Roméo Dallaire | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Roméo Dallaire

Roméo Antonius Dallaire, OC, CMM, GOQ, soldier, peace advocate, humanitarian, senator 2005–2014 (born 25 June 1946 in Denekamp, the Netherlands). Roméo Dallaire served with distinction in the Canadian Armed Forces. In 1994, he led the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in Rwanda and witnessed the genocide there. He was so affected by it that he became a global advocate for victims of war and conflict. His account of the Rwandan genocide, Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (2003) won the Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction. Dallaire was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2002 and a Grand officier of the Ordre national du Québec in 2005. He also served in the Senate of Canada from 2005 until 2014. He was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2021.


Early Years and Career

Roméo Dallaire grew up in the east end of Montreal. He enrolled in Army Cadets in 1960 and joined the Armed Forces in 1964. He attended Collège Militaire Royal (CMR), Saint Jean, and graduated from the Royal Military College (RMC), Kingston, with a Bachelor of Science. He began his military career during the Cold War. He was deployed during the October Crisis in 1970.

Career as Officer and General

A full colonel by 1986, Dallaire was appointed the director of the army's equipment and research program overseeing the forces' funding and requisition systems. The resulting white paper's proposals were deemed unaffordable and were rejected by the government in 1987. This would foreshadow Dallaire's experiences in Rwanda.

In the early 1990s, as a brigadier-general, Dallaire took command of the 5e Groupe-brigade mécanisé du Canada (5th Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group) at CFB Valcartier. It was the height of the Persian Gulf War and a new era for the Canadian Armed Forces, which had been more engaged in global peacekeeping missions.


Rwanda Mission

In 1993, the United Nations was considering a mission to Rwanda, a small but populous African nation in the process of negotiating an end to a civil war between the government and the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The rebels were positioned behind a demilitarized zone monitored by neutral military observers from the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The president of Uganda asked the UN to establish a small force to monitor the border; this would ensure that soldiers and weapons were not entering Rwanda to reinforce the RPF. (See Canadian Peacekeepers in Rwanda.)

Roméo Dallaire took command of the United Nations Observer Mission in Uganda and Rwanda (UNOMUR) and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). It was a modest operation. Dallaire was seconded by the UN under a civilian contract and was stationed on the Ugandan side of the border. He was supported by only one Canadian officer, Major Brent Beardsley, and 81 unarmed military observers. They received little support. Dallaire asked for 5,000 UN troops and was given 2,600, a number that was soon reduced to 500.

Nothing in their experience had prepared the Canadians for what was happening in Rwanda. Dallaire warned his superiors at UN Headquarters in New York of an impending mass killing of ethnic Tutsis by Hutu nationalist extremists. He pleaded for permission to act to prevent widespread violence and slaughter. But the UN refused to allow Dallaire and his UN troops to act more forcefully against the escalating violence. The genocide occurred swiftly and on a massive scale. In the 100 days between 6 April and 16 July 1994, an estimated 800,000 men, women and children were brutally killed, many hacked to death with machetes. The victims were Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

A significant challenge of the UN mission was trying to use classic peacekeeping tactics, such as containing conflicts diplomatically, and using weapons only for self-defence. Standard peacekeeping guidelines were woefully inadequate. In the mission's rules of engagement, Dallaire eventually established the authority to use force, including deadly force, to prevent "crimes against humanity." It was groundbreaking but came too late for too many. Yet another of the world’s genocides was not stopped in time.

After Rwanda

Roméo Dallaire was traumatized by the horrors in Rwanda; particularly by the plight of children and by the apparent futility of his assignment. Upon his return to Canada, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and insomnia. He struggled through suicidal thoughts and several attempts, withdrew from family and friends and drank heavily. Despite all this, he completed his military career in a series of significant posts, including Commander of Land Force Québec Area, Assistant Deputy Minister (Human Resources-Military) and Special Advisor to the Chief of the Defence Staff on Officer Professional Development.

Following his retirement from the Canadian Forces in April 2000, Dallaire worked to inform the Canadian public about the effects of war. He was appointed as a special advisor to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) on matters relating to war-affected children around the world. He was a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University and advised the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) on the non-proliferation of small arms. He also dedicated himself to the goal of eradicating the use of child soldiers in conflict zones around the world.


Dallaire reported his Rwandan experiences in Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (2003). It was awarded the 2003 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing by the Writers’ Trust of Canada and the 2004 Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction, in addition to numerous international prizes. It was the basis of Peter Raymont’s feature documentary Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire (2004), which won the World Cinema Documentary Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The book was also adapted into the award-winning 2007 movie, Shake Hands with the Devil, starring Roy Dupuis as Dallaire.

Dallaire’s second book, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children: The Global Quest to Eradicate the Use of Child Soldiers (2010) was followed by the memoir Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD (2016), which he co-wrote with Jessica Dee Humphreys.


Roméo Dallaire has been highly decorated. His awards the Meritorious Service Cross; the Vimy Award; the United States Legion of Merit; the Pearson Peace Medal; and numerous honorary degrees. He was made an Officer of the Order of Military Merit in 1987 and a Commander in 1996. He was also made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2002. In 2005, he was appointed to the Senate of Canada by Prime Minister Paul Martin and was made a Grand officier of the Ordre national du Québec.

In May 2014, Dallaire announced he would be resigning from the Senate (effective 17 June 2014) to devote more time to international humanitarian causes, including his personal mission “to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children in violence.” This included work with the United Nations Secretary-General on genocide prevention and with the International Human Rights Commission on crimes against humanity.

In 2021, Dallaire was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in the Humanitarian category.

See also Canadian Peacekeepers in Rwanda; Canada and Peacekeeping.

Selected Works of
Roméo Dallaire

Further Reading