OTTAWA — Canada's contribution to peacekeeping has reached what is believed to be an all-time low, as the Liberal government makes its final push to secure a coveted seat on the United Nations Security Council.
UN figures show there were 35 Canadian military and police officers deployed on peacekeeping operations at the end of April. That's the fewest since at least 1956, according to Walter Dorn, a peacekeeping expert at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto.
The figures are all the more striking given the Liberal government's past promises to contribute up to 600 military members and 150 police officers as part of a broader effort to increase Canada's support to UN peacekeeping.
Canada instead had only 25 Armed Forces members in the field at the end of April, as well as 10 police officers. The military personnel were scattered among UN missions in Mali, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cyprus and the Middle East. The police officers are all in Mali.
The decline coincides with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in fewer overseas deployments for the Canadian Armed Forces and the suspension of many activities, including the occasional provision of a transport plane to UN operations in Africa, for the time being.
It also comes as the Liberal government heads into the home stretch of its campaign for a temporary seat on the council, where Canada is competing against Norway and Ireland for two non-permanent spots.
Canada's ambassador to the UN, Marc-Andre Blanchard, suggested low numbers of actual troops don't tell the full story of what the country contributes to UN peacekeeping.
"First of all, it's one of the biggest contributors financially to the peacekeeping operation," Blanchard said in an interview.
"We were the first ones to talk to the UN in terms of what we've called smart pledges to the peacekeeping operation. What the UN peacekeeping operation needs from Canada is not so much a large contingent of troops, it's actually specialized equipment, specialized forces, it's training, it's technical support in different ways."
Canada is also taking a lead role in the UN Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations, called C34, to break down "silos" at the UN and encourage innovative uses of such military resources, said Blanchard.
"We just concluded a very positive session for 2020 on this where we got concrete results for peacekeeping operations. So, the leadership of Canada in peacekeeping operations is very, very real and substantial and innovative."
Canada also has the support of more than 100 countries on its initiative, named after retired general Romeo Dallaire, to stamp out the use of child soldiers, which it unveiled at a peacekeeping conference it hosted in Vancouver in 2017, said Blanchard.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been lobbying international ambassadors in the lead-up to a vote at the General Assembly next month, saying the Security Council will play an especially important role in charting a course for the post-pandemic world.
On Thursday, Trudeau addressed UN ambassadors from the Asia-Pacific region, when he "underscored Canada's commitment to support peacekeeping efforts and increase the meaningful participation of women in peace processes as an important step in achieving gender equality," his office said.
That followed a similar conversation two days earlier with ambassadors from eastern Europe, where Trudeau noted Canada's contributions to NATO missions in Latvia and Ukraine as part of the transatlantic alliance's efforts to counter Russian aggression in the region.
"Canada's voice is one that brings people together on the world stage and we will continue to play a significant role," Trudeau said Friday. "We are big enough to make a difference on the council but small enough to know that we can't do it alone."
Norway and Ireland, Canada's two council competitors, had more peacekeepers deployed on UN missions at the end of April. Ireland had 474 peacekeepers in the field while Norway had far fewer, but still nearly twice as many as Canada with 65.
Dorn said Canada's low numbers of peacekeepers is "the Achilles heel of the bid" for a council seat.
Dorn said COVID-19 does provide a legitimate reason to pause some military movement and activities, with the UN similarly suspending operations because of the pandemic, but that is not the whole story.
"This Canadian low point is a reflection of Canada's poor position before the crisis began," he said.
Canada had 46 peacekeepers in the field at the end of February, before the pandemic hit the country hard in March.
That was compared to 167 deployed overseas at the end of February 2019, the high point under the current Liberal government, when Canada had a military helicopter detachment in Mali.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 22, 2020.
Lee Berthiaume and Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press