OTTAWA — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan plans to talk to his American counterpart before he pursues Canada's plan to send peacekeepers to Africa, saying co-ordination with the U.S. is essential.
The government announced in August that Canada would deploy up to 600 troops on future UN peacekeeping missions, though it stopped short of saying exactly where they would go.
A decision was promised by the end of the year, after military officials and Canadian diplomats had a chance to test the waters and get a better sense of where the troops could make a difference.
But the question of where Canadian blue helmets will end up is still hanging in the air as the government tries to get a handle on the Trump administration's priorities.
Sajjan spoke to new U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis by telephone on Monday, and while they did not discuss peacekeeping, Sajjan said he intends to when the two meet in person for the first time.
That's because any troop deployment must be done with the bigger picture in mind, Sajjan said.
"It's all interconnected. For example, what's happening in Iraq right now impacts what's happening in Africa and other parts of the world," he told reporters in Calgary. "So we have to discuss this because we need to be able to maximize our impact on the ground."
The minister insisted Canada would make its own decision on when and where to send peacekeepers.
Sajjan had the distinction of being the first foreign defence minister that Mattis has spoken to after being confirmed U.S. defence secretary. The retired general was reportedly effusive in his praise for Canada.
According to a readout from the U.S. Defence Department, Mattis not only thanked Canada for its contributions to North American security, he noted the country's military contributions in Iraq and Latvia.
"Secretary Mattis thanked Minister Sajjan for Canada's strong support for our alliance," the readout says, "and expressed his personal appreciation for the professionalism of the Canadian Armed Forces."
Those words will be welcomed by Canadian officials who have been wringing their hands over whether the Trump administration plans to pressure Canada to spend more on defence.
Trump has previously railed against what he called "freeriders" within NATO, and while those words were largely targeted at European allies, critics say they could easily apply to Canada.
Canada spends less than one per cent of its gross domestic product on defence, while the NATO target is two per cent. But the federal government argues that such calculations ignore Canada's in-kind contributions to global security.
While Mattis does not appear to have raised the issue of defence spending with Sajjan, the touchy subject did figure prominently in the U.S. defense secretary's later phone call with British counterpart Michael Fallon.
Mattis reportedly emphasized the U.S.'s "unshakable commitment to NATO," according to a readout from that conversation, before thanking the UK for committing two per cent of GDP to defence.
In his own statement, Fallon said he and Mattis talked about "our joint leadership in NATO, including…how we ensure that all members meet the two per cent spending commitment alongside America and Britain."
The Liberal government is currently drawing up a new defence policy, and one of the key questions is whether it will include significant new cash for the military.