The brainchild of then-Foreign Minister Lester Pearson, peacekeeping quickly became a singular icon of Canadians’ sense of their country’s role in the world.
Pearson’s idea – a multinational military force under the UN flag to enforce a cease-fire – was the key to solving the potentially explosive Suez Crisis of 1956, which pitted Britain, France, and Israel against Egypt, the US, and much of world opinion. The solution not only provided an elegant climb-down for all parties while maintaining a lasting peace in the Canal zone, but also won Pearson the Nobel Peace Prize (he remains the only individual Canadian to ever receive the honour).
Canadians may not have initially been overly impressed by Pearson’s Nobel – within a year of accepting the award, the Pearson-led Liberals were pulverized in the 1958 general election by John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives.
But the idea stuck. The UN’s distinctive, blue-helmeted peacekeepers have been a fixture in conflict zones ever since. Canadians developed an outsize pride, not just in something that was, after all, a Canadian invention, but in the role Canada would play in UN peacekeeping missions for decades.
It was seen by successive generations – and by federal governments of all political stripes – as a distinctly constructive, internationalist role for Canada. Notwithstanding our taking sides in the Cold War as a founding member of NATO, UN peacekeeping played to our image as an “honest broker” nation, a “middle power” that could help other countries and regions avoid conflict. Indeed, the contrast with the United States – especially during periods of greater bellicosity under Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and both Bushes – only added to the blue-helmet pride of Canadians.
The effectiveness of UN peacekeepers has always depended on the willingness of the parties in conflict to lay down weapons. Consequently, the shortcomings of the UN model were painfully exposed in two separate missions in the 1990s involving Canadian troops: in the former Yugoslavia, peacekeepers were pinned down and even taken hostage; in Rwanda, they stood by while genocide was unleashed.
Canada’s participation in UN peacekeeping declined significantly after that: the current Harper government has a clearly stated aversion to peacekeeping – and to the UN in general.
Nonetheless, polling consistently shows that UN peacekeeping continues to exercise a strong emotional pull on the general public as both an expression – and international validation – of Canadian values.
In the 2015 election, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau promised that his government would return to Canada’s peacekeeping tradition.
Image source: flickr user Jamie McCaffrey