By DAVID J. BERCUSON
Canada was once one of the world’s most active countries in United Nations peacekeeping operations. In fact, Canadians took pride that their soldiers did not really fight wars from the late 1950s to the mid-1990s but instead put on United Nations blue helmets to help warring nations turn from the battlefield to the peace table.
The story began in October of 1956 when Britain and France, allied with Israel, attacked Egypt. The British and the French wanted to regain control over the Suez Canal Zone, which both nations had paid for in the 1880s. The Canal Zone had been taken over by Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser several months earlier. He had wanted to prove that Egypt was a proud and independent country that would no longer tolerate having an important part of its territory occupied by European nations and which could run the Suez Canal itself.
Israel attacked Egypt in retaliation for commando raids into Israel from the Gaza Strip, then occupied by Egypt. Israel needed British and French support to capture the Sinai Peninsula.
The United States and the Soviet Union were strongly opposed to the British/French/Israeli attack. The United States was against European countries holding colonies in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world. While the Soviet Union, also opposed to this, had in addition begun to think of Egypt as a potentially strong Soviet ally in the Middle East.
Canada too was against the invasion. One of the major reasons was that Canada depended heavily on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for its own defence but most importantly for the defence of western Europe against a possible Soviet attack. Canada had troops and fighter aircraft in Europe and devoted most of its navy’s ships to NATO. Ottawa feared that NATO might split apart since the United States was so opposed to the actions of Britain and France, and all were NATO members. Canada’s minister for foreign affairs, Lester B. Pearson, sought a way to end the fighting, get the British, the French and the Israelis to withdraw, and patch up NATO.
Pearson proposed that the United Nations create its own military force, made up of contributions from UN members, to replace the British and French as they withdrew from the Suez Canal and the Israelis as they pulled out of Gaza and the Sinai peninsula. The force was called the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) – the first large United Nations peacekeeping force. Canada volunteered soldiers to serve in the force, but the Egyptians at first refused. The Canadian army wore uniforms that looked very much like British uniforms at that time and the name of the main Canadian unit to be sent to Egypt (The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada) also seemed to show that the Canadians were allies of the British and therefore not acceptable to the Egyptians. This problem was quickly overcome when logistical troops were sent instead.
This first peacekeeping force lasted 10 years. Until May 1967, UNEF supervised a ceasefire between Egypt and Israel, and patrolled areas of the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula and Sharm El Sheikh at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula. But in May, 1967, UNEF was withdrawn on orders from Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser as he sent troops to the Israeli border and threatened war against Israel. The Six Day War followed from June 5-10, 1967. When the war was over Israel occupied the Gaza strip once again and the whole of the Sinai. Then UNEF II was created under UN command to patrol the new ceasefire lines between Israel and Egypt.
Lester Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the creation of UNEF, but throughout the Cold War most of Canada’s soldiers did not do peacekeeping. Instead, they defended North America alongside the United States and the North Atlantic and western Europe as part of NATO. But most Canadians knew little of Canada’s part in the defence of the free world because the government and the press paid so much attention to Canadian peacekeeping. Canada participated in UNEF and in almost every other peacekeeping operation mounted by the United Nations until the 1990s. So Canada became known world-wide for its peacekeeping operations.
Canadians seemed to forget Canada’s role in NATO and the massive Canadian efforts in the First and Second World Wars and in Korea (1950-1953).
In the early 1990s Canada sent troops to help keep the peace during the civil war that broke out in Yugoslavia when first Slovenia, then Croatia, and finally Bosnia-Herzegovina all broke away from Serbia. Much of that civil war was concentrated in Bosnia-Herzegovina, especially around its capital city of Sarajevo. Canadian soldiers found themselves shot at by all sides in the conflict and came to believe that the United Nations was simply not capable of leading peacekeeping operations anymore. Today Canada contributes very few soldiers to UN peacekeeping operations. But the idea that Canada is a nation of peacekeepers still is widely held by Canadians.
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