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Canada and the Origins of Peacekeeping


When Canada’s foreign minister, Lester Pearson, arrived at the United Nations in New York in the midst of the Suez Crisis in 1956, Canadian diplomat John Holmes remembers people rushing up and asking: “What’s he got? We hear Mike’s got a proposal. It’s high time. Can he do it?” And he did, or so the myth of Canadian peacekeeping would have us believe.

For the record, it should be very clear that Pearson did not invent peacekeeping, nor did he single-handedly create the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF). He would be the first to admit this. The idea of peacekeeping can be traced back to before the 1800s, but in the post-WWII world it was a relatively untried concept. In fact, the word peacekeeping does not even appear in the UN Charter.

However, Canadians in the early 1950s had gained a reputation at the UN for objectivity and consensus building and, with the world’s Great Powers flailing in 1956 towards another global conflict -- a potentially nuclear affair -- Pearson knew what to do, whom to talk to, and how to get the ball moving at the UN. Once the General Assembly passed the “Canadian resolution” calling for a peacekeeping force “to secure and supervise the cessation of hostilities” in the Middle East, the speed with which UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld and his advisors were able to organize the United Nations Emergency Force was nothing short of incredible. In just over two days they sketched out the basics of the mission and a week later, the first troops landed on the ground in Egypt.

For his untiring efforts to bring about a peaceful solution to the Suez Crisis Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Canadians have generally interpreted this accolade as a validation of peacekeeping and their role in it, and of an altruistic foreign policy.

But in reality, it was simply recognition of Pearson’s diplomatic abilities on the world stage. Yet peacekeeping gave the world pause in 1956. Britain and France were able to withdraw their troops from Egypt; the Soviet Union did not have to follow through on its threat to rain down nuclear bombs on London and Paris; the British Commonwealth did not split apart along racial lines; the United States and United Kingdom were able to patch over their differences; and the United Nations was able to score a rare success in the arena of global peace and security. Ultimately, preserving peace was very much in Canada’s national interest, and the world’s.

UNEF was not the first UN peacekeeping operation -- that distinction goes to the much smaller and limited UN Truce Supervision Organization in the Middle East in1948 -- but it was the first major UN force and, at its height, comprised over 6,000 soldiers from ten nations. Previous observation missions had employed no more than a few hundred military and civilian personnel. Canada’s contribution of over 1,100 soldiers to UNEF, a reconnaissance squadron, an air transport unit, and headquarters support troops, provided what was considered by many to be the backbone of this peacekeeping force. Though trained for war, Canada’s Armed Forces personnel proved themselves very adept at keeping the peace.

Peacekeeping proved popular with the Canadian public. By the mid-1960's, peacekeeping had been enshrined in Canada’s national identity and Canada had established itself as the largest UN troop contributor to peacekeeping operations. The value of peacekeeping, and Canada’s commitment to it, has subsequently waxed and waned based on the policy decisions of successive governments. However, from its genesis as a Canadian diplomatic solution to its recognition on the world stage, the pride that Canadians feel as a peacekeeping nation remains.


By: Michael K. Carroll, Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta.

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