By: Bruce Campion-Smith, Toronto Star
OTTAWA—Canada’s high-profile military mission to Africa appears off the radar for now with a decision on a deployment delayed, perhaps until fall, the Star has learned.
Political upheaval among key allies — notably the United States, France and Great Britain — is cited as the reason why Justin Trudeau’s government has pushed back its high-profile pledge to return Canada to international peacekeeping efforts.
The federal government does not want to deploy soldiers on a potentially dangerous mission only to find other nations have decided their priorities lie elsewhere, leaving Canada “stuck with a legacy mission,” one source told the Star.
One official at defence headquarters offered a blunt assessment of where the peace mission currently stood on the list of priorities. “It’s not on the radar,” said the source.
When asked about the delay, officials point to the political shake-ups around the globe, notably in Washington, where the unexpected election of Donald Trump as president and his unpredictable tenure in office so far has forced Ottawa to rethink priorities on issues from defence to trade.
But political change bubbles in other capitals too. Britons go to the polls in a general election in June. France just saw the election of a new president, Emmanuel Macron, who beat out right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen. That country has a significant military mission ongoing in Mali, one nation cited as the likely destination for the Canadian deployment.
At home, other issues are competing for attention. Next week, the Liberal government will unveil its defence policy review that will lay out a new vision for the armed forces and the promise of additional funding to pay for it.
That vision, expected to provide policy guidance for the coming two decades, will almost certainly include a nod to the record of Canadian peacekeeping around the globe. But it’s not expected to include any new details of forthcoming missions.
The government’s attention has also been distracted as the political front as the man tasked to sell that new vision — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan — is fighting for his credibility after being forced to apologize for inflating his role as an officer during an Afghanistan offensive.
And within defence headquarters, the fallout from the surprise January ouster of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, the second-in-command of the military is still being felt.
All that means that a decision on a peace support mission is now not expected for months yet. That timing means it could be more than a year since the Liberal government laid out its promise of personnel and funding for a mission — 600 troops, 150 police officers and $450 million over three years for a new Peace and Stability Operations Program.
An announcement on exactly where Canada would deploy those personnel on a peace mission had been expected by last Christmas. But there was no word and nothing yet in the months since.
Trudeau said in March that his government would not be pushed into making a decision, saying that any deployment had to be done “responsibly and thoughtfully.”
But months later, the government seems no closer to a decision.
“I don’t have a timeframe on that,” Sajjan told the Star in a recent interview.
“All I can tell you is we will make that decision as a government when we feel comfortable that we have all the necessary information, that we have a whole of government approach and definitely from the military side, one that is going to have an impact on the ground,” Sajjan said.
He conceded that the changes around the globe were, in part, the reason for prolonged discussions about Canada’s role in a UN mission.
“We do need to look at . . . the changing environment. We have to make sure that when we add in and say we’re going to do ‘X,’ we have to make sure that ‘X’ is actually going to provide added value to the UN,” Sajjan said.
In the January cabinet shake-up that made Chrystia Freeland foreign affairs minister, one of the tasks handed the Toronto MP was to “increase Canada’s support for United Nations peace operations.”
Alex Lawrence, her spokesperson, told the Star that the peace deployment remains under active consideration. “Our government is committed to international peace operations, and we are currently considering what precise role Canada can play,” Lawrence said.
But Canada’s hand could be forced when Sajjan hosts an international summit on peacekeeping at the end of the year.
Sajjan used last year’s summit in London to herald the willingness of the Liberal government to reengage in peace missions, declaring that, “Canada is committed to leading international efforts in peace support operations.
“Conflicts today are more complex than ever before and we’re serious about being part of the solution — that’s the reason we’re bringing our resources and skills to the table,” Sajjan said in a statement issued for the 2016 summit.
It could be awkward for the Liberal government to go into this year’s summit with nothing to show for the statements it made more than a year earlier.
Defence analyst Dave Perry says the delay in deciding a mission has already likely forced military officers and diplomats back to the drawing boards to update the proposals they first presented to the government.
“I would imagine given how long it has taken since some of those initial inputs were provided that revisiting some plans because events and things on the ground have changed significantly would be part of the delay now,” said Perry, a senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
“Some of the plans would have been submitted a half year ago. Hard to think they would still be viable today,” he said in an interview.