From the Tower: Peacekeeping
Mar 15, 2013

Canada is not a peacekeeping country. Surprised?
Parliamentarians who continue to promote the myth that Canada is a peacekeeping country with altruistic motives distort and misunderstand history. Some have claimed that Canada has a tradition of peacekeeping – a claim that is simply a bunch of gargoyle grit.

Original UN peacekeeping missions were based on a model in which opposing belligerent state actors agreed to a truce or ceasefire and then agreed to the deployment of lightly armed UN troops between the opposing forces to build an atmosphere of confidence in which fruitful political negotiations might be conducted. UN peacekeepers were expected to be neutral, impartial and to use force only in self-defence.

There is little peace to keep in today’s conflicts. In many intrastate conflicts, non-state actors show no respect for the peacekeeping role, or for UN peacekeepers. We’re not in peacekeeping territory anymore, Toto.

It must be remembered that Canada does not act entirely altruistically. As Deputy Prime Minister John Manley said in 2001, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the United States, “Canada is not neutral.” It wasn’t then, it wasn’t neutral in the Cold War, and it’s not neutral now. We act in our best interests. It can be easily argued that Canada’s participation in UN peacekeeping missions during the Cold War was primarily based on nurturing our bi-lateral ties with the United States, our interest in preserving the cohesiveness of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the overriding need to prevent conflicts from developing into a nuclear war between the superpowers.

But beyond motives, does Canada really have a tradition of peacekeeping? Tradition, as defined in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, is an “opinion or belief or custom handed down … from ancestors to posterity.” Moreover, “custom” implies a “usual way of behaving or acting.”
So, is Canada’s peacekeeping experience a custom or habit? To find out, try this exercise. Draw a line across the long axis of a piece of paper. Put a dot at the left end and label it “1867-Confederation.” At the other end, place another dot and label it “Today.” Mark off each decade equally along the line.

Now, above the line, within the appropriate decades draw a dotted line for each UN peacekeeping mission that Canada has engaged in, and indicate the number of Canadian troops involved. For example, the first United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF I) in Egypt, including about 1000 Canadian military personnel, will be shown by dotted line extending from 1956 to 1967. UNFICYP, the United Nations Force in Cyprus, which included 500 Canadian soldiers at its height, begins in 1964 and goes all the way to 1995, after which only one Canadian military officer still remains on the UNFICYP staff. We can also include missions in the Balkans (UNPROFOR 1992-1995), with as many as 2500 Canadian military personnel at one point.

There are, of course, many other peacekeeping missions. It is not necessary to capture all detail here to make the point. A generous estimate would be that a little over 100,000 Canadian military personnel have participated in UN peacekeeping missions between 1948 and today, in 65 of Canada’s 146 years (44.5% of Canada’s lifetime), at an overall cost of 114 killed on UN duty.

So, while Canada certainly does have an admirable and expensive history of peacekeeping, is this sufficient to support a claim of ‘tradition’? Was peacekeeping ‘habitual’? Probably not.

Consider that even during the most active periods of UN peacekeeping deployments, less than 5% of the total Canadian Forces were involved. Most of the remaining 95% were engaged in activity and training related to conventional war fighting. Even military units designated for UN peacekeeping duty based their pre-deployment training mainly on recognized war fighting skills, tempered by some specific-to-mission training in the later stages. As well, units returning from peacekeeping duty invariably took up war fighting training again.

Not convinced? Let’s finish the exercise. Below the main timeline, indicate the instances in which Canada engaged in armed conflict. We might begin with a dotted line representing the Canadian military contribution to the British Nile Expedition in 1884, in which 16 Canadians lost their lives. Then, in the Second Boer War, from 1900 to 1902, Canada lost nearly 300 killed. At its height, the Canadian military contingent numbered about 3,000. The next line indicates the First World War from 1914 to 1918. Approximately 650,000 Canadians served in uniform, suffering more than 68,000 killed. Next show a short line extending from 1918 to 1919, during which time the 4200-strong Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force deployed to Vladivostok in Russia. Fourteen members of this force remain buried in Siberia.

From 1939 to 1945, another line will represent the Canada’s considerable military effort throughout the Second World War, in operational theatres around the globe. In this war, more than one million Canadians served in uniform. About 47,000 were killed in action.

Canada was engaged in combat again, in South Korea, from 1950 to 1953. Nearly 28,000 Canadian military personnel served in that war and 516 were killed.

Now list Canada’s NATO operations Somalia in 1993 and in the Balkans from 1995. Finally, from 2001, show Canadian missions in Afghanistan, where over 30,000 have served, at a cost of 158 Canadians killed in action.

Finally, we must remember that from 1948 to 1991, during the Cold War, Canada was an active member of NATO, the alliance created to defend against a Soviet invasion of Europe. NATO ultimately relied on the US nuclear strike capability, deployed millions of military personnel in garrisons in Western Europe and Turkey, thousands of aircraft on European airfields and thousands of ships on and under the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, all training continuously to prevail in a high intensity world war.

NATO’s peacekeeping record clearly surpasses that of the UN during the same period, a stretch during which there was no Third World War. In fact for the first time in modern European history, over any equivalent period, there has been no interstate war in Europe. Ironically, both World Wars combined are shorter than many UN peacekeeping missions. Seen in this light, NATO, the world’s pre-eminent war fighting organization, has been the world’s best peacekeeper – bar none!

During the Cold War, over 100,000 Canadian military personnel served NATO in Western Europe, the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. This contribution alone, although it coincides with the Cold War time frame of Canadian participation in UN peacekeeping operations, outmatches Canadian peacekeeping activity in numbers and effect. The real Canadian tradition is to fight if we have to.

While many might claim that Canada has a tradition of peacekeeping in the name of international peace and stability, the evidence here shows otherwise. While we have engaged in peacekeeping from time to time, the preponderance of Canadian military activity represents an overwhelming and enduring tradition of war fighting in the pursuit of freedom and liberal democracy. Some Parliamentarians might like to review their understanding of Canadian history and start acknowledging our country’s real tradition of fighting, when we must, for what we believe is right.
Hudson, on The Hill
© FrontLine Defence Magazine 2013