From Cold War to Present Day


Canada and the United Nations

HMCS Magnificent, Majestic-class light fleet carrier, Royal Canadian Navy, 1957

Caption: HMCS Magnificent, Majestic-class light fleet carrier, Royal Canadian Navy, 1957

View Multimedia - Peacekeeping Operations

Caption: View Multimedia - Peacekeeping Operations

Canada's window on the world has reflected its role in international life. When the League of Nations failed, the world's leaders attempted to do better with the United Nations Organization. In the 1920s Canadians were able to say they were so far from the source of ignition that they needed no fire insurance. But the years 1939-45 proved, as had the years 1914-18, that what was happening in another part of the world could easily affect Canada.

Canadian foreign policy after 1945 would focus on international security. Canada would not hesitate to agree to Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter calling on member nations to act "in case of a threat to peace, a breach of peace or act of aggression." Obviously, in the world of law every word has a meaning. Towards the mid-1970s the U.N. managed to agree on a definition of the word "aggression," but it would not use this word again until the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Part III of the U.N. Charter empowers the Security Council "to undertake by means of [armed] force any action it deems necessary to keep or restore peace and security." The U.N. Secretary General was empowered to investigate situations where peace was being threatened, and was free to send observers. The immediate postwar period was a troubled one, both in the Middle East, with the creation of Israel, and in the world generally, with events surrounding decolonization. It was in an observer role in Kashmir that Canadian soldiers first served the U.N.

Serving in an observer role and peacekeeping were not, however, among the highest defence priorities. Before 1955 one would have had difficulty finding any reference to this function in the official documents of the defence department. All the same, Canadian soldiers would be asked to conduct numerous observer missions, most notably in the Middle East under the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), which investigated and reported on violations of the 1949 ceasefire between Israel and its neighbours. This mission has involved hundreds of Canadian military personnel right up to the present, some occupying very important positions - for example, Major-General E.L.M. Burns was UNTSO's Chief of Staff in the mid-1950s after commanding a Canadian corps in Italy during the war. Canadian servicemen would also participate, directly or indirectly, as U.N. observers in the conflict between India and Pakistan, as well as in Yemen and Lebanon. Over the years this work would extend to a host of activities, including helping to organize and supervising elections in various African, Asian, Central American and Caribbean countries.