OTTAWA — The Canadian military's upcoming foray into Mali is expected to include a marked female presence as the Trudeau government looks to have Canada lead by example in the push to have more women on peacekeeping missions.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan on Monday will unveil details of Canada's mission to Mali, which will be centred around the deployment of up to six military helicopters.
The aircraft will include a combination of Chinook helicopters tasked with providing medical evacuations and logistical support and smaller Griffons to act as armed escorts for the larger transports.
The exact numbers are still being finalized, a senior government official said Sunday on condition of anonymity since an official announcement had not been made.
The decision to send military helicopters to Mali follows a direct request from the United Nations and fulfils the Trudeau government's promise in November to make such aircraft available to a future peacekeeping mission.
But Canada will also take the opportunity to make good on another commitment made in Vancouver, the official said, namely to champion an overall increase in the number of female peacekeepers.
The UN has adopted a target of having women represent at least 15 per cent of military personnel serving as peacekeepers by 2020, and 20 per cent of police officers.
But many countries are falling short of those targets — including Canada even though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled several measures in Vancouver aimed at getting other countries to do more on the issue.
Of the 19 Canadian police officers deployed on UN missions at the end of February, five were women, which equates to 26 per cent. But only two of 22 military personnel were women, which is just over nine per cent.
Canada has a way to go, the government official acknowledged, which is why the military will attempt to ensure women are well represented among the 200 to 250 Canadian military personnel deployed to Mali.
"One of the key things that we committed to in Vancouver was to increase the participation of women in missions, and we will be seeking to meet our objectives as much as possible," the official said.
"So within that entire deployment, we will seek as much as possible to meet our objectives to increase the number of women."
The Canadian helicopters will be deployed later this year to the northern city of Gao, which serves as a main staging area for the UN into northern Mali where Islamic militants and Tuareg rebels are active.
Canada is expected to take over from the Belgians, who are currently in the midst of replacing the Germans after filling the gap for several years.
The plan is for Canada to hand the mission over to another country, perhaps Jordan or the Netherlands, in 2019. Trudeau spoke to the leaders of both countries in recent days.
Mali has long been seen as a frontrunner for where Canada would deploy peacekeepers, after the Liberals promised a return to UN missions during the last federal election.
But the government had nonetheless dragged its feet for several years, in part because of perceptions that it was an extremely dangerous mission given that dozens of peacekeepers have been killed in attacks there since 2013.
Most of those killed were peacekeepers from developing countries, who are responsible for patrolling and guarding against attacks from the militants and rebels.
Two Germans were killed last year when their helicopter crashed due to what was later deemed to be a technical error, while two peacekeepers from the Netherlands died in a similar incident in 2015.
But one foreign diplomat whose country has experience operating helicopters in Mali nonetheless told The Canadian Press that the risk was relatively low, with the country's harsh climate posing perhaps the greatest risk.
"There are no concerns about anti-aircraft weapons. So it's safe," the diplomat said.
"The issues that might cause a challenge are more the climate: it's the strong winds with the sands in the desert, which are really tough for highly sophisticated helicopters. That and the heat."
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press