In late 1992, the Canadian Airborne Regiment (CAR) was sent to Somalia to assist the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission in that country. Initially, the UN troops operated according to the relatively restrictive rules of engagement that directed most such operations. As the violence in Somalia escalated, however, the United States requested and received permission from the UN Security Council to form a coalition that would function under the more warlike rules of Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. Canada was asked to modify its role, and the CAR was ordered to take part in this new non-UN coalition under U.S. command.
After much successful work in other parts of Somalia in the early weeks of the operation, the CAR found itself responsible for maintaining law and order in the Belet Huen sector. (This region is in the center of the country, on the main road from the Somali capital of Mogadishu to Ethiopia.) The rules of engagement remained much the same, though the violence in this area had diminished and limited itself largely to infiltrations of the CAR compounds by thieves. Outside of the town of Belet Huen, the CAR compound was divided into three commando sub-units, one each for the engineers, headquarters, and support sub-units. Each commando was recruited from one of the three Canadian Infantry Units (one from Le Royal 22e Régiment [R22eR], two from the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry [PPCLI], and three from the Royal Canadian Regiment [RCR]). Humanitarian aid was now restored.
On the night of 16 March 1993, soldiers of the Canadian Airborne Regiment caught a young Somali intruder inside their camp perimeter. Later that night, these soldiers of 2 Commando tortured and killed Shidane Abukar Arone. Other members of the commando heard the Somali's agonized screams but did nothing.
The Military Police began an investigation, and the prime suspect, Master Corporal Clayton Matchee, attempted to hang himself. The attempt failed, leaving the soldier with severe brain damage. A board of inquiry of three officers and two civilians was formed in April and submitted its initial interim report on 31 August 1993. This initial report concluded that the Canadian Airborne Regiment did have serious discipline problems. The board was not reconvened by General John de Chastelain, the Chief of the Defence Staff, while David Collenette, the Minister of Defence considered how to proceed. During that time, the police and criminal investigations continued. Private Kyle Brown was charged and sent to jail, the officer commanding 2 Commando, Major Seward, served three months detention, and several other punishments and reprimands were awarded to other members of the sub-unit.
On 21 March 1994, Defence Minister David Collenette ordered a formal civilian inquiry into the Somalia affair. The members of the Somalia Commission were federal court judge Gilles Létourneau, journalism professor Peter Desbarats, and Mr. Justice Robert Rutherford, a respected Armour Corps reservist and veteran.
Almost two years after the incident, the media in Canada acquired a videotape of initiation rites used by one of the sub-units (commandos) of the regiment. The rites, which had apparently been adopted following exchanges with the French Foreign Legion, were quite severe. Indeed, Defence Minister Collenette considered the rituals so degrading that he acted against the advice of the Chief of the Defence Staff and ordered the regiment disbanded on 5 March 1995.
The inquiry, having proven itself threatening to the government and having revealed events disturbing to many citizens, was closed prematurely. The commission presented its findings, a document issued under the title Dishonoured Legacy, on 2 July 1997. The report found fault at all levels of the Department of Defence down to the CAR's regimental command. However, the report failed to deal with the basic problems facing the Canadian Armed Forces. It found that the Canadian Airborne Regiment had been poorly trained, inadequately equipped, and suffered from serious discipline problems. While General John de Chastelain, the Chief of the Defence Staff in 1993, knew that the CAR had serious problems, the Canadian government could not admit that its "elite" regiment was not fit for duty. Years of budget cutbacks and cost-cutting measures in the Defence Department had taken their toll. Canadian ground forces in particular suffered from a lack of modern vehicles and weaponry. At the same time, the Canadian government had committed its armed forces to a growing list of peacekeeping missions. The actions of some members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment in Somalia are unpardonable, but they have their roots in the defence policies of the federal government over the last 40 years. The disbanding of the Canadian Airborne Regiment has left Canada's army without a high-readiness intervention unit and no paratrooper capability. A few months after the disbandment, the Chief of the Defence Staff did announce the reforming of the 3rd battalions of the RCR, PPCLI, and R22eR as light infantry battalions, each of which had an airborne rifle company. In addition to partially filling the gap in parachutist capability, this reform provided the army with additional resources at a time when it was desperately over-tasked with peacekeeping missions, particularly in the Balkans.
The most unfortunate aspect of the illegal acts of a handful of Canadian soldiers is that the Canadian success story in Somalia has been overlooked by the media and remains largely unknown to the majority of Canadians. The untold story is how the paratroopers of the Canadian Airborne Regiment, tankers of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, and combat engineers from 1 Combat Engineer Regiment, all based in Canadian Forces Base Petawawa in Ontario, very quickly subdued the heavily armed gangs. Attacks on Canadian patrols early in the mission were suppressed with force, and local warlords quickly realized that Canada's combat power was not just for show. Humanitarian agencies could then get about their business of distributing relief supplies, a task that was never the primary mission of Canada's troops. Canadian soldiers then turned to rebuilding a local infrastructure of police, hospitals, schools, etc. The most poignant testimony to the effectiveness of this second "reconstruction" phase of the Canadian mission came from the father of Shidane Arone. He pleaded with Major-General Lewis Mackenzie, who was by then retired and on an assignment as a journalist to Somalia, to intercede to keep Canadian soldiers in his country. He told Mackenzie that, while he grieved for his son, the value of the peacekeepers to Somalia was enormous.