Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is being instructed by Justin Trudeau to ensure any future deployment of troops is in Canada's "national interest" – just as questions swirl over whether Ottawa will still send a big contingent of peacekeepers to Africa in the Donald Trump era.
The Prime Minister released new mandate letters Wednesday with fresh marching orders for ministers who received new jobs in his January cabinet shuffle. Ms. Freeland's letter contains instructions for synchronizing foreign policy and military missions at at time when Canada's biggest ally is led by President Trump, a populist who wants to rewrite trade relations in the United States' favour and complains that allies are not contributing enough to collective defence.
In her letter, Ms. Freeland is told she must work with Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan to ensure that any deployment of the Canadian Armed Forces aligns with "Canada's national interest." That benchmark comes first in a list of criteria for overseas missions that also includes "multilateral commitments and the government's policy objectives."
This instruction about future military deployments was not in the mandate letter given to Ms. Freeland's predecessor Stephane Dion when he was handed the foreign affairs post in late 2015.
Defence analyst David Perry says the new assignment to focus on Canada's "national interest" when dispatching troops appears to reduce the emphasis on peacekeeping as a key goal for Canadian military operations and suggests any deployment will be more carefully aligned with this country's most important ally: the United States.
Sources in Ottawa say that the Canadian government has paused a decision, originally expected in December, on where it will deploy peacekeeping troops until it gets a better sense of what the Trump White House expects of allies. Mr. Trump has yet to roll out his plans for security and defence but the U.S. President has repeatedly accused Western countries of falling short on defence spending and has said he wants the NATO military alliance to focus more on counter-terrorism.
The Canadian government, which has already committed to a 450-troop-strong deployment to Latvia to help deter Russian expansion, wants to ensure it has military assets in reserve until it determines whether Mr. Trump's military and foreign policies could place more demands on Canada, said Mr. Perry, a senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
"The reason we haven't put the peacekeeping mission out the door is they are trying to wait and see how we best fit in and establish a positive relationship with Washington," he said. "It doesn't mean we're not going to do things we want to do, like peace support operations, if we can, and if it makes sense, but if you only have so many arrows in your quiver you don't want to shoot one now and not maybe have it for use later."
It was during this past August that Ms. Freeland's predecessor, Mr. Dion, originally announced Ottawa would commit 600 troops and 150 police officers to peacekeeping missions in what the Liberals billed as a return to Canada's role as a big backer of peace-support operations. Countries such as Mali, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo are among the locations where Canada has been considering a significant deployment. Colombia was another option on the table.
Five months later, Mr. Sajjan says he's still trying to determine which peacekeeping deployment would be most effective. "We want to make sure that we get this decision right because any time, I've always stated, when we send troops, we want to make sure that they can have a meaningful impact on the ground," the defence minister told reporters in Ottawa earlier this week.
Separately, in Ukraine, where Canada has 200 soldiers deployed on a training mission, Kiev is coping with with a significant uptick in violence that has generated the most casualties in its war with Moscow-backed militants.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on Russia Wednesday to use its "considerable influence" with rebels in eastern Ukraine to end what he described as "the most serious spike in violations" of a shaky truce there in a long time.
Mr. Sajjan on Wednesday was asked whether Canada will extend this Ukraine mission beyond its March, 2017, expiry date and he said Ottawa was still studying how it could best support Kiev. "I want to make sure that Canadians also know that we are committed to the Ukraine because … the action that Russia has taken is completely unacceptable."
With files from Reuters