Canada sending police to Mali as part of peacekeeping mission
Canadian contingent started arriving in the war-torn west African country last month
Canada will deploy up to 20 civilian police officers to support both the United Nations peacekeeping mission and the European Union training mission in Mali.
The contribution is in addition to the 250 aircrew and soldiers already assigned to the mission's military helicopter detachment. Another 10 Canadian soldiers will serve at the UN headquarters in the war-torn west African country.
Senior government officials speaking on background made the announcement Thursday and gave an overview of the peacekeeping mission. The first Canadian soldiers taking part in the mission began arriving in Mali late last month.
The addition of the policing contingent is in line with the Liberal government's initial pledge to deliver up to 600 soldiers and 150 police officers for UN peace support operations.
Planning for the police deployment is still in the early stages, but officials conducting the background briefing on Thursday emphasized the important role female police officers have played in past peacekeeping missions by advising on local gender-related matters.
Adding police — particularly female officers — to the mix would help meet one of the Liberal government's signature goals: putting women at the centre of a renewed international peacekeeping effort — also a stated aim of the UN Security Council.
Only 14 per cent of the Canadian military helicopter contingent will be women. Since the contingent's role involves dealing exclusively with UN forces, opportunities to interact with Malians and demonstrate the leadership of women will be limited.
It's not clear when the police will join the deployment, as the posting hasn't been publicized within the RCMP or the wider policing community, a senior government official said.
The federal government is conducting an assessment to determine what the UN and EU missions need in terms of policing expertise.
The first detachment of aircrew and troops for the military mission departed from Canada's largest air force base in Trenton, Ont. on Thursday evening.
Col. Chris McKenna, the air task force commander, said he is aware police will be joining the mission and his helicopters will be able to support them, if and when necessary.
The military already has an advance team in Mali, which will assemble the transport and armed escort helicopters.
The Liberal government committed Canada to providing two CH147 Chinook battlefield transport helicopters and four armed CH146 Griffon helicopters to support the UN mission.
Officials said the mission will get two more helicopters — a Chinook and a Griffon — to serve as spares in case one or more of the other choppers breaks down in Mali's hot, dry climate.
"The biggest challenge will be maintaining the helicopters in that oppressive environment," said McKenna.
Senior officials in Ottawa said both types of helicopters are fitted with special intake dust filters —and air force pilots had lots of practice operating in arid conditions in Afghanistan.
Both the Dutch and German contingents in Mali have lost helicopters to mechanical issues.
The biggest danger the crews will face will likely come from the environment, officials insisted.
There are anti-government rebels and Islamic extremists in Mali, but both groups are believed to be armed only with light machine guns — not surface-to-air missiles.
"We'll be able to defend ourselves," McKenna said.