Talking About Peace in Canada

On Friday the Liberal Government came out in foreign policy force with a press conference on Canada’s new role in United Nations Peacekeeping. The press conference came at the end of a summer of building announcements on Canada being ‘back’ in international peacekeeping, including a recent five country African study tour by Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan. The message managed to both miss and hit the mark on getting a position across.

Friday’s panel, attended by four ministers including Sajjan, introduced the audience to the Peace Support Operations Program, $450 million over three years, up to 600 troops ready to be deployed, and 150 police officers with an additional roughly $50 million through the International Police Peacekeeping and Peace Operations Program.

Of course what was missing was where Canada will deploy troops? I watched the press conference and could feel the frustration of reporters in the room. They were expecting to write a story on where Canadian troops would once again don blue helmets, what the risks would be, and what role Canada would play. Instead they got a slightly wonkish briefing on the potential that Canada could commit to in a new program that observers were quick to point out is pretty much the old Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force (START) run under the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Even Global Affairs Canada’s (GAC) backgrounder acknowledges that PSOPs is picking up where START left off.

At the end of the press conference there were more questions than answers.

So why make this announcement? On a Friday morning… when most Canadians are making a final visit to the cottage? Why make the announcement when there are still national defence and development reviews taking place and no comprehensive strategy, rushing Canada’s thinking on peacekeeping?

There were two audiences for the press conference really. The first was the Canadian public, who were given an update after all the build-up and mounting speculation of where peacekeeping is going. This didn’t go particularly well. The second audience was the international community, namely the UN. This went better. The reaction from the UN was quick and happy that Canada was making such contributions. The offer of troops, equipment, and money will give Canada a voice at the upcoming peacekeeping summit in London in September.

The Liberal Government will likely hope the press conference passes out of the news cycle for the remainder of the summer days until the London summit, when it can make a potentially more robust announcement. But during this time, much critical thinking is needed. This is not only on where Canadian troops will go and what they will do specifically when they get there, but also on communicating modern peacekeeping, or peace support operations (PSOs) as Sajjan and the rest of the government are now saying, to Canadians.

It’s well acknowledged that peacekeeping is part of Canadian mythology, earning Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson an Nobel Peace Prize, making its way onto Canadian money, and a monument in downtown Ottawa. But where do Canadians stand on peacekeeping now? All news articles and editorials are quick to remind readers that peacekeeping isn’t what it was (e.g. A Cyprus style mission of a neutral third party observing a ceasefire between two formerly conflicting parties). But it’s not clear what percentage of Canadians don’t know this? After complex conflicts of the 1990s, the tragic national figure of Roméo Dallaire, and a decade of combat in Afghanistan, how many Canadians still think peacekeeping isn’t complex and dangerous?

To Sajjan’s credit, he’s addressed the reality of modern peacekeeping head on, if at times being vague about the potential danger to Canadian troops. This is why he pivoted from saying peacekeeping to PSOs. But the national narrative isn’t completely picking up this.

The idea of PSOs is complex and expansive. Working in security sector reform for a decade, I appreciated what I was hearing during the press conference and earlier interviews, such as the insistence of supporting local peace initiatives, understanding the complexity of local contexts, and aiming for conflict prevention (I don’t think enough people appreciated that it was the Minister of National Defence pushing these ideas). But I also know the difficulty of trying to explain this area of work to anyone outside of it, particularly when it comes to explaining how long of a process it is and how success is achieved.

Going forward, the Liberal government needs to work on communicating PSOs with the Canadian public in a number of respects to improve on its efforts so far:

1. The government needs to figure out how to talk about PSOs in a manageable manner without losing the complexity. In particular, they will have to be mindful on discussing the lengthy process of PSOs, what success might look like, and the fact that processes can stall and even go backwards at times. The government also needs to be clear in what ways Canadian troops, police officers, and experts are involved, including blue helmet roles. But in the end PSOs can work to reduce and prevent conflict, save lives, create regional stability, and are ultimately less expensive than reacting to conflict when it does break out. A clear message on PSOs that consistently acknowledges complexity and danger would at least get the Canadian press out of the cycle of talking about what’s become of peacekeeping.

2. UN peacekeeping operations do not have a good reputation at the moment. Canadians are anxious about soldiers not being able to fight back to defend themselves or protect civilians due to restrictions on their mandate. Canadians also don’t want the military and police to become marred in scandals that are plaguing the UN. The Liberal Government needs to demonstrate concrete assurances on how they will mitigate risks beyond saying that by being involved, Canada can change how the UN works. The UN is a massive bureaucracy governed by political interest. Having more resources and skin in the game gets you more of a say, but it doesn’t guarantee your say gets heard or acted on.

3. The Liberal Government has been moving around on the connection between contributing to peacekeeping operations and a bid for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2020. It needs to get one message and stick to it. Dion started to come close to that message at the press conference with the ‘skin in the game’ argument, but it still creates the idea that Canada is putting troops in harm’s way to have a seat at the table in the UN that may or may not be effective. I do think Sajjan at least sees the value in the PSO approach he has been outlining. But it is going to take a better message to convince Canadians that this packaged approach to the UN is worth it.