Canadian infantry on a military exercise. (Image via)
Perhaps understandably, the Canadian media has been having a hard time covering any news that isn't to do with one of the following: the mayor of Toronto maybe smoking crack with a murdered drug dealer; the mayor of Montreal being charged with cavorting with the mafia; Calgary being swallowed by floods; and the Prime Minister allegedly paying off a corrupt senator to put out a political firestorm.
Which makes it the perfect time for the Canadian government to quietly announce the deployment of an infantry platoon of 34 soldiers to Haiti. The island nation, which is still dealing with the ramifications of the devastating 2010 earthquake, is currently controlled by the Brazilian troops who've led the UN peacekeeping effort in Haiti since 2004. The move to partake in a UN peacekeeping mission is significant: Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is voluntarily getting back into the traditional peacekeeping game.
For a country that basically invented the concept of the peacekeeper, Harper has overseen a nose-dive to the point where the Canucks now rank 57th out of 114 troop-contributing nations worldwide. And throughout his time in office, Harper has rarely engaged in a foray abroad that he willingly signed up for. It was the Liberal Party that volunteered Canada for Afghanistan (and it was Harper’s decision to pull out), there was the limited contribution to the Nato Libya mission and he’s been extremely hesitant of Syrian intervention. In fact, Harper has only seemed gung-ho about taking down Assad at the G8, when he was in a lion’s den of world leaders clamouring for Assad’s demise (although he still stopped short of advocating arming the rebels).
The change of heart for Harper certainly raises questions, even if 34 troops is only a minor contribution. So why now – and why Haiti?
Brazilian peacekeepers in Haiti. (Image via)
“A platoon isn't [a sign of Canada] getting back into the peacekeeping game,” said one highly sceptical Canadian soldier who remains anonymous (he isn’t authorised to speak to the media). “This mission is preventing the department of national defence from experiencing extreme boredom and keeps them relevant,” he said.
Besides keeping the department of national defence from falling asleep at their desks, there's the chance that Canadian forces might be being used to advance diplomatic relations with Brazil, enhancing the two countries' trading relationship by lessening Brazil's load in Haiti. In other words, the mission is potentially a military handjob for future business opportunities.
It’s also indicative of the post-Afghanistan landscape, where Western militaries are having their budgets tightened as they withdraw from the final frontier of the original War on Terror. Army staff will be looking to keep defence spending down for governments engaged in austerity cuts, and this Haitian venture is just that: a way for the military to engage in a low-cost, positive-press foreign intervention where lots of pictures can be taken of soldiers giving clean water to locals.
“No more [Afghan] war. The department of defence must fight for dollars. And to get dollars they must find operations," said the soldier. "So Haiti equals dollars, plus it aligns with government interests: no casualties and a peacekeeping mission.”
Interestingly, the Haiti deployment was kept from the Canadian public until two days before boots hit the ground, yet the same soldier says he knew troops were training in Brazil for months.
Damage done by the Haiti 2010 earthquake that devastated the country. (Image via)
Like other Western nations, Canada is still reeling from the public perception that the Afghan campaign was a total failure, so it's hardly surprising that the Canadian government wants a military "win".
Another Canadian soldier I spoke to (who has knowledge of MINUSTAH, the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti) says that, if Canada is looking for a simple tour and morale booster for their military, the troubled Caribbean country may not be the perfect place to start.
“I think it would be wishful thinking to say there's no chance there won't be any fighting,” he said.
He offered me two possible explanations for Canadian intervention. First, he explained that the small force may have been sent in to “recce” the situation; that is to gather valuable street-level intelligence in preparation for the landing of an expanded force. That scenario gelled with rumours I’ve heard about the Canadians taking over Haiti’s security completely, relieving Brazil of the duty they've maintained since 2004 at some point in the coming year.
The other reason was more political: “Given that these soldiers will be overwhelmingly francophone [therefore speaking the same language as many Haitians, unlike the Portuguese-speaking Brazilian troops], the UN might be attempting to soften the image of their current force and focus on winning the hearts and minds of the population." Interestingly, this round of Canadian peacekeepers will be drawn from the only francophone regiment in the Canadian Forces: the Van Doos (Royal 22e Regiment) – a Quebec City-based outfit of French-speaking soldiers who already contributed 1,000 troops to Haiti in the initial earthquake response of 2010.
In the last decade, Haiti has seen the dissolution of its central government, extreme poverty, a coup, a vicious cholera outbreak courtesy of UN forces and the demise of its infrastructure after the aforementioned Bible-worthy earthquake. They probably need peacekeepers. However, Haitians are starting to see these troops less as peacekeepers and more as occupiers.
“I think most Haitians are pretty ticked off that there's a large foreign presence in their country, yet they still can't provide basic security to the average Haitian,” the soldier told me. “I think the recent failure of the UN top brass to take responsibility for the cholera outbreak and their outright refusal to pay damages isn't helping their image, either.”
Chilean peacekeepers on patrol in Port au Prince. Image (via)
For Haitians, the continuous presence of a foreign army three years after the earthquake hit equates to occupation.
“Seeing foreigners driving around in big UN vehicles and living in luxurious conditions compared to their own contributes to the belief that their country is being occupied, whether intentional or not,” the second Canadian soldier told me. That being said, he also told me that he believes Canada likely has no particularly nefarious interest in “occupying” the Caribbean nation. And he’s probably right.
Nonetheless, it is a tiny Caribbean island with lush gold deposits. And Canadian extractive companies, like Montreal-based St Genevieve Resources, are already major players in Haiti. Latent natural resources means the quicker Haiti is pacified, the quicker everyone can do more business. And that fact cannot be ignored.
On top of that, the fact that the US sits mere kilometres from Haiti’s shores begs the question of an American interest. In the past, Washington and the CIA have shown their dislike for the deposed dictator, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and their sinister commitment to keeping him in exile was exposed by WikiLeaks.
More than once, in recent memory, there have been whispers of Aristide’s political return. In fact, his ex-party still has support and wants to launch new legislative elections in the coming months. So could increasing Western military presence be the result of shadow pressure from Washington? An effort to make sure the country doesn’t descend into being another dictatorship with poor international relations under a returned Aristide?
Whether this new peacekeeping mission is an attempt to strengthen diplomatic and trade relations with Brazil, a move to control domestic Haitian politics, or simply a quick act of charity from an otherwise isolationist government, it's unlikely we've seen the end of Canada’s Haitian experiment just yet.
Follow Ben on Twitter: @BMakuch
More stories from Haiti:
WATCH – Hamilton's Pharmacopeia: Nzambi