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opinion

Foreign Minister of Haiti Jean Victor Geneus and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau take part in a discussion regarding the situation in Haiti on the sidelines of the Francophonie Summit in Djerba, Tunisia on Nov. 20.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The United States keeps asking Canada to lead a military mission to Haiti, and Ottawa keeps saying maybe. What the Canadian government doesn’t want to say out loud is that it can’t do it.

The U.S. has its own less-than-popular record of intervention in Haiti, not to mention political aversion, so it wants someone else to lead an international mission there. Haiti has descended into violent humanitarian tragedy, with criminal gangs holding sway over much of the country, terrorizing Haitians with violence and sexual violence, and there is a widespread cholera outbreak.

So, the U.S. has come knocking on Canada’s door.

Last Friday, U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris raised the issue with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau while both were at the APEC Summit in Bangkok. Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken came to Ottawa to press for Canada to lead a Haiti mission.

Mr. Trudeau’s government is doing a lot of hemming and hawing, trying to find non-military ways to do something. It imposed sanctions on gang leaders. Mr. Trudeau announced $16.5-million in aid on Sunday, while at the Francophonie summit in Djerba, Tunisia. He also told reporters that “Canada is very open to playing an important role,” but that it wants to see a widespread consensus in Haiti first, with support for a mission that extends beyond the Haitian government.

Certainly, there are lots of good reasons to be wary of going into Haiti, including the dangerous patchwork of bad actors, the lack of effective institutions, and deep mistrust of yet another foreign intervention.

Robert Rotberg: The only way to save Haiti is to put it under UN control

But there is another key reason Mr. Trudeau has to deflect when the U.S. asks Canada to take on a mission: The Canadian Armed Forces aren’t really in a position to do it.

Yes, Canada’s military could provide an officer to command a mission, and military assets such as transport planes or signals intelligence. But right now it could not provide the troops to make up the backbone of a force.

Canada doesn’t really have the choice. It doesn’t have the hard-power options to match even its restrained rhetoric about the country’s role in the world.

When Mr. Trudeau was first elected, he talked about a return to peacekeeping; He abandoned that, but it would not really be possible now, anyway. In 2017, then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland made a speech about Canada stepping up in military matters to make up for U.S. isolationism; five years later, Canada’s capacity is weaker.

The chief of the defence staff, General Wayne Eyre, has repeatedly warned this year the military is stretched thin. In October, he announced the military would pause all non-essential activities because of a personnel crisis.

The Canadian military has seen years of dwindling numbers and, more recently, high attrition and low recruitment. The official total of “trained effective” regular forces of the Canadian Armed Forces was 53,364 troops at Aug. 31. About half are in the navy or air force. The Canadian Army is probably fewer than 25,000.

There are already other missions around the world, notably Op Reassurance, where about 1,000 Canadian troops are deployed to Eastern Europe, primarily in Latvia. There are domestic requirements. And sending any number of troops on a mission abroad might require four or five times as many to support them and train to relieve them.

Retired lieutenant-general Guy Thibault said in a recent interview that if pushed, the Canadian military could provide leadership for an international force, including command-and-control and logistics functions. But right now, he doesn’t think Canada could feasibly send 500 or 1,000 troops to provide security on the ground in Haiti.

Other countries would have to provide the bulk of the troops. Canadian officials are speaking to Caribbean nations, but what larger country would provide the backbone force?

The U.S. is reluctant because of its past in Haiti, but also because war-weary Americans are tired of foreign missions. So is U.S. President Joe Biden. France is not itching to be seen as a returning colonial power. Brazil, which led a much-criticized UN stabilization mission that lasted from 2004 to 2017, is in a presidential transition. And Canada doesn’t have the capacity.

Perhaps some Canadians will think that’s a good thing. Sending a force to Haiti would be full of potential pitfalls. But the problem is that Canada has given up the power to make those big decisions.