By: Michael Den Tandt, National Post
There is a planet, considerably closer than Proxima Centauri B, where the spirit of redshirted, Stephen-Harperhating partisania lives on, undimmed by last year’s change of power. It is a land that time forgot, mystical and unsullied. It is a land of … oh heck, it’s at One Yonge Street, the editorial boardroom of the Toronto Star.
In this ineffable high country of the mind, the Canada of 30, 40 and 50 years ago lives on, as though locked in amber. Lester B. Pearson, jovial and stolid, bestrides a convention stage next to the electric young patrician, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Bad guys and bank robbers wear natty suits and hats. And peacekeeping, Canada’s singular contribution to planetary justice, bestrides the world like a colossus.
Why, we had 3,300 soldiers in Cyprus, the Golan Heights, Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia “in 1993 alone,” the Star’s editorial enthused Sunday, as it celebrated Canada’s imminent return to its blue-helmeted United Nations-supporting past, with 600 soldiers bound for peacekeeping duty in various parts of Africa. Canada is back, indeed. It is way, way back.
But, could trouble be afoot? “Peacekeeping is more complicated now,” the editorial continues, with a worldweary droop to its rhetorical shoulders, “requiring a combination of military, political, humanitarian and development skills. Forces in conflict are rarely composed of well-disciplined armies; instead peacekeepers often find themselves dealing with a chaotic mix of tribal militias, terrorist groups, broken states and unprincipled governments.”
Having unburdened herself or himself of this revelatory gem, the Star’s editorial writer gets bullet-chewing tough — on the former federal government, the one not currently sending any Canadian soldiers anywhere.
“It’s wise to re-engage carefully, especially given Canada’s record of relative inaction in peace operations under former prime minister Stephen Harper. Favouring isolation over UN activism, he allowed a celebrated tradition of Canadian peacekeeping to wither.” Terrible!
However, the Star’s writer concludes with evident joy, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have set the stars back on their proper course. “The Liberal government is going a considerable way in correcting Harper’s neglect. With millions of innocent civilians at imminent risk of brutalization and death in war zones around the world, Canada has a humanitarian duty to take meaningful action in easing the threat.”
To call the foregoing nonsense understates it some. That The Star saw fit to print this is amazing, even in a time when newspaper editorial writers are called upon to dash off their offerings in minutes, like performance art.
Where to begin? A briefing book provided to Foreign Affairs minister Stéphane Dion following his appointment to cabinet, obtained by Postmedia’s David Akin via access to information, outlined the status quo ante — peacekeeping at the close of the Harper era.
There were five small Canadian “peace-support” missions underway, under UN auspices, in October 2015 — in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Haiti, Cyprus and Israel/ Lebanon. Canada ranked 68th among 124 countries in troop contributions to UN operations — and was the ninth-largest contributor, worldwide, to the UN’s annual peacekeeping budget, with an annual outlay just shy of US$240 million.
Additionally, the document shows, Canadian soldiers were contributing in small numbers to the Multinational Force and Observers mission in the Sinai, the Office of the U.S. Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the NATO Kosovo Force, as well as European Union support operations in the West Bank and Ukraine. Hardly a portrait of neglect.
More importantly, this portrayal of Canadian military history — which I have heard repeated in various iterations by Grit partisans for years, running into decades — contains bomb-cratersized holes. Most egregiously, it airbrushes the laudable peace-building aspects of the Afghan mission from 2002 to 2014, as well as the failures of peacekeeping in Somalia and Rwanda in the mid-1990s, from the frame.
It was a Liberal government, that of Jean Chrétien, that exacerbated the Somalia debacle with its shoddy handling of the aftermath, and its wrong-headed disbanding of the Airborne Regiment. The same government presided over the catastrophic failures of the Rwanda mission. It was also a Liberal government that launched the Afghan mission, both in its post-9/11 initial phase in 2002 and its more robust humanitarian and combat phase beginning in late 2005. Liberals enthusiastically backed the Afghan mission — until the day Harper took power in 2006, after which they began enthusiastically bashing it. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan knows this history well, having served with distinction in Afghanistan.
The prime minister, his defence and foreign ministers are not to blame for a bad editorial, granted. But they do share responsibility for perpetuating a transparently false construct of a glorious peacekeeping past that hasn’t corresponded to Canadian soldiers’ reality for at least the past 25 years.
Should the coming deployments be ramshackle, the rules of engagement prohibitive, the demands impossible, these ministers will take the blame. And they will deserve it, having had ample occasion to learn from their predecessors’ mistakes — or talk to a few veteran sergeants, perish the thought, and hear them tell the reality of peacekeeping, versus the otherworldly myth.