Politics·CBC in Mali

Trudeau insists Canadian presence in Mali making a difference

Canada’s presence in Mali is helping the war-torn country get back on its feet at a faster pace, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insisted during a highly secret, whirlwind visit on Saturday.

PM made secret visit to West African country to visit with military personnel

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau poses for a photo as he speaks with Canadian Armed Forces personnel in Gao, Mali, on Saturday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canada's presence in Mali, under the banner of the United Nations, is helping the war-torn country get back on its feet at a faster pace, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insisted during a highly secret, whirlwind visit on Saturday.

He made the remarks while defending the limited duration of Canada's deployment of helicopters to the West African nation in support of United Nations peacekeeping operations. Canada has committed to the mission for one year.

The country has been struggling to implement a 2015 peace agreement against a rising tide of tribal and Islamic extremist violence.

"The peace process is unfolding in Mali and certainly our presence here is allowing it to unfold more quickly than it otherwise would," Trudeau said, while answering reporters' questions at the UN airbase in Gao, where Canadian aircrews and helicopters are based.

Trudeau visits Canadian peacekeepers in Mali

5 years ago
Duration 2:04
Prime minister took part in a simulated air medical evacuation mission, served dinner to troops.

"Nevertheless it is a difficult situation … and it's going to be a significant amount of effort by the UN to stabilize this area." 

PM met with Malian counterpart

He said the Canadian contribution of two transport and four armed helicopters (along with spares) is allowing the UN mission to be more effective.

It is able "to do more" because of the 24/7 standby posture of the aircraft and the medical evacuation team, Trudeau said.

Trudeau is silhouetted as he walks in a hangar during his visit to personnel serving on the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Gao. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The prime minister was expected to carry that message into a meeting with his Malian counterpart, Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, at the tail end of his four-hour visit.

A readout of the meeting, issued by Trudeau's office late Saturday, said the two discussed the needs of the Malian people and "important investments in development and humanitarian assistance." They also talked about ways to advance the peace process.

Record violence in Mali

A Canadian military official, speaking on background prior to arriving in Mali, said the country has experienced record levels of violence this year. And rather than being confined to the north — which remains in a state of unrest six years after a French-led military operation that chased extremists from the country — attacks have spread to the south and central portions of the country.

Mali's current instability began in 2012, when ethnic Tuareg rebels and other groups took advantage of a power vacuum following a military coup in the capital, Bamako.

Trudeau shakes hands with Canadian mission commander Col. Chris McKenna after being presented with a United Nations flag during a visit to the base in Gao. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

They took over northern Mali in a bid for independence, but the uprising was hijacked by Islamist militants, including al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.

France intervened in early 2013 and continues to hunt terrorists in the region. Following the operation, the UN launched its peacekeeping mission, which Canada supports.

Opportunity for stability?

Last month, French forces in Mali killed a prominent jihadist leader, Amadou Koufa. 

International observers have said the death is an opportunity for Mali's government and the international community to restore stability.

A Canadian Armed Forces soldier provides security Saturday as medics assist German troops during a medical evacuation demonstration on the United Nations base in Gao. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Maïga, just last week, promised to send 350 police officers and paramilitary forces to the northern city of Timbuktu, but did not specify when they would arrive.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly expressed concern about Malian security forces.

"Government forces conducted counterterrorism operations that resulted in arbitrary arrests, summary executions, torture, and ill-treatment," said the group's 2018 report.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.