Is it time for the Maple Berets?

What if the Department of National Defence trained Canadian youth in conflict prevention and sent them to overseas conflict zones?

As we approach Remembrance Day on November 11th, Canada will remember the many valiant and brave young people who fought in previous world wars for the values we hold dear today. There has never been a shortage of Canadian youth willing to put themselves in harm’s way should the occasion and cause arise. But today’s world is much more complex and our understanding of the root causes of conflict has moved beyond jingoism and simplicity and embraced a global view of peace and security based on a common set of global goals that reflects an integrated understanding of our world’s challenges.

We understand that conflict is related to poverty or injustice. We can see that climate change threatens regional stability and that unsustainable consumption and production puts pressure on needed resources. Our defence policies are adapting from the Westphalian concept of protecting nation states and boundaries to the modern view of protecting human well-being and our ability to survive as a species.

Seventy years ago the world was united in a common agenda to tackle poverty and eliminate the causes of the Great World Wars. Young Canadian soldiers helped to keep the peace and young Canadian civilians volunteered to work with non-governmental organizations in every corner of the globe. We differentiated between peacekeeping and peacebuilding and between humanitarian response to crisis and the long-term development work that was necessary to for sustainable socio-economic change. Each type of volunteer was different and there were separate streams of programs for each.

Today, through Global Affairs Canada and in partnership with non-governmental organizations, young people in Canada can participate in internships abroad and work on development projects tackling long-term development issues and youth are not expected nor encouraged to place themselves directly in harm’s way. But what about the need for volunteers or young Canadians in crisis zones or for humanitarian response? We are loathe to have our youth, unless they are soldiers, involved in the middle east or Syria. Yet these are the critical places where well-trained, enthusiastic, valiant people are needed to help in the world. Our support for the blue berets of the United Nations peacekeeping forces has dwindled to an all-time low. Yet Canadian youth appear to be as keen as their grandparents to tackle the world’s most dire issues. Perhaps it is time for the Maple Berets?

Could we have gender, climate change, or human rights specialists integrated into our armed forces? What would a highly trained, crisis prevention force look like? Perhaps the lessons we have learned since the Second World War point us more toward prevention and conflict resolution than all out combat. Perhaps there are young Canadians willing and able to try.

If there is one thing we can learn from ISIS it is that a modern war more about shifting mindsets on the frontlines than winning massive battles in the field and to combat that sort of war we need a new kind of warrior. There is less need to be armed with guns and bullets and more need to understand cultural context, cultural drivers, and tackle the root causes of extremism or resources wars.

Currently our Minister of National Defence is reviewing Canadian defence policy. Could we establish a fresh, new force of skilled, highly trained conflict prevention specialists, even volunteers, working alongside their mentors in the department of defence? Dubbed the Maple Berets, could this force of young people tackle the world’s most pressing crises without guns? A force that fundamentally tackles conflict by addressing the root causes of war and making the links between drivers of war? Are we not perfectly positioned for this role with our proud history and reputation? Are they not perfectly complemented by the thousands of young Canadians that currently volunteer for development projects?

Like the many young Canadians who stepped up to the plate in years before,their task will not be easy. They will not fight from a distance nor can we guarantee their safety. Like their parents and grandparents before them they will know this and yet they will go, they will fight for a better world and the Canadian values that make us proud on November 11th.

Michael Simpson is the Executive Director of the British Columbia Council for International Cooperation (BCCIC) as well as a current director of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC) and currently manages through BCCIC the Inter-Council Network (ICN) of eight Provincial and Regional Councils.