Defence minister confirms Mali mission will not be extended

Canada's peacekeeping mission in Mali will end in July, said Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, responding to reports that the UN has asked Canada to extend its mission.

Promise to UN to head year-long mission has been fulfilled, Harjit Sajjan tells CBC's The House

Canadian troops arrive at a UN base in Gao, Mali, on Monday, June 25, 2018. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Canada's peacekeeping mission in Mali will end in July as planned, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has confirmed.

"The United Nations is working with other nations to look at replacing us," Sajjan told Chris Hall in an interview airing today on CBC Radio's The House. Sajjan spoke to Hall before his speech Friday to the tenth annual Halifax International Security Forum, a gathering of global leaders discussing major security and defence issues.

Sajjan said Canada will have fulfilled its year-long promise to head the Mali mission by July. The Canadian Press reported this week that the UN has quietly asked Canada about extending its role.

"The discussions I've had with other UN security generals has not led to that," Sajjan said.

"We've said this for a year. We wanted to offer up support for what the UN wanted to do. One big ask they had was the concept of smart pledges. Nations come, take a yearly responsibility. We have done that."

The minister added that there will be a transition period before Canada leaves Mali, much like the one that occurred when the German-Belgian helicopter mission in Mali was winding down and Canadian personnel were arriving last year.

Although an official announcement has not been made, The Canadian Press is reporting that Romania is expected to take over from Canada, but not until October or November — months after the Canadians have left.

"The UN is on track to be able to find a replacement," Sajjan said. "We will work with whoever steps up."

Most dangerous UN mission

Canada currently has eight helicopters and 250 military members in the sprawling West African nation to rescue injured peacekeepers and UN workers and to transport troops and equipment.

The Mali mission is considered the most dangerous UN mission in the world; 22 peacekeepers were killed this year alone and 177 have been killed since the mission began in 2013. About 15,500 people are part of the Mali mission now, which began after a rebellion in the north and a coup in the capital in 2012 resulted in a surge of violence. 

Watch the CBC's Adrienne Arsenault's look at what Canada's peacekeepers face in Mali

The National host Adrienne Arsenault takes a look at what Canada's peacekeepers face, and why the mission matters. 4:02

Canadian peacekeepers have so far conducted four emergency evacuations in Mali. The most recent was on Nov. 1, after two civilians were injured when they were attacked with an improvised explosive device while driving.

More permanent presence needed in North

Sajjan also discussed Canada's defence goals in the Arctic, saying that more permanent troops are needed in the North to respond to threats such as increasing Russian aggression and Chinese interest in the region.

"We did identify that we do need to do more," he said, adding that a broader approach to the Arctic is necessary.

"Sovereignty [in the Arctic] isn't strictly about defence. It's about supporting our communities up there. We're looking at this from a whole-of-government approach."

Sajjan pointed to investments in Arctic offshore patrol vessels and satellites with greater coverage as two examples of government efforts to "sustain our ability to respond in the North."

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says that with the North growing in strategic importance every day, Canada needs to further develop its Arctic military presence. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

In August and September, Canada's largest annual Arctic sovereignty exercise, Nanook 2018, took place in Northern Labrador, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Sajjan himself visited various Canadian Armed Forces installations in the North in August. 

With approximately four million square kilometres of Arctic land to keep an eye on — that's about 40 per cent of Canada's total land mass — Canada won't be able to ramp up its polar presence overnight, Sajjan acknowledged.

"We have increased our spending year by year, but it's going to take us a little more time to get to the efficiency we want," he said.

In its updated defence policy released last year, the federal government committed to pushing Canada's defence budget to $32.7 billion annually in the tenth year, with expenditures set to rise the most after the 2019 election.

Specific Arctic investments will include updating Canada's ability to monitor air traffic over all of the 36,000 islands in Canada's Arctic archipelago, and buying ATVs, snowmobiles and other vehicles as part of an $8.8 billion, 20-year commitment to new equipment.

The navy also will receive five to six armed and "ice-capable" ships, meant to keep the government informed of activity in Arctic waters.

Listen to the full interview with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan below

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan discusses the future of Canada's peacekeeping mission in Mali, and what he's realized Canada must do in the Arctic to maintain sovereignty in the region. 8:14