Marching Orders

Canada can use its sesquicentennial to launch a new, more peaceful world order.

Written by Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire (retired)

Posted May 31, 2017

Big Question

How can Canada be a global leader?


One hundred and fifty years ago, four British colonies peacefully united, and the country of Canada was created. But what really makes a country? Is it signatures on a document alone? Or is it a visceral, emotional coming together of a people?

Fifty years after Confederation, one hundred years ago this April, our Canada — the Canada of justice, and responsibility, and self-sacrifice — was born on the battlefields of France. At Vimy Ridge, the youth of our nation answered a rallying cry from the other side of the world. They crossed the ocean, bled, and sacrificed for their country. Thanks to them, the Canada that had been built through diplomacy and political negotiation was finally recognized by the world as a true nation-state.

The year 2017 is a seminal anniversary, indeed, but what of it? Is this to be a year of mere remembrances of past glories and great people? A year of ribbon cutting and parades? Or could it be, in fact, an opportunity to rally the incredible potential that has been built up in this country to take its place in the world?

Back in 2007, when I was a senator, I stood up in caucus and asked my colleagues, “What is special about the number 2017?” I was met with total silence. So, I prompted: “What’s special about the year 2017?” Same answer. I reminded them that 2017 will be the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of one of the most stable democracies in the world and the one hundredth anniversary of the year this country took a major stride from being a colonial cousin to a nation-state.

I asked the question, “So, what’s the plan? Do we eat cake? Build skating rinks and plant gardens? And, more importantly, what’s the plan beyond 2017? What do we want to do with this incredible country of ours? What’s the vision? What is the focus? Where are we going to fit in the complex arena out there in the world?” There was no answer.

Five years later, in 2012, I stood up again. I asked the same questions and got the same answers; and, if you look at the political parties’ platforms during the last election, you will see that the only plan therein was to “commemorate” the sesquicentennial.

I guess we are going to eat a hell of a lot of cake.

This, I feel, is a missed opportunity of enormous scale. When the world was in chaos in 1917, young Canadians answered the global cry of people in need. In 2017, the world is again in chaos. Crises in Libya, in Syria, in Ukraine, in Darfur, and in the Congo urgently required our strong and steady hand; but we did not act with urgency, so catastrophe prevails. Potential crises in South Sudan, Iraq, and Burundi all demand we intervene before they, too, turn cataclysmic.

Canada was once a nation that understood true leadership. Canada played an integral role in the formation of the United Nations. Canada forged the concept and practice of peacekeeping. Canada introduced the notion of the responsibility to protect. However, for about a decade, Canada slowly, quietly, and coldly abandoned the principles that made us renowned. I think we are now back on track.

Canada was, and still can be, uniquely positioned as a leading middle power: We aim not to forge empires (though our failure to reconcile our treatment of First Nations has taught us some very painful but important lessons); we believe strongly in human rights, and we have the tools necessary to advance those rights and make this the focus for our future.

With a seat on the UN Security Council, our altruistic participation in wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping missions around the world, and a solid international reputation, Canada became known as a very humane nation, a place that produced good people and interesting leaders, with common sense, who brought out the best in others. We Canadians were acknowledged the world over for our sense of humanity, our respect — not just tolerance, but respect — for others.

I believe these values are founded in Canada’s linguistic and cultural history, which had a unique and profound effect on our national psyche and engendered within us a depth of experience with minority populations who want to maintain their identity as well as to join the larger Canadian community. Though we have had bumps along the way, our overarching commitment to bilingualism seems to have sparked a visceral, almost unconscious commitment to the value of diversity, respect for fundamental human rights, and the general promotion of peace.

We are kind, but, unbeknownst to many of us, Canada is also one of the most powerful countries in the world. With our mastery of technology, our enormous land mass, and our beneficent beliefs, we have emerged as a leading middle power, and this puts us in a very special position in terms of our international role.


Our past has earned us great respect beyond our borders. Developing countries see us as an honest broker, so we have the diplomatic capacity to resolve or even to prevent conflict in areas where superpowers would be viewed with suspicion. As such, we are uniquely positioned to exercise significant influence for good in the world. We can, and we must. As Winston Churchill said, when a nation acquires power, it acquires responsibility beyond its borders.

And so, this great nation of ours is poised to lead the way in the midst of today’s staggering revolutions in borderless communication, in climate change and the environment, in human rights, and in social and global responsibility. We are poised to grab our leadership reins once again, reorient our focus, and articulate a forward-looking vision.

We are poised, but we have not leapt. Why not?

I believe that before we can truly claim our place again on the world stage we need to coalesce. To do this, we require leadership to tap our strengths and bring us together. We are a nation in need of guidance, of a single, encompassing Canadian identity that will propel us into the world as one.

Military history has given us many examples of coming together as a nation with a cohesive understanding of who we are — this happened with Vimy, this happened on D-Day, and this happened during the heyday of the blue berets. But it never took us far enough,perhaps because the accomplishments of our armed forces alone is not enough.

Colour photos of Left to right: Senator Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, astronaut Chris Hadfield, soccer champion Christine Sinclair, and environmentalist David Suzuki.

We have many diverse examples today of admirable leadership in various disciplines: Astronaut Chris Hadfield has helped to bring us together through science and technology; scientist David Suzuki through environmental protection; businesswoman Heather Reisman through literacy; soccer player Christine Sinclair through sport; humanitarian Stephen Lewis through human rights; Lieutenant General Mike Jeffery (retired) through an educated military officer corps; Senator Sandra Lovelace Nicholas through Indigenous women’s rights; singer Gord Downie through music.

And yet we still do not recognize in ourselves the enormity of our potential, and we continue to define ourselves by what we are not, instead of what we are, or even what we strive to be.

What is required is a visionary, grand strategic leadership that understands the best of our core and looks ahead and beyond, that engages in shaping the future, not merely responding to it day to day. We need the leadership to bring these disparate facet together so that we can significantly influence humanity. And we should be using this anniversary year to start.

I can think of a few concrete suggestions that would serve to unify the country and to secure its cohesiveness well into the future, physically, symbolically, and internationally. We could start with something as simple as a high-speed cross Canada passenger train service. We did this when the country was young, and it effectively consolidated the country (for its day, it was high-speed, too!). Yes, it may take decades to build, but it would be a tangible project to connect the people of our country and to encourage them to explore and to better understand both the vast richness of our land and one another.

To inspire hearts and minds, I would recommend the erection of a statue on the shore of the Ottawa River — a copy of Mother Canada (the original stands on the Vimy Memorial in France) facing directly at Parliament Hill so that every politician there would see her every day and be reminded of the very real consequences of the decisions they must make.

This could be particularly poignant when, as a nation, we are called beyond our borders again. This representation from Vimy Ridge would be a grand gesture to the sacrifices Canada makes when our elected officials send troops, and NGOs, and diplomats into harm’s way; it would be a reflection of the human cost — of individual lives as well as the families they leave behind — of our commitment to humanity.

Perhaps the most powerful demonstration of true statesmanship and forward-thinking leadership to which we could commit ourselves as a country would be taking on the reform of the United Nations. The recommendations are there; former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan produced them more than ten years ago, and still nothing has been done to implement them.

Wouldn’t it be something if Canada used its sesquicentennial as a launch pad to implement those recommendations? Or Canada could implement a proposal of its own — such as creating a lower council made up of middle powers like us. We could push the member states of the United Nations to fully embrace the responsibility-to-protect doctrine, revolutionize the Westphalian concept of sovereignty, and make protection of the individual paramount. Again, this would not be a quick job. It’s twenty years of work, at minimum. But we have the brainpower, we have the economic independence, we have the work ethic and resilience to sustain the sacrifices, and we have the time to do it.

Canada may end up leading the global reversal, shepherding the world back to globalization.

These are things, I think, that go a little farther than building another centennial rink. And, while I recognize the importance of those rinks back in 1967, and how the subsidization of those rinks brought people together within and between communities through the “good old hockey game,” I also recognize that, fifty years on, we are ready to go further.

Finally, the most important (if least tangible) suggestion I would make is to engage the youth of our progressive nation, to broaden their horizons, and to turn them into global players.

Over the past few generations, advances in technology, transportation and communication have shrunk our perspective of the world. When I was a young man, just graduating from the Royal Military College of Canada, human beings landed on the moon, and even more revolutionary than the sight of those astronauts walking on extraterrestrial soil was the view they had of Earth from outer space. For so many of us, this was the first step in seeing ourselves as one, humanity as a whole.

Today, when we can communicate with such ease, with almost no consideration of borders or boundaries, and when intercontinental travel is little more than a sophisticated bus ride, generations are growing up with an instinctive world view, which is reinforced every moment of their connected lives. They can physically and virtually touch all of humanity in real time. Globalization is no longer a concept for them, it is a reality.

Yes, we are in a (hopefully short-lived) period of backlash, with a resurgence of nationalism and a thirst for patriarchal, supremacist nostalgia. Right-wing isolationist movements are gaining popularity in democratic societies, and this is very unsettling. We have countries wanting to abandon the International Criminal Court. We have others questioning the responsibility-to-protect doctrine (approved by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005, this was the only true reform in our time to attempt to prevent mass atrocities and abuses of human rights).

We have massive numbers of refugees and internally displaced people growing up with no education, no settling, no way of getting back to their roots, and so creating horrific generational turmoil that will affect us all for decades to come. We see those preying on fear of the “other,” threatening the basic human rights of others in the process, proclaiming superiority and pounding on their chests, while wantonly disregarding international conventions and slamming shut borders.

In Canada, we have just gone through a decade of our own isolationist, myopic perspective. But we survived it; and I am confident that the world will survive, too. In fact, it is possible that Canada may end up leading the global reversal, shepherding the world back to globalization. We now have a progressive, youthful, risk-taking, and innovative leadership, with the potential to articulate a movement that projects our fundamental values and defines us by them.

Now the question is: Who should be the target of that movement? Both within Canada and throughout the developing world, I believe it must be the youth. I call this generation the generation without borders — the under-thirties who unwittingly hold the balance of power in their hands but who urgently require guidance to maximize their incredible potential.

We have already seen examples of this group utilizing their numbers and their mastery of the communications revolution to effect change — the Occupy movement, for instance, or the Arab Spring. These were examples of the bravery and influence young people can demonstrate when they have a focus and something or someone to direct them.

The potential for activism among Canadian youth is just screaming to be rallied for causes that they are aware of but with which many are reticent to engage. Some simply do not know how to proceed; some are stymied by the system, imposed by previous generations, that values making money more than making change. Yet, despite their hesitation, they are equipped like no other generation with the potential to break the mould, to shift the social structures away from working to survive and to a social commitment that insists that humanity thrives fairly and within the tenets of human rights for all.

As a middle power, Canada could take this special moment in our history to nurture leadership among youth and to encourage coalitions of young people from this nation and other countries — especially those in the developing world — to create a powerful, influential movement. Their numbers and their technological savvy, plus their inclusive, global perspective, give them more power than any other generation has ever had.

Believe me, belligerents around the world understand the value of youth. They have already recognized the enormous untapped energy of children and young adults. I saw it in Rwanda, over twenty years ago, when the majority of the killings during the genocide were being committed by the youth wing of the extremist party called the Interahamwe.

We see it today with ISIS, al-Qaida, Boko Haram, and al-Shabaab, not to mention innumerable local street gangs and organized crime syndicates. All use and rely on children to do the dirty work of ruthless, unconscionable adults. In fact, almost every conflict in the world today has the use of child soldiers as the primary weapon of war.

I have devoted the rest of my life to eradicating the use of child soldiers. Along with my team at the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, I actively advocate for a global partnership that is committed to ending the recruitment and use of child soldiers worldwide.

I believe the issue of child soldiers could serve as a major policy step on which various governmental departments could co-operate, including and especially youth engagement in peace processes and the prevention of conflict. We must appreciate the incredible value that young people have to contribute to a movement. How is it that the “bad guys” have picked up on this so profoundly when we “good guys” have not?

This is the key. This is how I believe that we, Canada, with our new young leader, can and should energize and guide the youth of our country to prepare for the inevitable unified future that our world can look forward to. We must maximize our human and resource potential and then mould it into international leadership potential, to a commitment beyond our borders.

We have done it before. Young people built up this country back in the nineteenth century; young people fought at Vimy Ridge half a century later; and young people engaged in UN peace operations in the decades during and after the Cold War.

As we celebrate their bravery and sacrifice, let’s encourage our young population to make similar efforts for their country and for humanity. Let’s use this anniversary year to coalesce again. Children are being used to fight war; let’s engage our youth to prevent war.

Colour photo of two young women tending a garden.

I have noticed that youth in Canada are no longer going en masse to Europe — like my generation did — to look at the past and what the West built on the backs of others. No, they are going to countries that are developing. They are trying to prevent poverty and conflict, and they want to be on the front lines of the future of peace. We must encourage this impulse for young people to engage with their global peers, to create a sense of solidarity between the youth here in Canada and those at risk of being used to wage adult wars.

I would consider it wise for this nation to instill a formal rite of passage after high school: that every young person have a pair of boots under their bed that have been soiled in the earth of a developing region — in another country or in the neglected areas of the Canadian North. Let them experience for themselves what is happening to eighty per cent of the world and bring that knowledge and passion back to the twenty per cent of the “haves.”

Both physically in the field and as activists at home, young Canadians could help us all to rethink how we see peace and how we see the world. Peace cannot just be here; peace is achieved when humanity — all of us, equally — will be at peace. I am so confident that the youth today, who do not see conflict as inevitable and problems as insurmountable, can crack the code and bring that eighty per cent into the body politic of humanity. If only they have the cohesion and the leadership to guide them.

This year, as we celebrate our peaceful and plentiful democracy, let us be inspired by our past accomplishments. But let us also rethink those policies that have been guiding us. Let’s encourage real leadership to guide our county whose balance of power is in the hands of those under thirty. Let’s advance humanity by using our unique skills and potential.

We are a young country, still searching and seeking cohesion. I see the good and the bad. I see Indigenous peoples running out of patience as their youth self-destruct. I see new faces and foreign ways to pray; I see them embraced and celebrated in their differences. I see respect of fairness for others.

I see a solid system of governance, responsible to all its citizens, and I see those among them who are choosing to commit themselves to it in a wide variety of disciplines. I see untapped energy and potential that is often stymied by a lack of focus and of vision. I see a disparate grouping of adventurous and generous people, just waiting to be brought together.

So let this be the rallying cry to our leaders during this special year: We are ready! Give us our marching orders! Show us a future in which we may all participate in shaping, for a thriving and peaceful humanity, a future in which we seek security, serenity, and human rights for all. It is my sincere hope that this cohesion — the understanding of what “being Canadian” truly means — may be held up as an admirable model for “being human.”

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Lieutenant General the Honourable Roméo Dallaire (retired) is the founder of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, a global partnership with the mission to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers. A celebrated advocate for human rights, especially in regards to child soldiers, veterans, and the prevention of mass atrocities, General Dallaire is also a respected government and United Nations adviser, a bestselling author, and a former Canadian Senator.

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