Canadian Peacekeeping: A Proud Tradition

At a time when Canadian operations in Afghanistan are drawing media headlines and national attention, the long-standing Canadian experience in peacekeeping is apt to be ignored. This is unfortunate because the Canadian Forces have a proud tradition of UN peacekeeping that still provides an excellent model for future contributions to peace. This is the first of two articles on the past, present, and future of Canadian peacekeeping.

By Walter Dorn | 2006-07-01 12:00:00

Peacekeeping has a place of pride in the Canadian national identity. Canadians feel that their country is a traditional and natural leader in this international endeavor. Is this view justified? An answer to this question requires a probe of Canadian attitudes to see if they match Canada's historical and present contributions.

For many Canadians, peacekeeping conjures up images of heroic actions in tragic circumstances: a soldier rescuing a child during a firefight or extracting a hapless person from a minefield; a medic mending the wounds of an aging refugee; a pilot flying in desperately-needed supplies while under fire from the ground; or soldiers patroling in no-man's land to keep combatants apart. Peacekeeping is about protecting people in mortal danger, providing hope in almost hopeless situations and bringing peace and stability to faraway war-torn lands. It is about self-sacrifice and world-service.

These notions of courage and service resonate with the Canadian public. The support for peacekeeping has been so strong for so long that peacekeeping has become a celebrated part of what Canada is as a nation and even who Canadians are as a people. Though some commentators, such Liberal-leadership hopeful Michael Ignatieff, bemoan the "peacekeeping paradigm," it remains an important part of the Canadian national identity.

The evidence of this national embrace of peacekeeping is extensive.

Almost 90 per cent of Canadians believe that Canada should provide troops for peacekeeping upon UN request. The public appreciates the life-affirming role played by its soldiers on their behalf. Peacekeeping symbols appear on the national currency; a female soldier, sporting a UN blue beret and looking vigilantly through binoculars, appears on the Canadian ten dollar bill (2001 issue) under the bilingual banner "AU SERVICE DE LA PAIX/ IN THE SERVICE OF PEACE." The Canadian dollar coin (1995 issue) has an image of the National Peacekeeping Monument in the nation's capital. Memorials and monuments to peacekeepers can be found in several cities. Calgary opened a Peacekeepers' Park in 2004 and Manitoba dedicated a "Peacekeepers Cairn" near its Legislature. Even lakes have been named after peacekeepers.

The enthusiasm for peacekeeping is shared by many of the soldiers and civilians who have served in the operations. They formed the Canadian Association of Veterans in United Nations Peacekeeping with two dozen branches across Canada. Over 125,000 Canadian military personnel have served in UN peacekeeping operations (PKOs), more than 10 per cent of the UN total.

When the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to UN peacekeepers, some 80,000 Canadian military personnel shared in the honor, but not the prize money; that went to create the Dag Hammarskjold Medal for the families of peacekeepers who died on duty. Over 115 Canadian soldiers have made the supreme sacrifice in peacekeeping.

Many Canadian soldiers who survived (or thrived on) tough peacekeeping assignments have gone on to write their stories of adventure, achievement and tragedy. Canada's most famous soldier at present, Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, received the sympathy of the entire nation as he described the horrifying predicament he faced as Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda: he did not have the resources or political backing to intervene to stop the Rwandan genocide. He blamed himself, in part, for the slaughter of some 800,000 people in the summer of 1994. Among the Canadian population, he is a hero, with large crowds drawn to his public lectures.

The level of public and political support for peacekeeping has not always been so high. In the early days, peacekeeping was as contentious as it was unknown--even the term peacekeeping did not enter the public lexicon until the late 1950s. In fact, the first Canadian contribution to a UN mission caused a cabinet crisis in 1947.

The origins of Canadian Peacekeeping

Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King learned in 1947 that Canadian personnel had been sent to Korea as part of the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea to help supervise an election there. He admonished his external affairs minister, Louis St. Laurent, telling him that there was going to be a war in Korea and he wanted Canada to have nothing to do with it.

King had been prime minister during most of the interwar period and World War II, yet he still harbored a deep streak of isolationism. He wanted to keep Canada away from the fires of conflict in a turbulent world dominated by great powers. St. Laurent, an ardent internationalist, and several of his cabinet colleagues threatened to resign if Canada withdrew from the UN's Korea Commission, so there was little the aging King could do. The next year St. Laurent, who had declared "the UN's vocation is Canada's vocation," became prime minister. For him, the lessons of the League and World War II were clear: the rule of law and order, and justice in the world depended on a strong UN strongly supported by its members.

Canada sent a large contingent of troops to Korea in 1950 to fight in a UN "police action" to protect the elected South Korean government. While this was "enforcement," not peacekeeping, it does demonstrate the country's support for the UN.

In Kashmir, Canada had its first opportunity to lead a PKO. Unfortunately Brigadier Harry Angle, who was made chief of the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan in March 1950, died in a plane crash several months later. Angle remains Canada's highest ranking officer to die in a PKO.

Canada Proposes Peacekeeping Forces

Canada's greatest achievement in peacekeeping was made during St. Laurent's tenure, assisted by an equally dedicated external affairs minister, Lester B. Pearson. Known at the UN as one of the "wise men," Pearson was an idealist who was also practical. He served as president of the UN General Assembly in 1952 and when the Suez Crisis broke out in 1956, had his shining moment.

Canada's two "mother countries," Britain and France, had conspired with Israel to seize control of the Suez Canal after Egypt's President Gamel Abdel Nasser had nationalized it. The rest of the world, including the United States, deplored this invasion as "colonial aggression" in the age of decolonization. Pearson understood the dangerous predicament of the embarrassed great powers and came up with a novel concept. He suggested that "the UN send an international force to the area, position itself between the warring parties and bring an end to the hostilities." The operation was to be "a truly international peace and police force ... large enough to keep these borders at peace while a political settlement is being worked out."

The General Assembly enthusiastically adopted this idea and Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, after some initial hesitation, developed a brilliant plan for what was to become the UN's first peacekeeping force. The United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was the beginning of a new generation of PKO. Interpositional forces like the UNEF were different from previous peacekeeping missions, because their purpose was to separate fighting forces, not just observe them. The forces were allowed to impede movement (using checkpoints and gates) and often to take charge in buffer zones. Also, in these operations, contributing nations would send preformed units (usually battalions) instead of individual soldiers and the forces were equipped with small arms and light weapons, unlike the unarmed military observers. The basic principles of peacekeeping, laid out in Hammarskjöld's plan to the General Assembly for UNEF, have guided "traditional" peacekeeping operations ever since.

The new UNEF missions were:

Canada was in a good position to help establish the peacekeeping force that Pearson had proposed in 1956. A senior Canadian officer was already in the Middle East, commanding the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) that had been created in 1948 to observe the ceasefire and armistice after the first Arab-Israeli War. Canadian Major-General ("Tommy") E.L.M. Burns had already gained familiarity with the political leaders in the region. UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld appointed him UNEF commander, with responsibility to organize the operation. With St.Laurent's eager backing, Canada rapidly deployed soldiers for administration, signals, transport, and reconnaissance, as these were desperately needed for the mission start-up.

Canada rejoiced when Foreign Minister Pearson won the Nobel Peace prize in 1957, largely because of his UNEF initiative. He became known in Canada as the "Father of Peacekeeping," though he was, more accurately, one of the "founders of peacekeeping forces," with Dag Hammarskjöld and UN Under-Secretary-General Ralph Bunche.

For Canada, the discovery of a new role for itself and the UN at the height of the period called the "golden age" of Canadian diplomacy, saw the emergence of a popular enthusiasm for peacekeeping that has been a prevalent part of Canadian foreign and defence policy ever since. Keeping the peace in the Middle East continued to occupy much of Canada's and the world's attention for decades to follow. The wars there provided fertile ground for the establishment of new PKOs, though these have not brought about a lasting peace in the region. There was dismay and alarm in Canada when President Nasser ordered UNEF out of Egypt in 1967, evidenced by front page headlines, such as the Toronto Telegram's "Nasser Boots Out Our Troops." The opposition leader John Diefenbaker called it a "loss of face" for Canada.

Peacekeeping in the Arab Territory

The subsequent Six-Day War in 1967 was short but resulted in Israeli occupation of large swaths of Arab territory. There was a need for peacekeeping in these areas but Israel initially refused. Only after the next Arab-Israeli War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, were new missions established. To help implement the cease-fire and disengagement, Canada contributed to the new UNEF II in Egypt and the United Nations Disengagement Force in the Golan Heights of Syria. Canada found a niche for itself in the provision of a communications capability for UN operations, an area where technical skill and modern equipment were needed.

Bilingual signals officers and radio equipment were among the contributions Canada made to the large and dangerous UN Operation in the Congo (1960-64), along with air transport and help in training local Congolese forces. The Congo mission was the only UN mission in Africa until after the Cold War. The experience in the Congo, unfortunately, reinforced the idea in many people's minds that Africa was too fraught with danger and civil strife to admit to effective peacekeeping. Besides it was only later that the UN put aside its rule of non-involvement in internal conflicts, especially in Africa.

Crisis in Cyprus

While the large Congo operation was winding down, a new one was set up to deal with the civil war in Cyprus. In 1964, Pearson's external affairs minister, Paul Martin Sr. (father of the former prime minister), would get credit for helping several key governments to commit to the envisioned United Nations Force in Cyprus.

No one could at the time have expected this mission to involve Canada for the next three decades.The UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus would become the "live training ground" for several generations of Canadian soldiers. Most of the time, however, the soldiers' tours were easy except during a few crisis periods, such as when the Turkish Forces invaded in 1974. As little progress in negotiations between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots has been achieved, people often complain that "peacekeeping doesn't solve problems, it perpetuates them." Given that Cyprus is still divided in two parts, this complaint carries some weight.

As a counter example, however, the problem of Namibia had been on the international agenda since the early days of the League of Nations (1920s) and it was finally resolved in 1989, showing that patience can pay off. The UN organized the 1989 election that led to independence from South Africa, with UN Secretary-General Pérez de Cuéllar inaugurating the first Namibian President in 1990. In that operation, Canada contributed not only soldiers but also civilian electoral staff and civilian police from the RCMP. Since then, police have played a much greater role in peacekeeping.

The Namibia operation heralded a new generation of PKOs: "multidimensional operations." The international climate had changed, with internal conflict replacing interstate conflicts as the main concern, so the UN felt obliged to break its non-involvement taboo and to get involved in internal armed conflicts. And Canada, of course, was eager to lend a helping hand. This meant dealing with rebel groups and posting peacekeepers over a much wider area than in traditional "Pearsonian" peacekeeping. It also meant working in more volatile and hazardous environments.

The end of the Cold War (confirmed by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989) was seen, at the time, as a marvelous opportunity for peace at home and abroad. In the face of a much-reduced threat to the West, expectations and demands arose for a "peace dividend" in the form of smaller defence expenditures. In Canada this opportunity was taken seriously and the funds for defence began to drop each year for the next decade until they had fallen 20 per cent and the armed forces had shrunk from 85,000 to fewer than 60,000 military personnel.

While there was no longer a need to commit forces to Europe to counter a Soviet attack, the demand for peacekeepers abroad surged. So Canada began to experience a "capability-commitment gap." The UN achieved great success in the early post-Cold War peacekeeping, with Canadian help.

The United Nations launched its first operation in Central America and was a major help in bringing the long-desired peace to the region. The United Nations Observer Group in Central America was created in 1989 with military observers posted in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. The Chief Military Observer was Brigadier-General Lewis Mackenzie, who went on to establish himself as a national figure with his further successes at the early stages of the Bosnia mission. (He described his experiences in his book Peacekeeper: The Road to Sarajevo.) In Nicaragua for the first time in UN history, the world organization monitored elections in a sovereign member state; previously it had done so only in colonized or dependent territories. Also in Cambodia (1993), as in Namibia (1989-90), successful elections were organized as part of a PKO.

The mood at the UN was one of expansion, leading to ever more ambitious plans for peacekeeping. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in response to a request from the unprecedented Security Council Summit in January 1992, prepared his ambitious Agenda for Peace. In this document he redefined peacekeeping in a particularly bold but contentious fashion. The long-standing principle of consent was explicitly removed: peacekeeping was the deployment of a United Nations presence in the field, normally involving United Nations military and/or police personnel and frequently civilians.

This disrespect for the principle of consent would have tragic consequences in Somalia for the UN, and for Canada a year later. A large UN-authorized mission was launched with much bravado, strong US support, including combat troops, and a desire to use force against recalcitrant elements. This attitude contributed to an escalation of violence between one targeted faction, led by Mohammed Farah Aideed, and allied troops. After suffering 18 fatalities in the "Black Hawk Down" incident on 3-4 October 1993, the United States quickly withdrew its troops and the mission folded ignominiously thereafter.

Canada's contribution to the UN-authorized but US-led mission in Somalia was primarily airborne troops who had been trained for the high-intensity missions envisioned in a war with the Communist world. Some of these soldiers were ill-equipped for peacekeeping. A small group, tolerated in this macho force, committed atrocities during the peacekeeping mission. They tortured and killed a Somali citizen after he had been caught trying to steal from the Canadian camp. This news caused shock in Canada. A multi-year inquiry concluded that "a proud legacy was dishonored" and blamed the Department of National Defence and named officers for neglect of duty or worse.

After the shame of Somalia

After accepting the report in 1997, the government took drastic action to atone for the national embarrassment: It disbanded the entire Airborne Regiment. In the future, soldiers jumping from planes would not have their own regiment. The inquiry also criticized the Canadian military leadership, leading to a large number of senior resignations, including the nation's military leader, Chief of Defence Staff Jean Boyle. The Inquiry also made recommendations on how to improve Canadian peacekeeping.

While the Somalia operation was phasing out under a cloud of failure in late 1993, a new mission was launched in the heart of Africa. The UN asked Canada to provide a force commander for this Rwanda mission. An intelligent and eager Brigadier General, named Roméo Dallaire, was chosen, though he had no previous experience in UN peacekeeping. Inadequately prepared by the Canadian Forces and by the UN in New York for this deployment, he diligently set up a mission in this remote war-torn country. Nothing could have prepared him for the slaughter that he was to witness, not even the dire warnings made to him by a Rwandese informant.

Within a hundred days, some 800,000 Rwandese were slaughtered in the most intense genocide since WW II. Dallaire tried desperately to stop the insanity, and was responsible for saving the lives of over 20,000 people who had sought refuge at sites that the UN oversaw. Canada was the only country to send additional troops during the 100-day genocide, though the numbers were low (thirty or so) and entirely inadequate.

The Suffering of Failured

Dallaire experienced such a crisis of conscience and impotence that he later tried to commit suicide. But he was rehabilitated after witnessing the overwhelming support of the Canadian public and after being given an opportunity to help others like him suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As well, the Canadian government asked for his help publicizing and resolving the problems of war-affected children. His catharsis was also assisted by the writing of his intimate and deeply captivating biography (Dallaire, 2004). In 2006 he was appointed to the Canadian Senate.

The response of Western nations to the disasters in Bosnia and Rwanda was to shift responsibilities for operations in major areas (the Balkans) to NATO. NATO undertook the peacekeeping role in Bosnia and Kosovo. The UN also sought to make its operations more robust. It employed combat helicopters in its operations for their deterrent value and as a rapid response capability. Unfortunately, Canada did not contribute significantly to the UN expansion. Today it ranks 50th in the list of troop contributors, far from its earlier top-ten position. The next part in this series will explore the present status of Canadian contributions.

Walter Dorn is Associate Professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and Co-Chair of the Department of Security Studies at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto.


Dallaire, Romeo. Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, Random House, Toronto, 2004.
Mackenzie, Lewis. Peacekeeper: The Road to Sarajevo, Douglas & Mcintyre Ltd, Vancouver, 1993.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2006

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2006, page 15. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Walter Dorn here

Peace Magazine homepage