Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance takes part in a press conference on Canada’s peacekeeping mission to Mali in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Monday. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Mali choppers face crash threats, but can shoot back at militants: Vance

OTTAWA — Given prior experience, the Canadian helicopter contingent bound for Mali will probably face greater danger from the risk of a mechanical failure and crash than it will from a terrorist attack, the chief of the defence staff suggested Monday.

That’s in part because Canada’s contribution to support the United Nations peace force there will likely be based in a well-defended military base in the country’s eastern city of Gao, Gen. Jonathan Vance told The Canadian Press.

“There is an environmental threat just by being in Africa. It’s been said by many people, and I agree, Mali is a dangerous place,” Vance said.

Four UN peacekeepers have been killed in helicopter crashes, “all of which have been associated with mechanical failure of the helicopters. None have been associated with belligerent activity that affected those helicopters.”

Asked whether the Canadian air crews would have the authority to shoot back at any ground threats if necessary, Vance replied: “Yes, absolutely.”

Vance offered several details about the upcoming mission, which Canada’s official Opposition said should be the subject of a full debate in Parliament after the Liberal government announced it Monday.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the House of Commons the government has contacted the Opposition “to find a way to move forward” on a debate that could take place in the coming weeks.

Canada’s defence and foreign affairs ministers confirmed the Liberal government’s 12-month commitment to the west African country. It includes two Chinook helicopters to provide medical evacuations and logistical support and four smaller, armed Griffons to act as armed escorts for the larger transports.

“Mali is a war zone. This is a combat mission,” said Conservative defence critic James Bezan, who expressed concern about the potential for Canadian casualties, noting the deaths to date of more than 160 UN peacekeepers in Mali.

Bezan and fellow Tory MP Erin O’Toole, the party’s foreign affairs critic, suggested the Liberals are using the peacekeeping announcement as a way to divert public attention from the negative publicity surrounding recent overseas trips Trudeau, most recently to India.

O’Toole said Monday’s announcement is all about Trudeau trying to curry favour with the UN, where Canada is seeking a temporary two-year seat on the powerful Security Council.

“What are the rules of engagement? Who decides when that Griffon or that Chinook is deployed?” asked O’Toole. “This seems to be a patchwork to meet Justin Trudeau’s peacekeeping commitment. Mali is not a peacekeeping mission.”

Vance said the Canadian air personnel will always conform to “Canadian standards.”

“I never relinquish national command of the helicopters. They will be allocated to a UN force with a command and control relationship with the UN force, which will basically task them.”

Vance said he expects the mission will include “about 250” personnel overall, and will replace a German contingent that leaves in the summer. As for when the Canadians take their place, Vance said: “I’m aiming for some time in the late summer.”

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland say the force will include a marked female presence as the Trudeau government looks to have Canada lead by example in the push to have more women on peacekeeping missions.

Vance said he can’t say for sure what percentage of the contingent will be women, but that he expects it to be a higher proportion than other counties.

“We recognize the value and importance of women in peacekeeping — keeping in mind that a helicopter force is going to be projected with helicopters. The differentiation between male-female, while we’re doing that, will be a bit hard for the population to tell.”

The announcement follows a direct request from the UN and fulfills Trudeau’s promise in November to make such aircraft available to a future peacekeeping mission.

Trudeau first pledged to return Canada to UN peacekeeping during the 2015 federal election campaign but has faced criticism for taking too long to decide on an actual mission.

The Mali mission has been a dangerous one for the UN — which is why the government took the time to carefully consider the situation and decide on the best course of action, Freeland said Monday.

“We are very aware of the complexities and the difficulties of the situation in Mali.”

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