Risk is an inevitable consequence of entering war zones. Over 500 Canadians have died seeking to maintain the peace in Korea. Since the Korean War ended in 1953, 100 more have been killed in other operations. Hostile fire, mines, and vehicle accidents -- a major hazard in war zones where roads are primitive and bereft of maintenance - have injured hundreds more. Some, such as those peacekeepers who served in Bosnia, have contracted as yet undetermined illnesses. Many more have suffered from the stress associated with their arduous and hazardous peacekeeping missions.

United Nations Transitional Authority, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, September 1993.
United Nations (UN 197312, photo by Pernacca Sudhakaran).

United Nations Transitional Authority, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, September 1993.

Canadian troops on parade at Pochentong Airport near Phnom Penh.

The most intense period of peacekeeping for Canada was the 1990s when it became involved in the Balkans. Initially committed to a battalion-size battle group for duties in Croatia, within a few months Canada deployed a second one to Bosnia. Meanwhile, Canada was still committed to a battalion in Cyprus (an obligation that was mercifully terminated shortly thereafter). Moreover, at the very moment that Canada was committing thousands of troops to the Balkan war zone, almost as many as involved in the Korean War operations, the army was reduced from 10 to 7 battalions of infantry (including the Canadian Airborne Regiment). Eventually reason prevailed, and, shortly after the disbanding of the Airborne Regiment, three additional battalions were created to provide essential relief.

Canadian soldiers in Croatia and Bosnia were often directly targeted themselves, and many of them suffered fatalities and injuries. In many ways, however, the more serious scars were the psychological ones. These wounds were the inevitable consequence of being observers of man's seemingly infinite ability to inflict misery on his fellow man and, worst of all, not being able to intervene. Many Canadian soldiers encountered Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) years after the event, and several have been pushed to the point of suicide. (1) Soldiers often deal with PTSD by informally discussing problems among themselves, but reservists and specialist augmentees who arrive just before a deployment and then return afterwards to their homes do not have such support. Eventually the army realized that reservists would have to be kept some weeks afterwards for this very reason. At the same time as Canada's overseas deployments were increasing, the country's military infrastructure was being radically trimmed and horror stories of soldiers' medical and social problems being neglected were all too common. The degree to which Canada's National Defence and Veterans Affairs staffs neglected soldiers' post-combat needs was nothing short of a national scandal, a fact that the Chief of Defence Staff eventually admitted. A contributing factor here is that the Canadian public had no idea as to just how grim conditions were in the Balkans. The public never heard about many casualties -- Canada's media seldom had reporters with these units and the Ottawa public information services did not publicize the information. Even worse, in some cases, the public seems to have been misinformed about the circumstances surrounding the deaths and injuries of Canadian soldiers. On 18 June 1993, Corporal Daniel Gunther was observing from the driver's hatch of his TOW M113 APC when he was decapitated by a "deliberate attack by an anti-tank rocket." (2) The initial Ottawa press release stated that a direct hit from a mortar round, an event that could be dismissed as a random accident as a mortar is an area weapon, caused his death. A few days later, however, the death was further downplayed by claiming that he had been killed by the shrapnel from a mortar round landing near his vehicle. Evidently, the Canadian military was not willing to admit that Gunther had been targeted directly. Six months later, the press uncovered and reported the actual circumstances of his death, and his widow had to relive the trauma all over again. (3)

Aside from the human toll -- in the Balkans alone Canada suffered 11 fatalities and 102 wounded (4) -- peacekeeping is not inexpensive. Troops mounted in modern heavily armoured vehicles with state-of-the-art weapons and electronics is now the norm. Units rarely go overseas these days without considerable augmentation, particularly reservists, and time must be taken in order to build the social bonds and small unit tactical skills that allow infantry sections, platoons, and companies to meet the test of combat. Proper training is part of Canada's moral obligation to its soldiers, and training supplies like rations, ammunition, and fuel are all part of the price of peacekeeping. The Canadian air force's CF-18 fighter squadrons have been used extensively on peacekeeping missions over the last decade. These aircraft often operated with inadequate electronics that have now been upgraded. Canada's C-130 Hercules transports are notoriously overused and urgently need major refits or replacement. Canada spends over $150 million on such missions each year. Canada's contribution to UN and other peacekeeping efforts is, in fact, among the largest of any member country. It has been as high as the 4,500, and the men and women that Canada assigns to peacekeeping duties make up five per cent of all its military personnel.

Despite the significant costs -- both human and financial -- of peacekeeping, Canadians are generally supportive of their country's activities in this field. Canadians realize that in taking on this difficult, and often unappreciated, task, their soldiers are making a significant contribution to the international community. While the maintenance of truces is the most obvious benefit of such efforts, Canadian peacekeepers perform many other important, but less glamorous, duties. For example, the Cambodian mission saw Canadians supervise elections. Canadian sappers (field engineers), a group called upon proportionally even more heavily than Canada's infantry, have been on mine clearing and education missions from Yugoslavia to Afghanistan and Cambodia.

These are duties, moreover, that the Canadian military carry out with tremendous skill and dedication. Canadians are rightfully proud of the fine reputation that their peacekeepers have gained. The Canadian military is recognized around the globe as an experienced and effective peacekeeping force, a reputation based primarily on its high standard of combat skills and impartiality in dealing with all parties involved. Other areas of Canadian strength, such as logistics, communications, and air transport, are also highly regarded internationally. Indeed, for the first two decades after Suez, these skills were the foundation of Canada's reputation. Peacekeeping has become the element of Canadian military and foreign policy that perhaps most clearly defines Canada in its own eyes and, to a lesser degree, in the eyes of the world. In the words of a Canadian historian, J.L. Granatstein, Canada's role in the world during the twentieth century has changed from being a small part of the British Empire to being an international umpire. Sadly, severe budget cuts have affected the capabilities of Canada's army to provide peacekeeping contingents. Canada now has dramatically reduced deployment overseas to the point that its reputation as one of the pillars of UN peacekeeping is very much passé. In fairness, however, much of Canada's peacekeeping is now done under the NATO rather than UN flag, and some analysts wrongly (and perhaps deliberately) omit the NATO statistics from the equation.

Clearly peacekeeping has been a major focus of the Canadian military since shortly after the Korean War, but the primary focus of Canada's forces in the last 50 years was the ongoing standoff between NATO and the Soviet Union. The Cold War, as this conflict was called, required a constant state of readiness for a potential open confrontation. Moreover, Canada's armed forces have undertaken some active combat roles since 1953. Recently, for instance, Canadian soldiers, sailors, and airmen have been active in both the UN missions in the Gulf War and Somalia and the NATO operation in Kosovo.

  • 1. The first suicide seems to have been a soldier from 2 PPCLI Winnipeg. Like many soldiers in the unit, he had augmented 3 PPCLI during their tour. Many of these soldiers volunteered to return to Croatia to do the scheduled 2 PPCLI tour, but he was so depressed by the inability to relieve human suffering that he could not bear to return. He therefore remained on rear party while his fellow soldiers were in Croatia. Evidently he felt that he had let them down by not volunteering for the extended tour, and, on a Sunday morning, 10 September 1993, he donned his dress uniform, waited until the neighbouring church bells started to peal, put his shotgun to his mouth, and pulled the trigger. Typically, he had shown no outward signs of depression. See Scott Taylor and Brian Nolan, Tested Mettle: Canada's Peacekeepers at War (Ottawa: Esprit de Corps Publications, 1998), p. 123-24.
  • 2. "Significant Incident Report from Bosnia," quoted in Scott Taylor and Brian Nolan, Tested Mettle: Canada's Peacekeepers at War (Ottawa: Esprit de Corps Publications, 1998), p. 114.
  • 3. Corporal Gunther's widow and family have suffered through an unbelievable ordeal. Gunther had just been posted from 1 R22eR in Germany to Valcartier, Quebec, but, before he was able to settle his family, he was selected as an emergency reinforcement to replace an injured soldier in Bosnia. Since he now had a one-year-old child, he tried to amend his armed forces supplementary insurance policy from $100,000 to $250,000. His unit, anxious to get him overseas immediately, told him he could do that once he got to Bosnia. He was killed days after he arrived and before he could make the necessary changes to his policy. The army commander, Lieutenant-General Baril, later admitted that Gunther had been given insufficient time to prepare for his tour but, without a signature, the policy stood at $100,000. On Remembrance Day, 1993, his widow and her in-laws travelled to Quebec to lay a commemorative wreath. Upon their arrival, a young captain rudely told them that the ceremony was already finalized and that they would have to lay the wreath after the ceremony. Gunther's mother received the Silver Cross Medal, an award given to all mothers of servicemen killed overseas, through the mail rather than being presented it personally. See Scott Taylor and Brian Nolan, Tested Mettle: Canada's Peacekeepers at War (Ottawa: Esprit de Corps Publications, 1998), pp. 237-38.
  • 4. One of the first casualties of the Canadian involvement in the civil wars in Croatia and Bosnia seems to have been the casualty reporting system itself. This was probably due to the massive downsizing going on throughout the forces at the very moment the military was experiencing its highest ever level of "peacetime" overseas deployments. Administrative clerks, the soldiers, such as "Radar O'Reilly" of MASH fame, who keep an army alive administratively, were being offered severance packages on a massive scale throughout the forces. Many accepted these offers. In theatre, many casualties ended up in foreign medical facilities. Some of these cases, soldiers who were seriously wounded and operated on in theatre, seem to have been missed in the casualty statistics. The figure of 102 wounded therefore may well be somewhat higher.

Copyright © 2018 The Loyal Edmonton Regiment Museum
Prince of Wales Armouries Heritage Centre
10440 - 108 Ave, Edmonton