What happened to Trudeau’s peacekeeping promise?

By Walter Dorn


Originally published in The Toronto Star, 22 August 2019, p. A15. 


The agreement Canada signed with the United Nations last week to provide a C-130 transport aircraft for UN peace operations is a step forward. But as the Trudeau government nears the end of its term, it is fair to ask if it has kept its previous election promises to re-engage in UN peacekeeping.

Upon taking office, Prime Minister Trudeau gave important instructions to his defence and foreign ministers to make Canadian personnel and specialized military capabilities available to the UN. Also they were to lead in international peacekeeping training and to help the United Nations respond more quickly to emerging conflicts.

At the London Peacekeeping Ministerial in 2016, Canada pledged to provide up to 600 military personnel and 150 police. That would be a big jump from the previous government but was little more than half of what Canada had provided for the 40 years after leading the establishment of the first peacekeeping force in 1956. Nevertheless, the newly pledged contribution would be highly valuable to a world organization struggling to help humanity.

Unfortunately, in practice, the government reached an all-time low in the number of soldiers and police in UN service, with only 56 uniformed personnel deployed in May 2018, six months after Trudeau hosted a major global ministerial conference in Vancouver on peacekeeping.

The government has deployed only one military unit and only for a short-term: a highly capable task force in Mali.

When the Mali mission closes at the end of this month, Canada will be back to providing less than 30 military personnel and less than 30 police officers — a far cry from the 600 and 150 figures. In fact, the Harper government during its tenure deployed more uniformed personnel (157 on average per month) than the Trudeau government (at 114).

Furthermore, the promised peacekeeping training program has not launched in four years. And the Quick Reaction Force pledged at the 2017 Vancouver Ministerial is far from being quickly deployed. In fact, even the destination is still not known.

It is only fair to ask: what or who was responsible for this broken promise? It is true that the Department of National Defence had a lot of catching up to do in order to reengage in peacekeeping and learn the workings of the UN.

The first-time MP and minister, Harjit Sajjan, took a cautious and plodding approach on his steep learning curve about UN operations. Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance believed in the importance of UN peacekeeping but abandoned the can-do attitude that chiefs took in an earlier era.

The Canadian military had provided soldiers to every UN mission until 1995. And in the one decade of the 1990s, the Canadian Armed Forces provided generals to lead seven UN missions, though none since. With NATO prioritized far ahead of the UN, many UN requests were turned down at lower levels of National Defence Headquarters. It is amazing the UN continued asking. Canada could not even place an officer into UN headquarters.

However, in December 2016, the military was ready to provide a force commander for the UN’s Mali mission and the UN held open the position for two months waiting for the final decision. But the cabinet failed to approve the contribution when Chrystia Freeland took over from Stéphane Dion as foreign minister, a position that has the lead in cabinet on peacekeeping matters.

Freeland spoke much about the need for a rules-based international order but did little to help the centre of that international order, the United Nations, and its flagship enterprise in conflict zones, peacekeeping. Freeland did take one initiative: promoting women in peacekeeping from different countries, even as Canada provided only two military women. The numbers increased impressively with the Mali mission, but they will be back to less than a half-a-dozen women in a month.

Finally, the new C-130 transport service announced last week? It is certainly innovative and it should help the UN but it is not a great commitment to divert a single plane from NATO duty in Iraq for only five days a month of UN service.

So who undermined Trudeau’s peacekeeping promise? Well, it was Trudeau himself. He failed to get important proposals passed by his cabinet. He did not pressure his ministers on the issue. So Canada’s peacekeeping reputation suffered and the world learned that reality lagged far behind rhetoric on the Trudeau government’s support for UN peacekeeping.


Walter Dorn is president of the World Federalist Movement — Canada and a professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College.