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Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan responds to reporters questions at a news conference at CFB Bagotville in Saguenay, Quebec, last week. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan responds to reporters questions at a news conference at CFB Bagotville in Saguenay, Quebec, last week. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Globe editorial

The end of peacekeeping, and what comes next for Canada’s soldiers Add to ...

Justin Trudeau made a straightforward promise during the federal election campaign last year: “We will renew Canada’s commitment to peacekeeping operations.” It was a very Liberal vow – a sunny nod to the peacekeepers of yore, who stood on the borders between antagonistic neighbours and prevented hostilities from occurring, and who left in a hurry if there was no peace to keep.

Fast-forward to Friday, when Prime Minister Trudeau’s government announced it would spend $450-million over three years “to support peace operations.” The announcement mentioned “peace” 35 times. But it only used the word “peacekeeping” twice, and that was only in reference to an existing RCMP program that has that word in its name.

Other than that, it was all about “peace operations” and “peacebuilding.” Peacekeeping, in short, is over. The blue-helmeted heroes of another era, invented by Liberal prime minister Lester Pearson, no longer have a role in the world.

Related: The Liberal quest for a peacekeeping mission

In fact, they haven’t for a long time. Conflicts have become more complicated in the past 25 years. They are often internal, extremely violent and involve ethnic factions. Standing guard on an international boundary is no longer an in-demand occupation. You have to get inside a country, and you have to stay when the war turns hot if you want to have a hope of being useful.

No one knows this better than Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan. He served in Canada’s military in Afghanistan, a country where 159 Canadians in uniform were killed. The “terminology of ‘peacekeeping’ is not valid at this time,” he admitted earlier this year.

But Mr. Trudeau loves the nostalgia of the Canadian peacekeeper and wants to pursue it as an idealized brand. The answer is the new Peace and Stabilization Operations Program. Up to 600 Armed Forces personnel will be deployed, in conjunction with the United Nations, to hot spots in Africa and elsewhere. These men and women will serve as ground troops, provide police training, and offer medical and engineering expertise. Afghanistan redux? Quite possibly.

“Canada is back,” the government boasted on Friday. But peacekeeping isn’t. We are about to embark on an undertaking that may routinely put Canadian soldiers’ lives at risk in the most dangerous places in the world, and where Canada’s national interests may not even be at stake.

Are Canadians ready for that? And did they ever want it?

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