VANCOUVER, Dec 20 2006 (IPS) — As Canada’s military looks to expand the size of its force, upgrade its equipment and increase its budget in the coming years, critics of the Canadian Armed Forces are worried that such moves would compromise the nation’s traditional role as a peacekeeper and erode Ottawa’s international stature as a middle power interested in promoting peace.
Canada’s links to peacekeeping evolved following World War Two, and intensified when then Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson won the Stockholm-based Nobel Peace Prize in the 1950s for his role in mediating the Suez Crisis. Canada continued to develop its role as a peacekeeper under later internationalist leaders like Pierre Trudeau.
It is a mission that the public here appears to strongly support. A poll taken last year by the Centre for Research and Information on Canada found that 69 percent of Canadians consider peacekeeping to be “a defining characteristic of Canada”.
However, since the attacks on the New York and Washington of Sep. 11, 2001, Canada has been asked to play a more aggressive role in support of United States foreign policy and has had to upgrade its military in the intervening years.
This year, the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper allocated 1.1 billion dollars to the military over two years, as part of a 5.3-billion-dollar budget package over the next five years. It is also seeking to recruit 13,000 additional regular forces and 10,000 additional reserve forces personnel.
Steven Staples, director of the Canadian anti-war organisation Ceasefire.ca and an associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, told IPS, “There are misconceptions with Canada’s military. It has the seventh highest expenditure on defence of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries on a dollar by dollar basis.”
A recent report by Ceasefire.ca points out that in 1991, Canada had 1,149 military personnel deployed in U.N. peacekeeping operations worldwide. As of Aug. 31, 2006, that figure had fallen to 56 – even though the total number of U.N. peacekeepers of all nationalities grew more than six-fold during that same period.
“The real question is not its resources, but the broader question of what role we want our military to play on the world stage,” he said. “Contracts are being let out for new equipment, forces are being expanded, yet there has been no real public discussion on the direction of our military and what we want it to be.”
Staples argues that as Canada’s military expands, it increases its capacity to engage in public relations efforts which support the transformation agenda and cater to the defence lobby made up of military contractors and other hawks who have a more aggressive agenda for the forces in the future.
“The expansion of the Defence Forces budget comes at a great cost to programmes like medicare, childcare and social housing, which have traditionally been reflective of Canadian values,” Staples said. “This is what is really going on and we need to confront this in a meaningful way.”
New Democratic Party Member of Parliament and Defence Ministry critic Dawn Black told IPS, “There will be an increase in the size of military personnel by about 13,000 and a buying spree for new equipment. The Canadian military seems to be becoming more and more in synch with the United States and moving towards deeper integration in this regard.”
Canada currently has 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province, where they are teaming with NATO troops in a new offensive against Taliban fighters. Some 36 Canadian soldiers have been killed there since February. Harper has repeatedly said that he has no intention of pulling out of the country anytime soon.
“There needs to be a refocussing of the Afghanistan mission in Kandahar Province to address the need for aid and reconstruction,” Black said. “This is an area that has 25 to 30 years of horror, and our killing of militants only brings 10 more who are willing to die. The Conservatives and the Liberals have steered a dangerous course without having a real discussion of what this means for our foreign policy.”
Professor Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair of Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, recently wrote a commentary in the on-line Tyee newspaper stating that, “Kandahar is the stronghold of the Taliban, the nearby mountains bordering Pakistan provide a refuge for al Qaeda, and the agricultural lowlands are dominated by drug barons. Canada’s soldiers face ever-increasing risks as these various forces copy their Iraqi counterparts by using roadside explosives and suicide bombs while, at the same time, coalescing into organised groups of guerrilla fighters.”
“To some extent, the risks have been exacerbated by heavy-handed U.S.-led tactics, especially the use of air power against villages when Taliban or Al-Qaeda members are believed to be present,” he wrote.
Byers has argued that Canada has reached its tipping point in the Kandahar mission and should bring its troops home.
A recent report by the Polaris Institute titled “Boots on the Ground” notes that Canada has spent 4.14 billion dollars on its mission in Afghanistan since Sep. 11, 2001. Afghanistan and related missions account for 68 percent of Canada’s overseas deployment costs between 2001 and March 2006.
In the same period, Canada only spent 214.2 million dollars, or three percent, of its overseas deployment budget on U.N. peacekeeping missions. Canada, which was once a top 10 contributor to U.N. peacekeeping operations, now ranks 50th out of 95 countries..