Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is leaving shortly on a fact-finding tour of five African countries as the federal government tries to narrow where to deploy soldiers in what it promises will be a return to a major peacekeeping role for Canada.
Mr. Sajjan will visit Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda on an eight-day trip starting Aug. 9. Accompanying him will be retired lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire, who once commanded a UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda, and Louise Arbour, a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights who also sat on Canada's Supreme Court.
His office cautioned against trying to guess the location of Canada's next big peacekeeping commitment based on Mr. Sajjan's August itinerary in Africa. "That does not mean that we are thinking about sending peacekeepers to those countries," said Jordan Owens, press secretary for Mr. Sajjan.
Officials from the Defence and Global Affairs departments are assessing the possibility of Canada joining UN peacekeeping operations in Mali or the Central African Republic. Both countries have been plagued by violence.
Ms. Owens said the Liberal government feels it's been a long time since Canada engaged with African leaders on a "substantive diplomatic level" and Mr. Sajjan will try to rectify that by meeting with senior government leaders, African Union officials and non-governmental groups.
Canadian soldiers' participation in peacekeeping has dwindled over time to about 100 today – a major drop when compared with 1993 when 3,300 were deployed in UN peacekeeping missions. Current deployments include about 30 in support of UN peacekeeping missions and 70 posted to a multinational peacekeeping operation in the Sinai Peninsula.
Mr. Sajjan has been directed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to "renew Canada's commitment to United Nations peace operations" – a campaign pledge made by the Liberals who had accused the Harper government of turning its back on peacekeeping.
Peacekeeping expert Walter Dorn, with Canadian Forces College, said he nevertheless expects Canada will end up boosting its participation in the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There are currently nine Canadian soldiers posted there, according to the Canadian Armed Forces website, and Prof. Dorn said the commitment has fluctuated between five and 10.
"It's likely an indication we will be doing more in the DRC," he said of Mr. Sajjan's planned stop in that country. "It may not be the focus of our main effort in Africa … [but] I could easily see us doubling or tripling that number.
Prof. Dorn said he thinks Mali remains a good choice for Canada when it comes to a major deployment. He thinks Canada could afford to deploy a battle group of 700 to 800 there.
He expects Ottawa will announce its new peacekeeping commitment in September, by the time the UN Leaders' Summit on Peacekeeping takes place in London.
Mr. Sajjan said last month that Canada is actively looking at taking part in a UN peacekeeping mission in Africa to combat the spread of violent Islamic extremism. He cited Mali as one country where Islamist militants have staged high-profile assaults to destabilize the country, including deadly attacks against UN peacekeeping troops.
Prof. Dorn said the skills needed in Mali match the counterterrorism and counterinsurgency expertise that Canadian troops have built up over the past decade in places such as Afghanistan.
"We have specialization on those types of operations, so we will be more effective peacekeepers," he added, saying Canadians shouldn't however assume soldiers would be embarking on such a mission expressly to engage in counterterrorism or counterinsurgency.
The UN Security Council agreed in late June to add 2,500 peacekeepers to the more than 13,000 serving in the stabilization mission in Mali, which has become the deadliest place to serve for UN troops. According to the UN, 101 peacekeepers have been killed since the UN deployed there in April, 2013.
More than 12,000 UN troops and police have been in the Central African Republic since 2014, after a coup that unleashed a wave of sectarian violence, pitting Muslims against Christians.
Canada and Mexico are also exploring joint participation in a UN peacekeeping operation in Colombia as part of a peace treaty to end a half-century-old guerrilla war.