Chrystia Freeland's foreign policy speech to launch peacekeeping push

A speech to Parliament and the subsequent release of the long-awaited defence policy review will be followed by an effort to prepare Canadians for the realities of participating in a United Nations peacekeeping mission, CBC News has learned.

Speech on international affairs will include spotlight on the risks of peacekeeping

Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland will outline the government's approach to international affairs in a speech to Parliament later this month. (Sean Kilpatrick/Reuters)

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland will use a speech to Parliament this month to outline the Trudeau government's approach to international affairs and start a push to educate Canadians on the risks of modern peacekeeping.

Freeland's speech — and the announced June 7 release of the long-awaited defence policy review — will be followed by an effort to prepare Canadians for the realities of participating in a United Nations peacekeeping mission that could cost Canadian lives.

"What we want to do with both those things is that we want to articulate what a new peace operation looks like," a senior government official told CBC News.

Freeland's speech will be delivered in the House of Commons sometime after the NATO leaders summit in Brussels on May 25. The government is considering making the speech an annual event — having the foreign affairs minister outline foreign policy in the same way the budget speech outlines fiscal policy.

Freeland's speech will set the stage for the release of the defence policy review and help launch an education campaign on the realities of Canada joining a UN peacekeeping mission. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

It will be the first major outline of the government's foreign policy agenda since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, which has forced the government to pause or re-evaluate many of its key priorities.

The speech focus will be to explain how the Trudeau government will work with multilateral organizations to "promote a small-l liberal vision of the world," the government official said.

Defence policy to follow foreign policy

The government was planning to release its defence policy review in advance of the NATO leaders summit. But that has now been delayed until June 7 — after the alliance leaders meet and Freeland's speech.

The delay comes as Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is embroiled in a political controversy after describing himself as the "architect" of a key Afghanistan military operation against the Taliban. But government officials insist the new timeline is about putting the country's new defence policy in the context of a clearly stated foreign policy.

"We don't want the tail wagging the dog," the senior official said. "We see defence policy as an instrument of foreign policy and not the other way around."

Once the foreign policy speech and the defence policy review are finished, the government will turn its attention to finally delivering on its promise to reboot Canada's involvement in UN peacekeeping missions.

Former foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion, left and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced in August 2016 that Canada would reboot peacekeeping efforts. But there has been little public action since that announcement. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The Liberals made a return to peacekeeping a core theme during the 2015 election campaign. Last August the government pledged $450 million and up to 600 troops and 150 police officers to help with unspecified UN missions

Peacekeeping education push

But since making those promises there has been little public action on the peacekeeping front. The UN still hasn't received formal confirmation of that contribution and the prime minister has only said it was possible that Canada would have peacekeeping boots on the ground sometime in 2017.

"That's a decision we're not going to fast-track," Trudeau said in March. "We're making it responsibly and thoughtfully."

The senior government official says Ottawa is still on track to make a peacekeeping decision this year — maybe as soon as this summer. But the government feels there is a need to more clearly explain the risk associated with whatever peacekeeping mission Canada takes on.

"The situations in all of the available options are very hairy and very serious and very important," the official said. "There's good reasons for why we are taking our time on this."

The concern is that many Canadians don't yet have a clear view of the dangers of modern peacekeeping. The risks of joining a UN-led mission in Mali, the Central African Republic or Congo — which are among the most cited options — are far greater than some of the Blue Helmet operations Canada has joined in the past.

So the plan is to ensure Canadians have a clear-eyed view of what the country is signing on for so public support doesn't evaporate if the peacekeeping mission turns deadly.

"The worst-case scenario is you go there for six months to a year and Canadians are like 'What the heck? We didn't sign on for this,' and then you have to leave," the official said.


David Cochrane is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary bureau. He previously wrote for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.


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