Politics

Commons committee calls for on-time pullout from UN mission in Mali

A House of Commons committee has told the Liberal government that Canada should help Romania get its helicopters into Mali to avoid disrupting the ongoing United Nations peacekeeping mission there.

Committee report suggests giving Romanian contingent a head start, but rejects calls to extend mission

Canadian medical personnel move a patient from a Chinook helicopter to a waiting ambulance during a demonstration on the United Nations base in Gao, Mali, Saturday, December 22, 2018. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

A House of Commons committee has told the Liberal government that Canada should help Romania get its helicopters into Mali to avoid disrupting the ongoing United Nations peacekeeping mission there.

On Friday, the all-party committee tabled a report from its fact-finding mission to the West African country in February. It recommends that the helicopters Canada has committed to MINUSMA, the UN Mali mission — two CH-147F Chinooks and four CH-146 Griffons — be brought home on schedule at the end of July.

The UN has been leaning on the Trudeau government to extend Canada's one-year deployment in Mali by a few months because a Romanian air detachment, which will take over medical evacuations and peacekeeper movements, won't be operational until mid-October.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland recently shot down the suggestion that Canada should stay longer, telling reporters that the withdrawal would proceed on schedule.

The UN warned members of the parliamentary committee two months ago that it would have to scale back operations because of the absence of military helicopters during the mission handover from the Canadians to the Romanian contingent.

During the interim period, the UN would be forced to hire civilian contractors, known as "the white fleet," to cover the gap.

New Democrat MP Randall Garrison has been one of the most prominent voices calling for an extension.

In the end, the committee's Liberal majority recommended that the government "adhere to the one-year withdrawal deadline," but also noted Canada could be doing more to mitigate the handover.

"The committee also heard that the [Canadian Armed Forces] could also use its resources to help the Romanians move some of their personnel and equipment to Mali," said the report, tabled in Parliament.

It noted that, unlike Canada, Romania lacks a strategic airlift capability and recommended the government use its fleet of C-17 Globemasters and C-130J Hercules transports to help the eastern European ally get into place faster.

Both the Liberal government and the military have been largely silent on why Canada is sticking to such a hard deadline for withdrawal.

Canadian Armed Forces personnel serving on the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission listen as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to them following a turkey dinner in Gao, Mali, Saturday, December 22, 2018. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The committee's report offers the first tangible explanation, saying Canada's helicopters need to be brought home on time "to avoid a domestic operational capability gap."

The Chinooks, in particular, have seen extensive use in Canada, most notably during wildfire season in Alberta.

"Prolonging the mission would further affect force generation and force employment in Canada," said the committee report.

The peacekeeping mission apparently has put a strain on air crew training in Canada. The aircraft also need some maintenance and software upgrades.

"Extending Canada's mission in Mali would also give rise to other challenges," says the report. "For example, Mali's summer months are extremely hot and humid, which puts a severe strain on both personnel and equipment. The committee also heard that, during the rainy season, the tempo of operation is generally reduced."

Sources at the UN told CBC News, in a report published a few weeks ago, that Canada was instrumental in securing Romania's participation in MINUSMA, which has the distinction of being the deadliest UN peacekeeping mission currently active.

NDP MP Randall Garrison: 'It reduces MINUSMA operations and risks lives to have such a big gap.' (CBC)

In an interview with CBC News upon the committee's return, Garrison said MPs from all sides heard the explicit UN warnings that the loss of Canada's helicopters, without near-term replacements, would hurt.

"It reduces MINUSMA operations and risks lives to have such a big gap," he said.

"Everybody was pretty clear — [private contractors] provide less service and they don't go when there is active fire. So it's not quite the same."

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