Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is defending his government’s pace when it comes to deciding where to send hundreds of promised Canadian peacekeepers — a decision that could get even harder with next year’s federal election.
The Liberals promised more than two years ago to provide up to 600 troops to peacekeeping missions as part of a long-standing pledge to re-engage with the United Nations.
The prime minister got to see some of those troops in action Saturday during a whirlwind visit to Mali, where 250 Canadians and eight helicopters have been providing lifesaving medical evacuations and logistical support to UN forces since August.
Next year marks 50 years of relations between Canada & Mali. Today, while visiting our troops there, I met with Prime Minister @SBoubeye to talk about how we can work even closer together on trade, development, security and the fight against terrorism. 🇨🇦🇲🇱 pic.twitter.com/boHe99ULvO
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) December 23, 2018
Trudeau was greeted at the Gao airport by Mali’s prime minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga before donning a flak jacket and climbing aboard one of three Chinook helicopters that the Canadian Forces have turned into a flying hospital for the UN mission.
It was from this vantage point that the prime minister, along with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance, watched troops perform a mock medical evacuation in the desert near their UN base.
“This mission has been an extraordinary opportunity for me to see … a demonstration of what Canadians do best,” Trudeau told the assembled troops during a special Christmas dinner complete with turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and alcohol-free beer.
“And that is respond to very specific needs with the highest level of skill, professionalism and service imaginable. What Task Force Mali is accomplishing here is world-class.”
Yet two commitments that Trudeau has made to the UN remain unfulfilled including a promised provision of a military transport plane to Uganda to help ferry UN troops and equipment around Africa and the deployment of a 200-strong rapid-reaction force to bolster one specific mission.
Canadians expect their government to look at ways to be help in the world, Trudeau told reporters during his visit while he insisted the Liberals were continuing to look at ways to fulfil their commitment to the UN.
“Obviously the decisions on where and how to help are determined by what the needs are from the UN peacekeeping forces, how Canada can actually make a significant difference,” he said. “We are always looking for other ways for Canada to help.”
A senior military official said a C-130 Hercules currently assisting U.S.-led operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant out of Kuwait will be diverted down to Uganda for about a week per month starting early in the new year.
But any new decision could grow more complicated in the coming months as the Liberals and their political adversaries eye the coming election.
The Trudeau government has faced pointed criticism from the Conservatives about contributing troops to peacekeeping, suggesting it is not in Canada’s interest and only aimed at helping the Liberals win a seat on the UN Security Council.
The government will also be mindful of the risk of putting troops in harm’s way when voters prepare to cast their ballots.
Trudeau was asked on Saturday whether his government was opposed to extending the Mali mission by several months until Romanian replacements arrive due to the risk of casualties during the election.
He insisted that Canada was following the UN’s new process for making commitments, in which countries offer specific units or equipment matched to specific peacekeeping missions based on need.
The final decision on any mission will ultimately reside with the government.
University of Montreal peacekeeping expert Jocelyn Coulon, who advised former foreign affairs minister Stephane Dion, said he believes electoral politics have already started to figure into decisions on peacekeeping.
“It is going to be a factor,” Coulon said.
There is no end date for Canada’s mission in Latvia, he added, noting the government has repeatedly extended its missions in Iraq and Ukraine, indicating that peacekeeping has fallen out of favour with Trudeau’s Liberals.
“Obviously there is no political willingness to stay in Mali, and that explains everything.”
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press