OTTAWA — The Conservative government has no plans to re-embrace peacekeeping despite sending 34 soldiers to serve alongside Brazilian blue helmets in Haiti, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Wednesday.
Canada’s role in peacekeeping has dropped off precipitously over the past decade, to the point where the country ranked 57th out of 114 troop-contributing nations with 132 personnel deployed on UN operations in February. That number is deceiving, however, as 100 were police officers and only 20 were soldiers.
The decade-long commitment to Afghanistan has been blamed for the move away from peacekeeping, though the pending withdrawal of all Canadian soldiers next March has left soldiers wondering where their next mission will be.
First revealed late last year and re-announced by MacKay on Wednesday, the deployment of a platoon to the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti until December more than doubles the number of Canadian troops deployed on peacekeeping missions.
That continues a long tradition of Canadians wearing blue helmets in the strife-torn island nation over the past 20 years.
But MacKay was quick to confirm that Canada wasn’t re-upping with the UN in any significant way, but that the mission was part of a larger effort to help Haiti while strengthening ties with the emerging political, economic and military powerhouse that is Brazil.
“This is not a move away or some sort of a sizable shift from the type of work that we’ve been doing and work that is in fact ongoing,” MacKay told reporters during a news conference.
“The training mission in Afghanistan will be entering its final rotation, and the close of the mission next year will be a significant landmark occasion for the Canadian Forces, but we’re continuing to play a significant role in many parts of the world, and this is very much in keeping with those traditions.”
MacKay was joined by Minister of State for the Americas Diane Ablonczy, who highlighted “the tremendous potential and the great partners that are available to Canada in Brazil.”
Both MacKay and Ablonczy also reiterated Canada’s commitment to helping Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest country, though they did not mention the fact the Conservative government has frozen all future aid funding to the island nation for more than six months.
The deployment to Haiti comes as the Canadian military has been stepping up its diplomatic outreach — and as Canada’s foreign service deals with striking diplomats, shrinking resources and questions of relevance.
This has included high-level meetings between senior Defence Department officials and foreign counterparts, spending millions more on foreign travel and hospitality, and engaging in joint exercises and other operations with non-traditional allies such as Brazil.
MacKay, who served as foreign minister from February 2006 to August 2007, was unapologetic about National Defence bearing an increasing amount of the diplomatic burden for Canada on the world stage.
“Soldiers are good diplomats,” he said. “They’re great representatives of our country. They bring with them significant experience and in many cases . . . the mission-specific training that they go through makes them wonderful representatives of our country.”
Royal Military College Prof. Walter Dorn said the UN continues to ask Canada for peacekeepers to help with the world’s most pressing problems despite having received numerous rejections in recent years.
“Canada has such a good reputation and the international community still sees Canada as a country that is a pioneer and a leader in peacekeeping,” Dorn said, “despite the fact that we are ranked in the 50s in terms of our uniformed personnel in peacekeeping.”
He said “economics is driving the relationship” when it comes to deploying Canadian soldiers with a Brazilian unit in Haiti. He called that unfortunate given the importance of peacekeeping, which remains an integral part of ensuring global security.
And while Canadian troops can be good diplomats for the country, Dorn said they are not a substitute for a strong foreign service representing Canada’s multitude of interests around the world.
Liberal defence critic John McKay worried the Conservative government’s single-minded focus on trade will turn Canada’s soldiers into little more than another economic tool, as he contends has happened with Canadian aid.
The defence minister was also asked to comment on Afghan security forces taking responsibility for their country’s protection this week after following the lead of foreign forces for more than a decade.
“Not to suggest for a moment there isn’t huge challenges that remain, that there isn’t a fear of ongoing attacks,” he said. “But Canada’s efforts have certainly not been in vain.”