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The Canadian Flag flies over the Peacekeeping memorial in Ottawa Tuesday May 29, 2012. Tuesday marks the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Once pre-eminent among peacekeeping nations with thousands of "blue berets" deployed around the world, Canada now ranks 53 – between Paraguay and Slovakia – on the United Nations contributors' list with less than a schoolbus-load of Canadian soldiers serving on UN missions overseas.

Since then 1990s, successive Canadian governments, both Conservative and Liberal, have shunned traditional UN-mandated peacekeeping for U.S.-led war-fighting missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya. Those campaigns have eclipsed the UN as Ottawa's favoured military expeditionary effort. From being the top contributor in the early 1990s, the Canadian commitment dropped precipitously from thousands, to hundreds a decade ago to only a few dozen in recent years.

By Ottawa's count, there are only 42 Canadian military personnel currently serving in seven UN peacekeeping missions. The UN says the count is even lower. Its most recent monthly report, issued at the end of the April, registered only 33 Canadian military personnel in UN missions. Another 130 Canadian police – some from the RCMP, others from provincial and municipal forces – are also serving with the UN.

"The need is greater than ever but Canada's contribution has never been lower," said Steven Staples, president of the Rideau Institute, an Ottawa research and advocacy group. "The Harper government doesn't regard peacekeeping as a route to enhancing Canada's international stature."

That attitude, according to Mr. Staples, was exemplified by the reaction to the death of a Canadian military observer, one of four UN peacekeepers bombed by Israeli warplanes in July, 2006.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper questioned why the UN post in southern Lebanon "remained manned during what is now, more or less, a war" – a statement that, to peacekeeping advocates, betrayed a failure to recognize the deterrent value of putting blue-helmeted troops in harm's way.

Ottawa ducked again this spring when the call went out for UN military observers to help prevent the unrest in Syria from spiralling into a full-blown civil war. In previous eras, Canada rarely missed that sort of mission. In fact, prior to 1995 it had been a national boast for decades that Canada had never failed to contribute to a UN peacekeeping mission.

Some, both in and out of the military, defend the shift away from UN missions, claiming they are ill-suited to cope with the messy, mainly internal wars of the 21st century. But others regard turning away from the UN as short-sighted.

"I wasn't surprised by the decision not to send observers to Syria," said Carolyn McAskie, a Canadian and former UN assistant secretary-general for peacebuilding. "The Harper government has made it clear that it has little use for the UN."

The dramatic decline in Canada's commitment to UN peacekeeping predates the current Conservative government. After the debacle of Rwanda, the killing and torture of a defenceless Somali teenage prisoner by Canadian troops on a UN mission and the repeated peacekeeping failures in the Balkans, all in the 1990s, Canada cut back first under the Liberals.

The decline accelerated under the Tories and continues.

According to the Defence Department, Canada's military personnel are spread over seven UN peacekeeping missions: five in Haiti, six in Darfur, 14 in South Sudan, nine in the Congo, one in Cyprus, three in the Golan Heights, and eight others with the UN's Middle East truce supervision group.

Most are officers, serving on individual deployments, often filling staff jobs in UN mission headquarters. There isn't a single unit of Canadian troops serving as peacekeepers in any of the UN's current 16 missions.

Twenty years ago, more than one-third of Canada's army was wearing the UN's blue helmets (or blue berets, if the missions were less dangerous) with thousands of peacekeepers deployed in the Balkans, Somalia, the Golan Heights and Cyprus, as well as smaller missions.

Peacekeeping with the UN had become deeply ingrained in Canada's post-war identity. Former prime minister Lester Pearson, widely regarded as the father of modern UN peacekeeping, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for organizing the United Nations Emergency Force after the Suez Crisis.

Recruiting for the Canadian Forces often stressed peacekeeping, including one poster featuring a terrified child clutching a teddy bear being rescued by a Canadian soldier. Ottawa created an international training centre for peacekeepers – named after Mr. Pearson – at a former Canadian Forces base in Nova Scotia in 1994. Since then, it has trained more than 18,000 peacekeepers from more than 150 countries, even as Canadian participation in UN peacekeeping has dropped to negligible levels.

Meanwhile, even as Canada opted out, UN peacekeeping has soared, with nearly 100,000 peacekeepers deployed worldwide on missions in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Canada's handful of military and police personnel are dwarfed not only by top contributors like India, with more than 8,000 peacekeepers, but also Britain, France and Germany, which have also sent large contingents to war in Afghanistan.

Some regard Canada's shift away from UN peacekeeping as a reflection of changing geopolitical realities, not just policy.

Retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, who famously commanded the Canadian contingent of UN peacekeepers that secured Sarajevo airport, opening a lifeline to the Europe's largest besieged city since the Second World War, says Canadians are living a bygone dream.

"There is no conventional peacekeeping out there; it's a myth," he said in an interview. The era of Cold War peacekeeping, with UN forces interpositioned along ceasefire lines is over, he added, and the UN has shown it isn't good at coping with messy sectarian wars.

As a result, he said, "Not just Canada, but a whole hockey sock of regular contributors, Scandinavian countries, Senegal, Fiji – a lot of them fell by the wayside because the [UN] can't run these."

After a decade of bloody, inconclusive war in Afghanistan, Canadians tell pollsters they want their military to return to UN peacekeeping as a priority.

In a 2010 Nanos poll for The Globe and Mail, barely one in five Canadians wanted more war-fighting missions like Afghanistan. Poll respondents ranked UN peacekeeping as the top priority for Canada's military, ahead even of North American security and defending the Arctic.

Walter Dorn, a professor at the Canadian Forces Staff College, hopes for resurgence. "UN peace operations provide unparalleled legitimacy to international efforts," he said in a statement issued by the Canadian chapter of the World Federalist Movement. "That's why Canadians, as shown in many polls, continue to support peacekeeping, even when Canada is at an all-time low in contributions of personnel."

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