Canada moves further from peacekeeping

A. Walter Dorn

Originally published in The Toronto Star, 29 December 2013,
under the editor-designed (mis)title of "Canada evolves from peacekeeper to war-fighter."


In recent years, Canada has turned away from a long and widely lauded tradition of peacekeeping.

After almost two decades of service to Canada and the world, the Pearson Centre, formerly known as the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, is shutting its doors this month.

The Centre was established in 1994 by the Government of Canada and became the flagship of the nation’s commitment to UN peacekeeping, providing world-class training to peacekeepers from Canada and around the globe.

But government funding cuts in recent years have forced the centre to reduce and then cease all its mission activities. Despite efforts to seek other sources of revenue, the funding gap created by the loss of federal support could not be filled.

The demise of the Pearson Centre is the latest evidence of the government’s neglect of UN peacekeeping. Why has the government of Stephen Harper rejected this widely supported Canadian military tradition that every other prime minister since St. Laurent has embraced?

Virtually all Canadians can tell you that Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson proposed the first peacekeeping force, which moved the world back from war in the 1956 Suez Crisis, winning Pearson the Nobel Peace Prize.

From that time onward, until the mid-1990s, Canada was the largest contributor of peacekeepers and the only country to have contributed to every UN mission. From Kashmir to the Congo, from Bosnia to Ethiopia, Canadian soldiers were at the forefront of world order, contributing to peace in war-torn lands.

This accomplishment is recognized by the Canadian Peacekeeping Service Medal; it is immortalized by the National Peacekeeping Monument in Ottawa; and even the $10-bill features a soldier wearing the iconic blue beret under a banner reading “Au Service de la Paix — In the Service of Peace.” The new issue of the bill has lost the image and the concept.

More sadly, Canada is a prolific peacekeeper no more. While Canada once contributed 3,000 military personnel to peacekeeping, it currently provides only 60 — as a friend says, just enough to fill a school bus. How did this happen?

First under the Liberals, and then dramatically extended by the Conservatives, Canada turned away from peacekeeping to war-fighting, spending billions of dollars in an unsuccessful bid to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Canadian Forces became a single-mission military with Afghanistan as the sole focus of attention. Operating in that one foreign country, more Canadian blood and treasure was spent in one decade than in six decades of peacekeeping in over 40 countries.

To make matters worse, our military is actually forgetting how to do peacekeeping. Over the past decade, the Canadian Forces permitted a major decline in training and education for peacekeeping or peace support operations (PSOs) in Canadian military parlance and doctrine. The Canadian Forces stopped sending soldiers to the Pearson Centre. And the closure of the Pearson Centre means that Canadian soldiers will lose the future opportunity to train on multi-dimensional peace operations alongside civilians and foreign officers.

Some might argue that the combat mission in Kandahar, Afghanistan, gave CF personnel valuable experience in combat and counter-insurgency operations. There are some similarities between these types of missions and international peace operations but peacekeeping is more complex and challenging than war-fighting.

War and counter-insurgency missions are enemy-centric, non-consensual and primarily involve offensive strategy, whereas peacekeeping is based on a trinity of principles: impartiality; consent of the main conflicting parties; and a defensive approach to the use of force — though robust peace enforcement action, and even combat, are sometimes required.

In fact, had Canadian troops in Afghanistan been better trained in peacekeeping along with their combat skills, their contribution in that country might have been much more successful than it was. Special skills including negotiation, conflict management and resolution, as well as an understanding of UN procedures and past peacekeeping missions, would have been valuable to troops left to navigate their way through that complex and chaotic environment of Kandahar.

A concerted effort is needed to revitalize the peacekeeping skills of the Canadian Forces if it is to constructively help the United Nations in a conflict-ridden world. Peacekeeping advances both Canada’s national values and our interests by enhancing a stable, peaceful and rules-based international order.

There is a constant need for well trained and equipped peacekeepers. Canada’s return to peacekeeping would be embraced by the United Nations and the international community. Such a development could help our country gain more influence, including a future seat in the UN Security Council, and give Canadians something even more important: a sense of renewed pride in the nation’s contribution to a better, more peaceful world.


A. Walter Dorn is a professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College and the Canadian Forces College. He is editor of the forthcoming volume Air Power in UN Peace Operations: Wings for Peace.