No Eye To Pity – No Arm To Save

Those of us who were around in the 1980s and old enough to be paying attention may recall a brief eyebrow-raising moment when we read in our daily newspaper that our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, had lost his seat on the prestigious United Nations Security Council. Eyebrows were probably raised again a few days ago when we read PM Justin Trudeau’s bid to recapture the seat had failed.

For the sake of accuracy, I should write “Canada’s seat” and note that it had been earned – won if you like – by an earlier First Minister Mike Pearson. He was the Canadian leader who joined a handful of power brokers to bring a shattered world out of the darkness of the Second World War into “the sunny uplands” of the peace upheld by the Security Council of the United Nations.

The United Nations was a dream then, and remains a dream today, hard to capture, even harder to hold, especially if you lean toward dullness as PM Harper did so often. If he cared about losing Canada’s seat at the most powerful Security Council table to Portugal, he didn’t show it.

To be fair, neither did the procession of PMs who followed him. Between 1979 and 1993 we had Joe Clark, Pierre Trudeau (back for a second time), John Turner, Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell, and Jean Chretien. Two of them broke records to be remembered but not for great triumphs. Kim Campbell came close to superheroine status as the first female PM but survived for only six months; John Turner racked up only a few days more than two and a half months and holds the distinction of being the only PM to never sit in the House while in session.

Canada bumbled along building on Lester B. Pearson’s peacemaker model which saw Canada’s armed forces shipped to trouble spots around the world to maintain law and order. They were proud years for the nation, with red and white bars and the Maple leaf prominent on the white bar; fluttering from a tall pole or stuck on a battered rucksack or lapel button miniature. They made us feel welcome and we were proud.

But, as with most good things, times changed, and as the new Millennium edged its way into our lives the image of Canada as peacekeeper started to fade. The Harper Conservatives had different spending priorities; the army, navy, and air force suffered.

For more than 40 years, Canada had shipped 80,000 trained personnel around the world on peacekeeping missions. The success rate was high, but each mission seemed a little more expensive than the last. And, there was a growing danger that the Canadian “peace police” were being maneuvered into taking sides.

In the mid-1990s, Somalia became a troubled hot spot with rival tribes vying for control. Already plagued by drought and famine with rival tribes raiding and killing rival villagers for their meager food supplies, strong countermeasures seemed called for from the UN.

Canada’s answer was to call on the elite Canadian Airborne Regiment. A Battalion-sized force 1,400 strong from the battle-trained parachute brigade, hit the ground in Somalia in December 1992. Its assignment seemed clear: Bring order to the area. Convoy food and medical supplies to where they were required and make sure they got to people who needed them not the tribal leaders who filled their own food needs then sold what was left at exorbitant prices,

It would be years before details on how those orders were carried out were made public. Readers will find a calm telling of the story via Google – Somalia Affair/The Canadian Encyclopedia. My warning that it is unpleasant reading, is not given lightly.

Canada’s “best of the best” soldiers had a novel trap to catch thieves. They placed food and drink just inside the wire perimeter base with an easy to spot gap in the wire. One night they arrested a 16-year-old lad in the act of stealing the food.

Arrested in the act it was later admitted at trial the boy was … “tied up and beaten and tortured … the soles of his feet burned with a cigarillo … his shins struck with an iron bar as he pleaded with the soldiers to stop … crying “Canada, Canada, Canada … he was dead by morning … Much of his suffering was photographed by his abusers.”

Among them were Master Corporal Clayton Matchee and Private Kyle Brown. Three days after his arrest, Matchee attempted to hang himself with his shoelaces but succeeded only in permanently damaging his brain. He never left hospital. Brown was tried, found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in jail but was released after less than two years. Only one officer was ever charged with a minor offence of “encouraging a culture of aggression.”

In November 1994, then Prime Minister Chretien ordered the disbandment of the entire Canadian Airborne Regiment. In 1995, a Commission of Inquiry into the deployment of Canadian Forces to Somalia commenced hearings – mostly televised. Military historian David Bercuson called it “the darkest era in the history of the Canadian military since the Second World War.”

Then toward the end of 1996, Chretien abruptly shut down the inquiry saying the people had lost interest and declining further comment.

Maybe he was right and still is, but there are also a lot of people in this world who don’t like unfinished business. It could be that some of them know that the “final report” of the Chretien commission in the summer of ’97 was not final at all but was, as Canadian Encyclopedia describes it, “an incomplete accounting of the scandal because the $25 million inquiry was shut down before it had even investigated the details of the actual atrocities in Somalia. As a result, the report focuses mainly on what it considered to be the institutional failures of the armed forces that led to those crimes, and what is described as a cover-up by military leaders.”

I’m sure many representatives of small countries voting last week at the UN had read every word there is to read on the Somalia Affair with special attention to the “evasion and deceptions which were apparent with many of the senior officers who testified before us (and) reveal much about the poor state of leadership in our armed forces and the careerist mentality that prevails at the Department of National Defence.”

And if they read that just before they voted on the Security Council seat – no wonder the UN delegates opted for Norway and Ireland. Canada and its peacekeepers got lost somewhere along the way.


  1. It was a source of pride for me as a schoolboy in the postwar years to learn about Canada’s peacekeeping assignments in various trouble spots. That pride diminished and finally vanished over the ensuing decades.

    You have, I believe, identified the two factors that are to blame: 1. The expense of such missions. Funding social programs has become more of a priority for Canada. 2. Blaming peacekeepers for taking sides. Fear of partiality and UN bureaucracy basically prevented our forces from being effective.

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