-1990s, almost 25 years ago.

As a way of signalling that Canadian foreign policy had strayed too far from its apparent roots in peacekeeping, the Liberal Party of Canada promised to renew Canada’s commitment to such operations in their 2015 and 2019 electoral platforms. Despite this, Canada’s contribution to peacekeeping under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remains half-hearted. Is our fondness for peacekeeping more performance than policy? This is a question deserving further examination, especially at a time when our foreign policy is being forced to adapt to a disordered world.

The Canadian Defence and Security Network (CDSN), funded through a Social Science and Humanities Research Council partnership grant, deployed a survey exploring Canadians’ attitude on foreign and defence policy issues in August 2020. In this survey, we asked questions about Canadians’ support for UN peacekeeping missions. Unsurprisingly, and consistent with past survey results, 74 per cent of respondents were supportive of Canadian participation in such missions. But when asked another way, the response was more tepid. We asked Canadians an open-response question on what they felt was the most appropriate role for the Canadian Armed Forces. Here, support for peacekeeping was lukewarm, with roughly 40 per cent of Canadians suggesting that it should be a focus of the Canadian Armed Forces, while 35 per cent answered “defending Canada/Canadians”, and seven per cent responded “supporting NATO missions/allies”.

The results get particularly interesting when viewed by age group. We found that much of the support for peacekeeping is among older Canadians. As shown in the graphic below, respondents from the baby boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1964) are generally more supportive of peacekeeping, with 47 per cent identifying it as their priority. By contrast, younger Canadians, especially millennials (1981-1996) and zoomers (1997-2012), are more likely to believe that “defending Canada/Canadians” is a more appropriate role for the Canadian Armed Forces than peacekeeping.

Figure 1. What Canadians suggest is the most appropriate role for the Canadian Armed Forces, by age group.

Peacekeeping1.jpgSource: Nanos survey conducted on behalf of the Canadian Defence and Security Network

In many ways, we are seeing a decline of Canadians’ support for peacekeeping, suggesting that our generational imprint might shape policy preferences on national defence. We can explain this by the fact that younger Canadians have not come of age in an era where peacekeeping played a significant part of our daily information about international affairs. Instead, the fiascos of peacekeeping during the 1990s (Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia), the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the successive wars in the Middle East and North Africa (Iraq 2003, Afghanistan 2001-2014, Libya 2011, Syria 2014-) showed the limits of the international community’s capacity to shape the natural course of conflicts. Furthermore, we are increasingly mindful of the rise of great-power competition between the U.S. and China, which is reshaping the basic assumptions of our defence policy.

In conclusion, it seems that younger generations are less enamoured with our peacekeeping past and are willing to refocus our attention to our national interest. This is worth bearing in mind as Canada attempts to define a new foreign policy suited to a disordered world.


End Notes

1 Boucher (2020); McLauchlin (2017); McCullough (2016); Paris (2014); Massie and Boucher (2014); Carrol (2009); Massie and Roussel (2008); Munton and Keating (2001); Martin and Fortmann (1995).



Boucher, Jean-Christophe. 2020. “Public Opinion and Canadian Defence Policy.” In Philippe Lagassé, Srjdan Vucetic and Thomas Juneau, eds. Canadian Defence Policy. New York:  Palgrave MacMillan.

Carroll, Michael K., 2009. Pearson’s Peacekeepers: Canada and the United Nations Emergency Force: 1956–1967. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Liberal Party of Canada. 2015. A New Plan for a Strong Middle Class.

Martin, Pierre, and Michel Fortmann. 1995. “Canadian Public Opinion and Peacekeeping in a Turbulent World.” International Journal 50: 370-400.

Massie, Justin, and Stéphane Roussel. 2008. “Au service de l’unité : Le rôle des mythes en politique étrangère canadienne.” Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 14 (2): 67-93. 

Massie, Justin, and Jean-Christophe Boucher. 2013. “Militaristes et anti-impérialistes. Les Québécois face à la sécurité internationale.” Études Internationales 64(3): 359-385.

McCullough, Colin. 2016. Creating Canada’s Peacekeeping Past. Vancouver: UBC Press.

McLauchlin, Theodore. 2017. “Partnerships in Military Interventions and the Canadian Public.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 50(3): 773-793.

Munton, Don, and Tom Keating. 2001. “Internationalism and the Canadian Public.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 34(3): 517-549.

Paris, Roland. 2014. “Are Canadians Still Liberal Internationalists? Foreign Policy and Public Opinion in the Harper Era.” International Journal 69: 274-307.


About the Author

Jean-Christophe Boucher is an Assistant Professor at the School of Public Policy and Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary. His is currently a director of research in civil-military relations at the Canadian Defence and Security Network funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council. A fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; a research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Security and Development at Dalhousie University; Senior Fellow at the Centre interuniversitaire de recherche sur les relations internationales du Canada et du Québec. He holds a BA in History from the University of Ottawa, a MA in Philosophy from the Université de Montréal and a PhD in Political Science from Université Laval. He specializes in international relations, with an emphasis on Canadian foreign and defence policies, international security, and methodology.


Canadian Global Affairs Institute

The Canadian Global Affairs Institute focuses on the entire range of Canada’s international relations in all its forms including (in partnership with the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy), trade investment and international capacity building. Successor to the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI, which was established in 2001), the Institute works to inform Canadians about the importance of having a respected and influential voice in those parts of the globe where Canada has significant interests due to trade and investment, origins of Canada’s population, geographic security (and especially security of North America in conjunction with the United States), social development, or the peace and freedom of allied nations. The Institute aims to demonstrate to Canadians the importance of comprehensive foreign, defence and trade policies which both express our values and represent our interests.

The Institute was created to bridge the gap between what Canadians need to know about Canadian international activities and what they do know. Historically Canadians have tended to look abroad out of a search for markets because Canada depends heavily on foreign trade. In the modern post-Cold War world, however, global security and stability have become the bedrocks of global commerce and the free movement of people, goods and ideas across international boundaries. Canada has striven to open the world since the 1930s and was a driving factor behind the adoption of the main structures which underpin globalization such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and emerging free trade networks connecting dozens of international economies. The Canadian Global Affairs Institute recognizes Canada’s contribution to a globalized world and aims to inform Canadians about Canada’s role in that process and the connection between globalization and security.

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