Canada may yet have peacekeeping boots on the ground in 2017

The Liberal government has yet to formally serve notice to the United Nations that it's ready to join international peacekeeping operations — something Prime Minister Justin Trudeau downplayed on Saturday.

He insisted Canada might still have boots on the ground in 2017, which would head off a major embarrassment given that Canada is hosting a major gathering of peacekeeping nations later this year.

Both he and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan also left the distinct impression, during the weekend Liberal caucus meeting on Parliament Hill, that part of the government's ongoing hesitation relates to the politically chaotic and potentially bloody list of destinations.

"We have a difficult history in Africa as peacekeepers, and we need to make sure that when we embark on any mission, military mission, we make the right decisions about what we're going to do, how we're going to do it and the kind of impact we're going to have on the ground and on Canadians," Trudeau said, in a veiled reference to disastrous missions to both Somalia and Rwanda in the mid-1990s.  

"That's a decision we're not going to fast-track. We're making it responsibly and thoughtfully."

Mali, the Central African Republic and Congo were among some of the nations originally floated as possible destinations by government officials last summer.

UN growing impatient

Following an eventual cabinet decision, there is a long lead time involved in getting into the UN system and through the bureaucracy. After that, the army will need time to organize the troops and set up a supply and sustainment system.

Trudeau was asked whether it was fair to expect no soldiers on the ground this year.

"I wouldn't draw that conclusion," he said.

The UN has been growing increasingly impatient with Canada's inability to commit to a specific mission, as it promised last summer.

The Liberal government pledged to provide up to 600 troops and 150 police officers for UN peacekeeping operations — an undertaking that comes with a $450-million price tag over three years, including support for development and stability programs.

The outgoing UN under-secretary for peacekeeping operations told CBC News that he is still waiting for the government to deliver on last year's announcement.

''What I wanted to see and what I still hope to see is the concrete result,'' said Herve Ladsous.

'Lack of commitment'

Canada is slated to host a major international peacekeeping conference in Vancouver in November, and it would be a huge embarrassment if there were not a substantial amount of troops already in the field, said a defence expert.

Walter Dorn, a professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada, said people in the diplomatic community at the UN have begun to question Canada's sincerity.

"All of this dithering — it shows a lack of commitment," said Dorn, who noted how rapidly the mission to Iraq came together, and the speed at which the NATO commitment to Latvia is being assembled. "This excessive delay is showing Canada's commitment is waning, and I think it bodes negatively for our bid for a security council seat."

The Trudeau government has made securing a seat on the decision-making body of the UN in 2021 a top foreign policy priority.

Sajjan was originally supposed to announce last December where the troops were going, but the entire process ground to a halt following the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. The Liberal government wanted clarity on Washington's expectations of the Canadian military before going ahead.

Further uncertainty was introduced after reports the Trump administration planned to drastically scale back its funding for UN peacekeeping operations — something that would put the deployments of other nations in jeopardy.

Sajjan has conducted research trips to Africa, consulting with governments and international organizations about the best use of Canadian troops.Despite all of his homework, Sajjan refused to be pinned down on Saturday.

"We're looking at all missions with the United Nations," he said. "The United Nations obviously has a lot of missions in Africa, but they also have missions in other parts of the world as well."