12/21/2012 08:37 EST | Updated 02/19/2013 05:12 EST

When Did Canada Stop Being a Peacekeeping Nation?

"And on earth, peace to those of goodwill"- Luke 2:14

There was a time when the concept of peace and Canada's role in the world occupied the same space. We had a Nobel Peace Prize to prove it and a history of robust membership in United Nation's peacekeeping operations.

Somewhere along the line we lost our way, but not merely through neglect. For a number of years now pro-military types, and numerous military analysts, believed they had been effective at convincing Canadians that the peacekeeping mantle was both impractical and a relic of our illustrious past. "It's a new world," we were being informed, one concentrating more on peacemaking, where a more belligerent role would be required of this country.

For a time, such voices believed they had prevailed. Then came Afghanistan, where peacemaking and nation-building had their run, with plenty of resources to carry out their mission, only to come to a muted end.

Our military role in that troubled part of the world was commensurate with other nations in their response to 9/11. We played our part but in the process of pursuing our combative role we permitted peacekeeping's naysayers to take the prominent role. They were neither interested in blue berets or idealistic UN mandates at keeping the peace. Suddenly the need for F-35s and heavy duty combat weaponry sucked all the oxygen out of our more diplomatic role. We became a nation fighting with one hand tied behind our back.

Following a decade of military might and combat pursuits we suddenly discover that Canadians, while supportive of our men and women in uniform, never gave up on the concept or the tradition of peacekeeping. And now that our role in Afghanistan is drawing to a close, renewed interest in Lester Pearson's legacy has begun to take hold again in military circles. Polls continue to reveal that more Canadians believe in pursuing peacekeeping than combat roles. Suddenly everything old is becoming new again.

But we will begin with an embarrassing handicap. Presently Canada has less than 50 peacekeepers serving in UN mandates worldwide. We now rank 57th in contributions -- quite a change from those days not all that long ago where we made up 10 per cent of peacekeeping components. With over 100,000 peacekeepers active globally today, this country will have a long way to climb to earn a peaceful legacy that we once used to own by right.

The Harper government has already begun the downsizing process of the military and the F-35 debacle threatens to become an international embarrassment. Yet our soldiers, support workers and analysts will have to move on to the next phase of Canadian military influence. Presently we have 25,000 regulars and over 15,000 reservists. What's to become of them?

It takes an act of national myopia to toss away our peacekeeping birthright in favour of the big toys and the painful missions. A mere decade ago we were speaking of how our preferred equipment would be helicopters that could transport peacekeeping personnel in places like Africa and Asia. Now we talk only stealth fighters jets that are as expensive as they are vulnerable to cost overruns.

This past week I spoke with a Canadian army officer who feels that the jaded exit from Afghanistan has left our forces somewhat demoralized and in search of a next phase of involvement. He feels the time has come to link our military goals with those of Canada's citizens, and if that were to transpire, peacekeeping would become the preferred option. He has a point.

This country must always stand at the ready to partner with other nations in heavier combat situations when required. We have now played that role for a decade, with mixed results. Yet according to Virginia Fortna of Columbia University, in her well-researched study, "Does Peacekeeping Work?", countries undergoing civil war have a 50 per cent greater chance of attaining a credible peace when peacekeepers are deployed. Those are the kind of odds that now stand in Canada's favour.

Following a decade of war, the historic Christmas adage "peace to those of goodwill" takes on an attractive ring for a country that once built its international reputation on fighting to preserve peace in troubled regions. Like it or not, it's time for the military thinkers to come to terms with the reality that Canadians will remain a peaceful people who desire that same blessing for people around the world. It isn't just a timely Christmas message, but perhaps represents a future for a nation seeking to recapture its global influence.


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