The need for a real debate on the future of military operations in the Canadian political landscape
August 9, 2014
August 9th is National Peacekeeper’s Day in Canada. Established in 2008, this date was chosen in remembrance of the nine Canadian peacekeepers killed in 1974 as part of the United Nations Emergency Force in the Sinai. This is a national day of commemoration for the largest single loss of Canadian life in a United Nations peacekeeping operation, occurring exactly 40 years ago, and for all fallen peacekeepers since. Peacekeeper’s Day is typically remembered through a message from the Prime Minister’s Office and memorial ceremonies for peacekeeping veterans in Ottawa, Calgary, and elsewhere around the country. Though the term “peacekeeping” has been extended to include tributes to the sacrifices made by Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, the establishment of a separate National Day of Honour in 2014, may return the focus primarily to those Canadian soldiers who have served overseas in United Nations-led peacekeeping operations.
Unfortunately, apart from the standard PMO statement and small events in towns across Canada, the passing of National Peacekeeper’s Day generally has little impact in the media or on the Canadian political landscape. Indeed, the issue of UN peacekeeping in general is rarely raised in either the pages of Canadian newspapers and websites or in the halls and chambers of the House of Commons. Of the federal political parties, only the New Democrats and Greens even mention peacekeeping in their current policy platforms, and there only briefly. With the exception of a few tireless political advocates such as Romeo Dallaire and Douglas Roche, both now retired from the Senate, there are few voices in Ottawa to raise the issue and lobby for awareness.
The current Government seems eager to file peacekeeping as a part of Canadian history. For all intents and purposes, Canada is no longer a participant in international peacekeeping operations. As of June 2014, Canada contributes a total of just 34 troops and military experts to global UN operations. This should be compared to the almost 3,000 armed service members sent regularly by Canada to the United Nations at the peak of Canadian peacekeeping in the 1990s. At that time, Canada was one of the leading providers of UN peacekeepers. Now, as a troop contributor it is ranked 68th out of 97 countries participating in peacekeeping.
This ranks behind such countries as Honduras, Brunei Darrusalam, and, for the first time, the United States of America — a country so averse to American soldiers being commanded by foreigners that they traditionally shy away from UN “Blue Helmet” operations.
There is, however, an important disconnect between the level of importance given to peacekeeping issues by the Canadian Government or opposition parties over the last decade and the place that peacekeeping still holds in the hearts and identities of Canadians. Poll after poll has found that, when asked to identify Canada’s most positive contribution to the world, “peacekeeping” is consistently the top response among Canadians. A 2011 Canadian Election Study found that 64% of Canadians believe that Canada should participate in UN peacekeeping, even if it puts the lives of soldiers at risk. Yet despite this, in the several years I have spent studying peacekeeping, scarcely a single Canadian that I have talked to about the subject, outside of a small field of experts, was aware of the token contribution levels of 21 Canadian military peacekeepers that the government currently sends overseas.
Conventional wisdom holds that foreign policy issues have little impact on Canadian elections, with issues of the economy and domestic affairs dominating. But when the most important foreign policy priority for the majority of Canadians is scarcely discussed among the main parties, you begin to wonder whether the parties themselves are to blame for leaving the Canadian public under-informed about our international involvement. Despite the scant attention given to peacekeeping in Canada by the Government, by the media, and by political players in Ottawa, UN peace operations are have dramatically increased in size and importance. The UN now fields and supports over 120,000 military, police and civilian personnel in 16 peacekeeping operations in some of the world’s most difficult long-term conflict zones. The Blue Helmets are more than ever in need of the kind of skilled and experienced military contributions that countries like Canada can provide. With the conclusion of the mission in Afghanistan, a lively and open public discussion about the future of the Canadian military is needed to decide whether a return to robust Canadian peacekeeping is a viable option in the coming years. Other NATO allies are already doing this and study after study confirms that UN peacekeeping works.
2014 is a year of important benchmarks in Canadian military history. It has been 200 years since the burning of the White House during the War of 1812, 70 years since the D-Day invasion of Normandy, and, of course, 100 years since the beginning of the First World War. Unlike these other events, however, National Peacekeeper’s Day remembers a cause that has continued to march on without Canada. As the federal parties begin to gear up for the next election, 2014 may be the year to renew the debate on an activity central to global conflict resolution, in which Canada was once a leader and a cause which continues to be close to the heart of the Canadian public.
Joshua Libben research peacekeeping and strategic culture at the doctoral programme at University of Ottawa’s School of Political Studies