11/10/2017 12:50 EST | Updated 11/10/2017 12:51 EST

Canada's Mission Has Gone From Peacekeeping To Peace Enforcement

Canada's military is already present around the world — just not always as peacekeepers.

When four American Green Berets were killed in a deadly ambush in Niger last month, the first reaction from many was surprise: When did the War on Terror sprawl to West Africa?

A major part of the incident's news cycle consisted of pundits struggling to answer this very fundamental question. Here at home, "probably even fewer people know that Canada is [also] in Niger," says Laurier University professor Timothy Donais.

CRIS BOURONCLE via Getty Images
Canadian troops at the end of a demonstration rescue operation north of Lima, Peru on July 19, 2010. The Multinational Exercise South was based on chapter 7 of the United Nations Imposition of Peace Accord letter.

Donais is referring to Task Force NABERIUS, an elite team of 24 Canadian Armed Forces members on the ground in Niger since 2013. They're training the Nigerien military in everything from counter-terrorism to the protection of vulnerable populations. The low-key mission is billed as capacity-building — but as the recent events in Niger demonstrate, all military operations in unstable regions carry risks.

Operation NABERIUS is a small contingent of soldiers, to be sure. Taken with other ongoing military engagements around the world, however, it paints a very different picture of our army than the one imprinted on Canada's national consciousness.

We see ourselves as peacekeepers, but the very nature of peacekeeping has changed.

With all the talk of how "the world needs more Canada" — and in light of the UN conference on peacekeeping bringing delegates from dozens of nations to Vancouver next week — the national debate has focused exclusively on how Canada can support United Nations efforts. But this dialogue risks overlooking the vast majority of the Canadian army's current missions.

We see ourselves as peacekeepers, but the very nature of peacekeeping has changed.

"That's a general misperception among Canadians," says Queen's University professor Joel Sokolosky.

"The major focus of the Canadian Armed Forces is overseas in support of our allies, not in support of the United Nations."

Beyond UN missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Haiti and the Golan Heights — and the high-profile engagements in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine — there are Canadian forces in Latvia and Kosovo. Canadian navy ships patrol the eastern Pacific Ocean to fight drug trafficking. Air force cargo planes transport personnel and equipment in Mali. Military engineers and doctors operate in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Officers train Palestinian Authority Security Forces in Jerusalem. Soldiers deliver aid in the wake of hurricanes in the Caribbean.

Canada's military is already present around the world — just not always as peacekeepers.

Reuters Photographer / Reuters
A Canadian soldier, right, works with a Rwandan African Union peacekeeper during an unrelated Canadian-led training course for African troops near Thies, Senegal on Sept. 9, 2005. File photo.

Many current missions are "more green helmet than blue," says Sokolosy — meaning they involve more military might than peacekeeping vigilance, and don't fit the Canadian national identity in the same way that standing on guard for peace once did.

"The era of classic peacekeeping is long gone," he says. Instead, we're in an era of peace enforcement — a riskier mandate to neutralize more than act as impartial mediator. Even as the government mulls over an additional 600 peacekeeping troops, they've taken pains to acknowledge the complexity of realities on the ground.

Traditional peacekeeping may be disappearing — but it's not forgotten.

Within sight of Parliament Hill in downtown Ottawa, three towering bronze soldiers stand atop a pedestal of stone, a monument to Canada's peacekeeping history. The world needs more Canada — blue helmets or green — we should be proud to honour both.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day. For more dispatches from WE, check out WE Stories.

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