Minister of National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland and Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance leave after holding a press conference on Canada’s peacekeeping mission to Mali in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Spell out fine details about Mali peacekeeping mission, Liberal government urged

OTTAWA — Diplomats from some of Canada’s closest allies are quietly expressing frustration with how the Trudeau government handled this week’s announcement that it plans to send military helicopters to Mali.

The news that Canada had finally committed resources to the peacekeeping mission was greeted with relief-tinged applause, but diplomats — speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the matter — say the government has failed to explain that the mission is both necessary and that the Canadians will be relatively safe, compared to the thousands of other peacekeepers working across the country.

They fear the government has allowed incorrect information to spread unchallenged, threatening to undermine Canadian public support for what they say is a critical contribution to the UN peacekeeping effort.

“It seems the government missed the opportunity to inform (Canadians) about the mission,” one diplomat said. “I believe they have to do more.”

The government is still hammering out the details after what appears to have been a quick decision to help the UN, which appealed for Canada’s assistance last week.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland announced Monday that Canada will send six helicopters to Mali to help with medical evacuations and the transporting of UN troops and supplies.

The 12-month mission was in direct response to an urgent request from the UN, sources have said, but many specifics remain up in the air, including when the helicopters will arrive and how many troops will accompany them.

That is despite the government and military officials having studied the possible deployment of Canadian military helicopters to Mali in late 2016, which was subsequently shelved for more than a year.

“Details regarding the final structure and chain of command of the Canadian mission in Mali are still to be determined, as negotiations with the United Nations have yet to begin,” Sajjan’s spokeswoman, Byrne Furlong, said in an email Friday.

“It is important to keep in mind that preparing for a mission can take several months. Mission requirements need to be defined.… All of this must be supported by ongoing diplomatic engagement with the UN, partners, and host nations.”

Jocelyn Coulon, an expert on peacekeeping at the University of Montreal who advised then-foreign affairs minister Stephane Dion, said that could partly explain what he also felt was the government’s understated approach to Mali.

But he said questioned the government’s failure to challenge allegations that Canadian peacekeepers will be at grave risk or explain the broader importance of the mission, which he believed had resulted in a proliferation of misinformation.

“And I find this very strange because we have been working on a Mali plan since summer 2016,” Coulon said. “I don’t understand what happened.”

The government is sending a delegation to Berlin next month to meet with officials from Germany and the Netherlands, both of which have previously operated helicopters in Mali and have large contingents in the country.

The Department of National Defence is also planning a reconnaissance mission to the West African nation to get a firsthand look at the UN base in Gao where the Canadians will be stationed, known as Camp Castor.

One diplomat described the base as being up to “gold standards,” with protections that include Dutch and German guards and equipment including anti-aircraft weapons and surveillance drones to monitor the surrounding area.

“They’re not going into a Third World camp with Third World soldiers defending them,” the diplomat said of the Canadian troops.

In criticizing the Trudeau government for agreeing to the UN’s request for Canadian helicopters, the Conservatives have questioned the purpose of the mission and emphasized the potential dangers.

More than 160 peacekeepers have died in Mali since 2013, only nine have been from western countries and six of those fatalities were caused by accidents — a point that defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance has made in interviews.

But the diplomats felt the government has not done enough to challenge the narrative that Canadian troops will face significant danger in Mali.

The envoys also said the government failed to explain how the UN mission in Mali is helping secure the country after years of war and ensure it doesn’t become a safe haven for Islamic militant groups.

The Canadian helicopters will essential to that effort, they said, by supporting the thousands of other peacekeepers who are out working and patrolling in different parts of the country.

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