CBC Digital Archives

The making of a general, Roméo Dallaire

With more than 800,000 people slaughtered in 100 days the Rwandan genocide stands as one of the most horrific mass murders of the past century. In the middle of the horror was a Canadian peacekeeper whose efforts to avert the tragedy were thwarted by political apathy and incalculable evil. CBC Digital Archives looks back at this sad chapter in Africa's history and how Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire managed to survive to become Canada's most famous casualty of war.

Long before he was called to lead the United Nations peacekeeping force in war-stricken Africa, Roméo Dallaire was just a young working-class Montreal boy obsessed with military history. As the son of a career military man, the young Roméo spent hours acting out famous battles on his family's living room rug while dreaming of a career as a soldier. As this CBC Television documentary shows, Dallaire's trademark drive and intensity were evident even from an early age. 
• Romualius "Roméo" Dallaire was born in Denekamp, Holland, on June 25, 1946, to Canadian Army officer Roméo Louis Dallaire and Catherine Vermeassen, a Dutch nursing student.
• The couple met in the winter of 1945 during the liberation of the Netherlands from Nazi forces. Dallaire Sr., a 44-year-old bachelor, was serving as a staff sergeant in Eindhoven, Holland, where the 26-year-old Vermeassen was working.

• Dallaire's parents moved to Canada in December 1946 when he was just six months old.
• The eldest of four children, Dallaire grew up in a working-class environment in Montreal's east end, where he attended a boys-only Catholic school and was involved in Boy Scouts and military cadets.

• From a young age Dallaire aspired to follow in his father's military footsteps. In his award winning book, Shake Hands With The Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (2003), he called the military his "first love," and fondly recalls his first toy -- a replica of a Canadian army Jeep.

• In 1928 Roméo Dallaire Sr. joined the Canadian army's Royal 22nd Regiment, commonly known as "the Van Doos." He would eventually serve as a non-commissioned officer and head of a support crew in the Second World War.
• After the war he brought his young family back to Montreal, where three other children -- all daughters -- were born. He retired from the army in 1957 and took a civilian job in an army garage.

• To learn more about the Van Doos, please visit Royal 22nd Regiment: Canada's Fighting 'Van Doos'
• Roméo Dallaire's career path was greatly influenced by both his father's career and his mother's tales of destruction in Nazi-occupied Holland.
• In Shake Hands With The Devil he wrote: "Unlike many of my generation, who became passionate peace activists determined to put an end to war, I took the opposite lesson."

• Despite being what he calls "an indifferent scholar" for much of his educational life, in grade nine Dallaire resolved to earn a spot in military college.
• He promptly committed himself to improving his grades, sometimes locking himself in his room for 12-hour stretches. Within a year he managed to boost his grade average to 91 per cent.

• In 1964 Dallaire was accepted as a cadet at le Collège Militaire Royal de Saint-Jean located in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. His father urged him to change his name to "Dallairds" in order to succeed in the English-dominated army. Dallaire, a fiercely proud French-Canadian, refused.
• Dallaire committed himself to becoming an artillery man, something that few francophones in the predominantly anglophone Canadian Armed Forces had succeeded in doing.

• In 1969 he graduated from the Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston, Ont., with a bachelor of science.
• In the fall of that year Dallaire met Elizabeth Roberge, a teacher at a Canadian army school in Valcartier, Que. Roberge also came from an army family -- her father having served with Dallaire's in the Van Doos in the 1930s.
• The couple dated and eventually married on June 26, 1976. Two years later they had their first son, Willem. They would go on to have a daughter, Catherine, and another son, Guy.

• Despite almost failing at RMC, Dallaire would go on to become a lieutenant in 1969. The following year the 24-year-old was put in charge of 41 soldiers and ordered to protect the National Assembly in Quebec City after the War Measures Act was invoked during the FLQ crisis.
• He went on to attend the Canadian Land Forces Command and Staff College, the United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College and the British Higher Command and Staff Course.

• In 1989 Dallaire was promoted to brigadier-general and posted as a commandant at the Collège Militaire Royal de St-Jean in Valcartier, Que. A couple of years later he was appointed commander of a 5,200-strong artillery unit based in Quebec City.
Medium: Television
Program: The National Magazine
Broadcast Date: April 12, 2000
Interviewer: Brian Stewart
Duration: 3:01

Last updated: October 2, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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