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Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly speaks during a reception honouring the visit of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission in Gatineau, Que., on Oct. 26, 2022.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

A series of secret meetings in the ski town of Mont-Tremblant and elsewhere in Quebec and Ontario has set the stage for Canada to become the chief mediator of peace negotiations in a worsening armed conflict in Cameroon that has killed more than 6,000 people.

Over the past four months, Cameroonian factions and officials met in Toronto and in the towns of Montebello and Mont-Tremblant in Quebec to see if there was enough consensus for a peace process. The secret talks were revealed on Friday evening when the process was formally announced.

“Canada has accepted the mandate to facilitate this process,” Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said in a statement.

“The agreement to enter a formal process is a critical first step toward peace and a safer, more inclusive and prosperous future for civilians affected by the conflict,” she said.

More than a million people have been forced to flee their homes since the beginning of the six-year conflict over separatism in the primarily English-speaking regions of Northwest and Southwest Cameroon, and about 600,000 children have lost some of their access to schools.

As part of the peace process, the parties will form technical committees to work on confidence-building measures, Ms. Joly said. Those measures could include a ceasefire or a release of some of the many prisoners in the conflict, analysts say.

Canada had earlier helped to finance a Swiss-led peace mediation process that began in 2019, but the Cameroonian government pulled out of the process last September.

Among the reasons for Canada’s negotiating role, in addition to its neutrality, is that the Cameroon conflict has regional and linguistic dimensions, and Canada has experience in referendums and intergovernmental negotiations.

Since the end of the colonial era, when British-controlled and French-speaking regions were merged to form Cameroon, the English-speaking regions have felt marginalized and excluded by the French-speaking majority. Secessionists have tried to form a new state, called Ambazonia. It has failed to gain any international recognition, but several of its organizations are included in the Canadian-led peace talks.

The leaders of four Ambazonia groups, in a statement this weekend, said they had signed a commitment to the Canadian-facilitated process, with a United Nations official present as an observer. They said they will engage in the process “cautiously.”

Cameroon’s government has not commented publicly since the Canadian announcement. But other political parties welcomed the new negotiations.

“It is important that the Canadian-led peace process be taken extremely seriously, because everyone is expecting that there should be a ceasefire and an end to the hostilities, the kidnappings and other horrors,” said Prince Eko Ekosso, president of the United Socialist Democratic Party.

Chris Roberts, a University of Calgary scholar who has worked on Cameroon issues, said there needs to be quick movement on substantive actions – such as a ceasefire and prisoner release – to ensure that support for the Canadian process does not crumble.

The process will be “an uphill road,” he told The Globe and Mail. “Time is of the essence to show some results that establishes both sides are serious.”

Human-rights lawyer Agbor Nkongho, who has documented atrocities by all sides in the civil war, welcomed the peace process and praised Canada’s role.

Tibor Nagy, the top U.S. diplomat on African affairs during the Donald Trump administration, said he hopes for success in the negotiations but warned that it could be a delaying tactic by the Cameroonian government. “Let’s see results,” he said on Twitter.

Pope Francis, during an address on Sunday, urged the signatories to the Canadian-mediated peace process to “persevere on the path of dialogue.”

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