Pearson’s ghost: The short road from peacekeeping training to the promotion of religious freedom

We need action not only to end the fighting but to make the peace…

Lester B. Pearson, November 2, 1956

This inscription on Canada’s national peacekeeping memorial, and indeed the monument itself have now taken on new meaning.

Earlier this month the Pearson Centre, a Canadian institution devoted to the promotion of peace, security, human rights and the rule of law around the world, closed its doors in Ottawa for the last time.

Very much in keeping with the overall response to this country’s steady global retrenchment, news of the closure evoked barely a whimper among members of the public or the press.

This retreat from the front lines of thought and action on critical issues of international affairs is cause for concern.

Here’s why.

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The “Lester B. Pearson Canadian International Peacekeeping Training Centre” was opened with much fanfare in 1994, and was intended to represent a major Canadian contribution to peace and security world-wide. Originally part of the now defunct Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre became an independent body in 2001.

The organization’s early years were devoted to the training of Canadian and international peacekeepers for service in UN-sponsored missions around the globe. Most of the large-scale training activities were conducted on the site of a former Canadian forces base, Cornwallis, located in Deep Brook N.S.. Branch offices were opened in Halifax, Montreal and Ottawa, with the headquarters function moving to the capital in 2008.

Over the course of almost two decades of operation, the Pearson Centre trained over 18,000 candidates drawn from military, police and civilian communities in some 150 countries. To quote from the entry in Wikipedia:

The Centre conducts education, training and research on all aspects of peace operations throughout the world, with the majority of its projects under way in Africa and Latin America. Services range from the training of police officers in Rwanda and Nigeria to serve as peacekeepers in Darfur; through delivery of pre-deployment training for Latin American peace keepers in Brasília; to the design and delivery of complex training exercises for use in Europe and Africa…

For the country that effectively invented the concept of multilateral peacekeeping during the Suez crisis in 1956, and that contributed to most of the UN’s blue-helmeted peacekeeping  operations for decades thereafter, all of this may have seemed both natural and appropriate. But it was not to last. In tandem with radically declining enthusiasm for participation in UN missions, the Government of Canada gradually reduced its financial support, and efforts by the Centre to develop alternative sources of revenue did not prove sufficient.  The offices in Montreal and Halifax were wound down in 2008 and 2010, respectively, with the Cornwallis facility ceasing its operations in 2011. The decision to shutter the remaining office in Ottawa, announced on September 26, completed the process.

The burden of filling the void will fall upon others.

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How has this come to pass?

The Pearson Centre was beholden mainly to the Canadian state for its survival. Today all states, for centuries the only significant unit of accounting in international relations, are having a tough time adjusting to their relatively diminished role in the era of globalization. The problems are structural, but extend well beyond the need to rein in debt, balance budgets and finance programs.  While states are still major players – and here recent events in Syria offer a particularly vivid demonstration – power is nonetheless shifting upwards, to supra-national organizations, outwards, to multinational corporations and civil society, and downwards, to other levels of government, cities, and even to individuals such as Bill Gates and Bono.

Unable to adequately diversify its dependence and move away from a reliance on government funding, the Pearson Centre may have been caught in the squeeze.

To be sure, Canada does not have a strong culture, as exists in the USA, of privately endowed think tanks and NGOs. As government funding has become increasingly scarce, many independent, non-profit sources of research analysis have either merged, as was the case with the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies and the Canadian International Council, or simply disappeared, as happened with FOCAL, the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security and the Canadian Consortium on Asia Pacific Security.

Still, this seems at best a partial explanation of the Centre’s demise, which may be more closely related to fundamental changes in Canada’s international policy priorities.

It is clear that in the estimation of the Canadian government trade promotion and conventional defence issues enjoy a substantial premium over diplomacy or development.  Foreign policy was absent from last week’s Throne Speech, which was itself overtaken by the announcement the next day of an agreement in principle with the EU on a free trade agreement.  Simply put, while the work of the Centre may have meshed well with items on the Human Security Agenda of the late 1990s – children in conflict, blood diamonds, the land mine ban, R2P – it didn’t fit with contemporary objectives. Like those of Rights and Democracy, an organization which suffered a similar fate in 2012, the Centre’s activities might have been considered politically and ideologically tainted by virtue of association with the previous government…

Perhaps some Canadians are not bothered by our serial receipt of Fossil of the Year awards, or our failure to gain election to the UN Security Council, or the variety of other dubious attributes which have come to characterize the recasting of Canada’s international image and reputation. Even at that, as a point of principle Canada’s indigenous capacity to understand and engage with a challenging and ever-changing world is surely better bolstered than bulldozed.

The closure of the Pearson Centre has left us all poorer, and represents yet another nail in the coffin of progressive Canadian internationalism. Unlike the creation of an Office of Religious Freedom – however much that initiative might resonate in some quarters domestically – modest expenditure on the maintenance of a thriving mix of think tanks and NGOs would produce new ideas, enlightened proposals and innovative programs. In contrast to much government spending – defence procurement comes immediately to mind – investment in civil society excellence is highly cost-effective and makes very good public policy sense.

A course correction is long overdue.