Peacekeeping is the term applied to United Nations (UN) military intervention operations. As a result of Lester Pearson's leadership in the 1956 Suez Crisis and Canada's role in the UN Emergency Force he helped create, Canadians have sometimes considered peacekeeping part of the country's identity. However, since the 1990s Canada's reputation as a peacekeeping nation has been complicated by scandal and by the failure of some overseas missions.

Early UN Interventions

United Nations Charter was drafted at the end of the Second World War in 1945, it included elaborate provisions for the maintenance of collective security among countries. However, Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union prevented attempts to create a permanent UN force. This prompted the UN to instead try sending temporary military forces (at first only military observers) into the world's regional hotspots.

This was first tried in April 1948 when the UN authorized the dispatch of military observers to the disputed Pakistan-India region of Kashmir. The same action was taken the following month along the Arab-Israeli borders (Palestine). In theory, military observers would serve as impartial mediators by watching the movements of warring armies, supervising ceasefires and protecting local civilians. Canada provided eight officers for the UN force in Kashmir. After 1953, Canada also sent four officers to the force in Palestine, including Major-General E.L.M. Burns, who took command of the UN force there in February 1954.

UN flag
The blue flag of the United Nations - and the blue berets of soldiers on UN service - would become symbols of UN peacekeeping around the world.

The United Nations also intervened when the Korean War broke out in 1950. However, this was very different from peacekeeping. The United States organized, under the umbrella of the UN, what was called a "police action" to resist the North Korean invasion of South Korea. The US-led military forces, including those from Canada, engaged in full warfare under the UN banner.

Peacekeeping Monument
The Peacekeeping Monument, in Ottawa, commemorates Canada's role in international peacekeeping. Photo taken on: June 30, 2013

International Commissions

In the 1950s, Canada also played a role on the International Commissions for Supervision and Control in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. These commissions were non-UN efforts, usually called International Control Commissions, or ICCs. They were set up by the Geneva Conference of 1954 on a "troika" model, with an Eastern or Communist-bloc state, a Western state, and a neutral state (in the case of the southeast Asia ICC, this meant Poland, Canada and India).

The ICC task was a complex one, including the relocation of populations displaced by war, the supervision of elections and the monitoring of new boundaries. The manpower commitment was relatively heavy, as 133 Canadian military observers and a substantial number of External Affairs officials were required. In Cambodia and Laos there was initially some success, but the Vietnam ICC bogged down in futility as the civil war there spread out of control in the 1960s.

Pearson and the Suez Crisis

When the Suez Crisis arose in 1956, Canadians eagerly seized the opportunity for UN peacekeeping. The UN became involved when Britain and France co-operated with Israel in an assault on Egypt. Canada wanted to minimize the harm done to the Western alliance by the Anglo-French aggression in response to a growing Arab nationalist fervor. Lester Pearson at this time was Canada's secretary of state for External Affairs. Working with UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, Pearson produced the idea of a peacekeeping force to stabilize the situation and to permit the withdrawal of the attacking forces. To help the effort, Pearson offered a battalion of Canadian troops – and the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) came into being quickly, under the command of Canadian Major-General E.L.M. Burns.

The Egyptians, to Canada's surprise, objected to the presence of Canadians troops. The uniforms, the regimental names and the Canadian flags (at this time the Red Ensign) all seemed very similar to those of the British invaders and, the Egyptians argued, their people would not understand any distinction between the two. A compromise was reached when it was announced that Canada would not commit infantry soldiers. Instead it would send a reconnaissance unit, signals and supply troops, and also help with the airlift of personnel and cargo – all vital to the success of the UN mission.

Lester Pearson
Lester Pearson, before he became prime minister, displaying the Nobel Peace Prize he won for his role in the Suez Crisis (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-94168).

This experience played a part in convincing Pearson, who later became prime minister , that Canada needed its own symbols, notably a distinctly Canadian flag. It also won him the Nobel Peace Prize. And it left Canadians with a sense of pride and ownership over the UN peacekeeping idea – which was used increasingly in conflict situations around the world.

1960s to 1980s

After Suez, many Canadians came to regard peacekeeping as a national vocation and burden. This was evident in July 1960 when a newly independent Republic of the Congo erupted in violence. The government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was reluctant to participate when the UN asked for signallers and other troops, but public opinion forced the government's hand and Canada sent soldiers to Congo.

Peacekeeping's popularity among Canadians had been established, and there was no hesitation in 1962 when Ottawa sent a small number of men to West (Papua) New Guinea, or in the next year when soldiers went to Yemen for service with a UN observer mission. A much larger commitment followed in 1964 when the UN intervened to separate Greeks and Turks in Cyprus. Paul Martin Sr., secretary of state for External Affairs, was instrumental in creating the Cyprus UN force. Cyprus would remain one of Canada's major foreign commitments for several decades.

Peacekeeping in Cyprus
Canadian soldiers use a convoy of Iltis light combat vehicles to patrol the Green Line near Nicosia (courtesy National Defence Headquarters).
Canadian Soldier in Cyprus
A Canadian soldier patrols the Green Line in Nicosia. He carries a C-7 rifle (courtesy National Defence Headquarters).
Canadian members of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) on the border between Egypt and Israel, 1962.
Image: Department of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada /PA-122737.

By the late 1960s, however, the heyday of peacekeeping was already in decline. Some critics were beginning to complain that peacekeeping merely kept situations static and did nothing to resolve them. Others worried about costs and casualties and fretted over often unclear mandates: in what circumstances, for example, could peacekeepers use deadly force: To defend themselves? To defend civilians?

A severe blow to the peacekeeping ideal came in 1967 when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered the UNEF, including the Canadians, out of Egypt. Another Arab-Israeli war followed. The expulsion of the Canadians amounted almost to a national humiliation. This was compounded by charges at the same time that Canadians in the International Control Commissions had been spying for the US. The idea of peacekeeping had helped to reinforce a myth of Canada as an impartial and acceptable observer, but peacekeeping fell out of favour for a time.

In the late 1980s, the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney seemed more willing to consider requests for peacekeeping troops. By this time however, for many Canadian service personnel, peacekeeping had become a chore rather than an opportunity, and public attitudes to UN service remained ill defined.

Still, Canadians shared in the pride of the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to the UN for its decades of peacekeeping work. Canada had played a large role in that work, contributing 80,000 personnel – roughly 10 per cent of the total UN forces sent on peacekeeping missions between 1948 and 1988.

Balkans and Rwanda

The end of the Cold War and the demise of Soviet influence in international affairs left power vacuums throughout the world. Without the cohesion of Soviet military authority, many former Soviet-bloc states in Asia and Europe, notably Yugoslavia, disintegrated into ethnic conflict. The UN responded by deploying an international peacekeeping force to the Balkan region, where several of the former Yugoslav republics were in the midst of civil war. Canadians made up a substantial portion of the mission forces.

The Balkans were a difficult and dangerous place for peacekeepers, because there was no real peace to keep between the still-warring ethnic groups. In 1992, UN forces led by Canadian General Lewis MacKenzie came under constant fire during the siege of Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 1993, soldiers of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, serving with the UN in Croatia, fought Croatian forces in the Medak Pocket – the heaviest combat experienced by Canadian forces since the Korean War.

A Canadian CH-146 Griffon helicopter in Bosnia-Herzegovina
Courtesy of the Department of National Defence, photographer: Sgt Vince Streimer.
Roméo Dallaire
Following his experiences as a UN peacekeeper in Rwanda, Maj-Gen. Roméo Dallaire became an advocate for the world's victims of genocide.
United Nations Headquarters in New York
New York

In 1994, genocide and ethnic cleansing broke out in Rwanda. The previous year Canada had sent more than 400 troops to Rwanda as part of a UN mission to bring stability and order to the small African nation. The experiences of Canadian soldiers attempting to make sense of the unfolding genocide, and to mediate the conflict in the midst of such chaos and violence, demonstrated the limited power of peacekeeping forces, and the inefficiency of the UN in terms of crisis decision making.

The capture, torture and murder of 10 Belgian peacekeepers in Rwanda – under the command of Canadian General Roméo Dallaire – further tarnished the reverence with which many had viewed peacekeeping activities. Dallaire's harrowing experience trying to command a small, beleaguered peacekeeping force during the genocide made him a household name in Canada.

Somalia Scandal

As difficult as the missions to the Balkans and Rwanda were, none were as controversial – and did as much to harm the image of Canadian peacekeeping – as the dispatch of peacekeepers to Somalia in 1992. Somalia had descended into famine and lawlessness, and from 1992 to 1993 Canadian forces participated in both a UN mission and a US-led international military coalition effort in Somalia, to restore order and allow the distribution of humanitarian supplies across the country (see Somalia Affair).

Along with other coalition forces, Canadian troops came under fire from Somali warlord armies while trying to guard port facilities, fly helicopter reconnaissance flights, and escort food convoys. Numerous coalition troops, including one Canadian, lost their lives.

Amid these challenges, in 1993 two Canadian paratroopers serving in Somalia beat and tortured a local teenager to death. A dozen more Canadian soldiers had been aware of the beating but did nothing to intervene. The ensuing scandal – which prompted a high-profile public inquiry in Canada – severely damaged Canada’s reputation as an agent of peacekeeping, embarrassed the government of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, and led to the disbanding of the army's disgraced Airborne Regiment.

New Era

The challenges and lessons of Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia – where there was little or no peace to keep – soured Canadian attitudes towards peacekeeping activities. The last major commitment by Canada of troops to a UN peacekeeping mission began in 2004, when 530 soldiers and police were sent to help bring political and civil stability to Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

From 2001 to 2014, much of Canada's foreign policy, and military effort, was directed not to peacekeeping but to the War in Afghanistan. At the same time, Canada nominally participated in several UN missions, also sending troops and/or police officers to Ethiopia and Eritrea, Liberia, the Ivory Coast and Sudan. In each case, only a handful of Canadian military and police advisors were sent abroad.

Aware that effective peacekeeping required the UN to have the ability to quickly dispatch a professional force to conflict areas, Canada was one of seven countries in 1996 to found and commit troops toward the Multinational Stand-By High Readiness Brigade for United Nations Operations (SHIRBRIG). "Experience has proven," the UN website says, "that the rapid deployment of military assets within the first six to seven weeks after a Security Council mandate is crucial for the success of a peacekeeping operation." From 2000 to 2006 the SHIRBRIG brigade was deployed five times, and was commanded by Canada from 2003 to 2006. Ultimately SHIRBRIG was disbanded by its member states, including Canada, in 2008.


More than 125,000 Canadian Armed Forces members have served on international peacekeeping missions, and about 130 have died carrying out this work. Canada's peacekeepers are honoured and remembered at the national peacekeeping memorial – titled Reconciliation – in downtown Ottawa. In addition, the names of those killed on peacekeeping missions since 1947 are inscribed in the Books of Remembrance in the Memorial Chamber on Parliament Hill.

Peacekeeping Monument
The Peacekeeping monument located in Ottawa, Ontario commemorates Canada's role in international peacekeeping and the soldiers who have participated and are currently participating, both living and dead.

Further Reading

  • L.B. Pearson, Mike, vol 2 (1973); A. Taylor et al, Peacekeeping (1968); J.L. Granatstein, et al, Shadows of War, Faces of Peace: Canada's Peacekeepers (1992).

External Links