As the C-17 transport plane lowered its ramp onto the scorching hot tarmac in the middle of the Sahel, Chief of the Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance shared a blunt assessment of the harsh environment visiting dignitaries and journalists were about to walk into: “Mali makes Kandahar look pretty.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau surprised hundreds of Canadian troops in Mali on Saturday, touring the remote Camp Castor in the northern city of Gao where they are based as a part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the West African country. Mr. Trudeau exited the plane onto the base’s recently completed airstrip and was quickly hit by the unforgiving conditions Canadian peacekeepers face every day.
The troops said it takes some time to adjust to the overwhelming 30 C-plus heat, sweltering sun and the desert dust that paints the entire base a shade of red-ish orange.
“The first month was definitely getting used to the heat and wearing all the gear," said Emma Galloway, a medic with the Canadian mission in Mali. "We all knew how much gear we’d be wearing, but we didn’t quite get used to it. But it’s evolved great.”
Canada deployed 250 peacekeepers in August for a one-year operation with the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, following through on a key 2015 Liberal election campaign promise to restore Ottawa’s commitment to UN peace operations. The first troops arrived in June to set up, and the task force, known as Operation Presence, reached full operating capacity five weeks later.
Canada’s peacekeeping mission in Mali comes as the government seeks one of the 10 rotating, non-permanent seats on the UN Security Council in 2021-22. Ottawa is hoping its support for UN peacekeeping as part of its greater foreign-policy agenda will result in a large show of support from African states, which make up one of the biggest voting blocks for the Security Council seat.
However, Jocelyn Coulon, once a senior policy adviser to former Liberal foreign minister Stéphane Dion, said African countries may not be inclined to vote for Canada if it abandons the Mali mission after only one year.
“I’m not sure that the African countries who have the bigger share of votes of the General Assembly will remember that we went there for a year. Other countries are much more serious about peacekeeping, like Norway and Ireland, which are two competitors for the seat at the Security Council,” said Mr. Coulon, an expert on foreign relations who is now at the University of Montreal’s Centre for International Research and Studies.
In Mali, Canadian peacekeepers are providing state-of-the-art medical-evacuation capability, transportation and logistical support to the UN mission. Canada also sent three Chinook and five Griffon helicopters to Mali to help with medical evacuations – known as medevacs.
Troops have conducted five medevas since arriving in August and flown more than 860 hours in support of the UN mission, transporting troops and cargo. They only leave the tightly secured Camp Castor by helicopter or transport plane, and rarely interact with the local Malian population.
There are no days off at Camp Castor and the remote nature of life on the base means troops are comforted by what little pieces of Canada they can find. Mr. Trudeau brought some of those comforts of home during his visit, including a bubble hockey table game, maple syrup, Tim Hortons’ coffee and beer.
“None of the gifts in the world could actually live up to how deeply grateful we and all Canadians are for you, for your stepping up, for your family’s sacrifice, and mostly for your deep belief and understanding that Canada can and must help in the world,” Mr. Trudeau told troops over a Christmas turkey dinner.
Troops are deployed on six-month rotations, with the first group of peacekeepers slated to leave at the end of January. They recently took turns enjoying a two-week break from the camp, taking off to various vacation destinations before Christmas on the base. The next cohort of peacekeepers will arrive in the new year and stay until the end of July, 2019, when Canada’s mission ends.
Mali is Canada’s first major foray into UN peacekeeping in Africa since the 1990s. At that time, two missions in East Africa sparked controversy: In Somalia, Canadian troops were found responsible for the deaths of two Somali citizens; and the Rwandan mission, overseen by Canadian General Roméo Dallaire, was widely considered a failure because UN forces did not stop the genocide. Although the UN Mali mission is one of the deadliest in history, with 177 peacekeeper fatalities since it started, military officials told reporters that no Canadian troops have been shot at or fired upon.
The Canadian operation is widely seen by military experts as a risk-averse mission, since peacekeepers are not doing ground patrols in Mali.
“Especially after Somalia and then after Rwanda, I think within DND [Department of National Defence] and within the Canadian political policy establishment, there has been a worry that we don’t want to have, necessarily, Canadian combat troops on the ground in case things go badly," said Chris Roberts, a political scientist at the University of Calgary who specializes in African issues and peacekeeping.
In 2016, the Trudeau government committed $450-million over three years to a new peacekeeping program, including up to 600 peacekeepers and 150 police officers for UN missions.
While Mr. Trudeau did not speculate on where Canadian peacekeepers will head once the Mali mission is over, he said the government is working closely with the UN to assess where Canada’s specialized skill sets, such as medevac, would be helpful in peace operations.
Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world. Once hailed as a model of African democracy and stability, it plunged into crisis in early 2012 when the disenfranchised Tuareg, a nomadic people in northern Mali, seized power in the north. Jihadist forces exploited the chaos and started moving south in hopes of seizing control of the rest of Mali. They were within striking distance of the capital of Bamako when France intervened in January, 2013. The UN mission launched soon after, in April of that year.