Ahead of his first visit to Canada since the election of Justin Trudeau, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he is "excited" by the potential of what he sees as Canada's renewed engagement in multilateralism on issues such as climate change and possibly peacekeeping.

"I am very much excited by such a strong commitment [from] prime minister Trudeau," said Ban in an exclusive interview with CBC Radio's The Current this week. "I would like to reinforce and strengthen such a partnership."

At a midday press conference on Parliament Hill Thursday, the UN secretary general and the prime minister said they discussed climate change, peacekeeping and the refugee crisis, among other topics, at a morning meeting. The two were scheduled to attend other events together, including a dinner in Ban's honour.

Ban's two-day visit also includes a stop in Montreal.

Ban Ki-moon on Canada's refugee policy0:48

Although the invitation was extended by Canadian officials, it's clear the UN is pleased with the rhetoric coming out of Ottawa these days, including the prime minister's recent announcement that he wants "to restore Canada's voice and leadership role at the UN."

The UN is hoping that language will take on a more concrete form as a result of the visit.

Ban points to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change as an example of Canada's interest in helping build international consensus, saying Trudeau "generated a lot of political force and awareness" leading up to the historic accord.

Ban says he hopes Trudeau will be among the world leaders putting pen to paper at a signing ceremony at UN Headquarters on April 22, meant to kick-start the legal implementation of the agreement.

Restarting the peacekeeping discussion

The UN also wants Canada back in the peacekeeping game.

That's why Hervé Ladsous, the head of the UN Peacekeeping Operations, will be accompanying Ban on this trip.

Ban Ki-moon

Ban Ki-moon, whose tenure as UN secretary general ends this year, says he is 'excited' by Canada's renewed commitment to international engagement. (UN Photo/Mark Garten)

Ladsous will meet with Trudeau, but will also have smaller meetings with officials in the Department of National Defence, according to a UN official familiar with the itinerary. 

"The signals we're getting are very positive, but now, I think, we need to basically drill down into what are those things that the UN and Canada can collaborate on and where can Canada do more on peacekeeping?" said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

That could include Canadian battalions in the long term, but in the near term, it could entail specialized expertise including aircraft engineers, logistics and medical staff.

"Canada has very good francophone officers,'' said the official, citing an example of where Canada could play a larger part. There are currently 16 peacekeeping operations, including in Mali and Central African Republic, where French-speaking soldiers could play a constructive role.

"We have a major issue with that because we have a lack of francophone [personnel] in the system."

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Ban said he would like to see other countries 'emulate' the kind of 'compassionate leadership shown by the prime minister.' (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Canada has historically had a strong role in peacekeeping. After all, it was former prime minister Lester B. Pearson who first proposed the notion of a UN-led Peacekeeping Force, during the 1956 Suez Crisis, when he was Canada's foreign affairs minister. The following year, Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

But a quick look at current figures shows that Canada only has 113 police, military experts and troops currently deployed in UN peacekeeping missions, compared with more than 3,000 blue helmets in February 1993.

In the intervening years, Canada has focused its military and peacekeeping resources on NATO-led missions in Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia. While authorized by the UN Security Council, these are not run by the UN.

Canada worth emulating?

This trip will mark Ban's fifth and likely final visit to Canada, as his term in office ends in December.

It is happening at a time when the UN is dealing with "an unprecedented number of conflicts and crises," as Ban has repeatedly said, as well as continuing criticism of the UN's relevance.

Ban says Trudeau's enthusiasm for recommitting to "the ideals and goals of the United Nations" is welcome.

Canada is one of the founding members of the world body, but diplomats say its status at the UN was diminished under former prime minister Stephen Harper, who often chose to skip the annual General Assembly as well as other high-level gatherings, including the UN climate summit.

France Climate Countdown

Ban points to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change as an example of Canada’s interest in helping build international consensus, saying Trudeau “generated a lot of political force and awareness” leading up to the historic accord. (Francois Mori/Associated Press)

The Harper government was openly critical of the world body. In a speech to the General Assembly in 2012, foreign affairs minister John Baird chastised the UN for its inaction on Syria and accused it of being too inward looking.

Canada's loss of stature at the UN was brought into focus in 2010 when, for the first time in its history, Canada failed to get the required number of votes to secure a rotating seat on the Security Council.

One aspect of Canada's current foreign policy that is drawing much debate is the government's decision to withdraw its fighter jets from the coalition bombing mission in Iraq and Syria.

When asked about it, the UN chief said it was not his place to comment on Trudeau's decision. But Ban was full of praise for Canada's plan to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees displaced by the fighting.

Ban said he would like to see other countries "emulate" the kind of "compassionate leadership shown by the prime minister."

UN officials say Ban will also raise the issue of funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which helps Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. After a high of $32 million CAD in funding in 2007, Canada stopped contributing entirely in 2013.

Following a joint press conference on Parliament Hill this afternoon, the two leaders will travel to the Catholic Centre for Immigrants in Ottawa, where they will meet newly arrived Syrian refugees. They will be joined there by the UN's humanitarian aid chief, Stephen O'Brien, as well as the UN's youth envoy, Ahmad Alhendawi.

Alhendawi says Trudeau understands the importance of engaging young people on a wide range of issues from climate to job security to preventing radicalization, as evidenced by Trudeau's "unprecedented" decision to personally take on the youth portfolio.

"He's championing youth issues and I think [Canada and the UN] are matching priorities," said Alhendawi, adding that the trip will include meetings with high school students in Ottawa's Glebe neighbourhood and a lecture at McGill University on Friday.

Clarifications

  • This story has been updated to reflect the fact that in addition to having 113 police, military experts and troops deployed in UN peacekeeping missions, Canada has also put military and peacekeeping resources on NATO-led missions in Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia since 1993. While authorized by the UN Security Council, these missions are not run by the UN.
    Mar 10, 2016 1:18 PM ET