Peacekeeping is the usual term applied to United Nations military operations. Because of Lester B. Pearson's role in the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the Canadian role in the UN Emergency Force he helped create, Canadians tended to look on peacekeeping with a proprietary air.

Beginnings

When the UN Charter was drafted in 1945 it included elaborate provisions for the maintenance of collective security. But the Cold War blocked every attempt to institutionalize a UN force, and the UN had to rely on improvisation. This was first evident in April 1948 when the UN authorized the employment of military observers in Kashmir and when it repeated this action the next month along the Arab–Israeli borders. Military observers could watch the movements of armies, supervise ceasefires and local civilians and generally bring calm to an area. That was the theory, and it usually proved workable. Canada provided eight officers for the UN force in Kashmir and after 1953 it sent four officers to the Palestine force as well as General E.L.M. Burns, who took command in February 1954.

The Korean War

This type of UN peacekeeping was markedly different from that practised in the Korean War. There, because the USSR fortuitously was boycotting the Security Council when the crisis arose in late June 1950, the US was able to organize a "police action" to resist the north Korean invasion. Much more typical, even if not under the UN, was the Canadian role on the International Commissions for Supervision and Control in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. These commissions (usually called International Control Commissions, or ICCs) were set up by the Geneva Conference of 1954 on a "troika" model, with a communist state (Poland), a Western state (Canada) and a neutral (India).

The task was important, since the ICCs were responsible for relocating populations, supervising elections and monitoring the new boundaries. The manpower commitment was relatively heavy, however, as almost 100 bilingual officers and a substantial number of External Affairs officials were required for what proved to be a notably thankless task. In Cambodia and Laos there was initially some success, but the Vietnam ICC bogged down in futility as the war there spread out of control in the 1960s.

Suez Crisis

When the Suez Crisis arose in 1956, Canadians eagerly seized on the opportunity for UN service. The UN had quickly become involved when Britain and France co-operated with Israel in an assault on Egypt. The Canadian interest was to minimize the harm done to the Western alliance by the Anglo-French aggression. Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester B. Pearson, working with UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, produced the idea of a peacekeeping force to stabilize the situation and to permit the withdrawal of the attackers. To assist the effort, Pearson offered a battalion of The Queen's Own Rifles. The United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) came into being quickly, with Canada's General E.L.M. Burns, commander of the UN Truce Supervision Organization in Palestine, named UNEF commander.

The Egyptians, to Canada's surprise, objected to the presence of Canadians. The uniforms, the regimental name and the Canadian flags all seemed very similar to those of the British invaders and, the Egyptians argued, their people would not understand. In the end, a compromise was struck: Canadian service and supply troops, vital to the success of the UN force, would replace the infantry. This experience played its part in convincing Pearson that Canada needed its own symbols; it also won him the Nobel Peace Prize.

Missions and Criticisms in the 1960s, 70s and 80s

After Suez, Canadians came to feel that peacekeeping was their métier. This was evident in July 1960 when a newly independent Republic of the Congo erupted in violence. The Diefenbaker government was reluctant to participate when the UN asked for signallers and other troops, but public opinion forced the government's hand. Peacekeeping popularity had been established, and there was no hesitation in 1962 when Canada sent a small number of men to West New Guinea (Irian Jaya), or in the next year when servicemen went to Yemen for service with a UN observer mission. A much larger commitment followed in 1964 when the UN intervened to separate Greeks and Turks in Cyprus. Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs Paul Martin, Sr was instrumental in creating the Cyprus UN force.

But the heyday of peacekeeping was in decline. Some critics were already beginning to complain that peacekeeping merely rendered situations static and did nothing to resolve them. Others worried about costs and casualties and fretted over often unclear mandates. A severe blow came in 1967 when President Nasser ordered the UNEF out of Egypt and then ordered the Canadian force to withdraw. Another Arab–Israeli war followed. The expulsion of the Canadians amounted almost to a national humiliation, a reaction that was not eased by charges that Canadians in the ICC had been spying for the US. The idea of peacekeeping had helped to reinforce a mythos of Canada as an impartial and acceptable observer, but peacekeeping fell out of favour for a time in Canada.

By the 1980s, however, both the Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney governments seemed willing to consider new requests for troops more favourably. For Canadian service personnel, however, peacekeeping had become a chore rather than an opportunity, and the public attitude to UN service remained ill defined.

Return to Peace Action

In the early 1990s, the end of the Cold War and the demise of Soviet influence in international affairs left power vacuums throughout the world. Without the cohesion of Soviet military authority, many of the former Soviet states, notably Yugoslavia, disintegrated into ethnic conflict. The UN responded with mixed results in order to bring some form of military peace as well as humanitarian aid to the stricken people. No fewer than 36 separate UN operations were begun from 1988, when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the UN for its peacekeeping operations, to 1998. Canada played a role in most of these operations, making up about 10% of the total peacekeeping forces. As of 1999, Canadian peacekeepers were active in Croatia, Bosnia, Haiti, Minurca and several other trouble spots.