OTTAWA, May 6, 2005 -- The federal government is ramping up a military assistance and humanitarian aid package to help the international peacekeeping operation in the blood-soaked Darfur region of Sudan.
Canada's top general has just returned from a fact-finding trip to Africa and is preparing an action plan for the cabinet.
General Rick Hillier, the chief of the defence staff, said the Canadian Forces will be ready to deploy a large contingent overseas for "significant operations" by late summer after a year of recovery and rebuilding.
The Darfur situation, he said, "is a complex and a relatively dangerous environment and the tragedy that is unfolding there is on a scale that is very tough to determine."
Defence Minister Bill Graham said whatever the Canadian military does in Darfur, it will be in a support role to the African Union, which is in charge of the peacekeeping operation and whose member states will supply most of the ground troops.
"We'll be looking, from a government point of view, at every way we can help the people of Darfur," Mr. Graham said. "The military is part of the solution."
Prime Minister Paul Martin, whose minority government could face a no-confidence vote as early as next week, injected a note of urgency into the Darfur discussions, saying he will have an announcement in coming days.
The two-year-old Darfur conflict, which has already claimed about 300,000 lives, is "one of the most important tests as to how the West is prepared to come to the aid of Africa," Mr. Martin said.
He denied a suggestion that plans to help are motivated by Parliament Hill politics. Independent MP David Kilgour of Edmonton, whose vote in the Commons might be crucial to the Liberal government's survival, met with Mr. Martin this week to stress the importance of quick action in Darfur.
Mr. Kilgour, a former Liberal junior minister for African affairs, had just returned from his own week-long trip to the region. He said he'll decide how to vote on any no-confidence motion the day it comes, and how the government responds to the Darfur crisis is only one of the factors he'll consider.
Mr. Martin said he's not shopping for votes. He's been concerned about Darfur for some time.
The government has previously pledged about $20-million in assistance to the African Union, which includes the cost of leasing up to six helicopters to help AU peace observers get around the vast region. Canada also contributed thousands of helmets, flak jackets, and other bits of kit.
Gen. Hillier said he has 31 officers working with the AU on plans for Sudan.
Peacekeeping operations would extend over an enormous territory, the size of France, with few roads, airstrips or other infrastructure, he said.
The scale of the crisis is so vast, he said, "the people in theatre are still unable to wrap their arms around what is actually going on."
About two million people have been driven from their villages and are living in camps. Military forces are needed to provide security so that humanitarian assistance can be delivered, Gen. Hillier told a news conference.
Many living in camps find the conditions better than anything they had previously known in their villages. "They have enough to eat. They have some security. They have some medical care . . . and they have some schooling, in many cases for the first time in their lives."
The long-term challenge, international development agencies say, will be to build a lasting peace and provide tools for the people of Darfur to become economically self-sufficient.
The crisis is attracting the attention of young Canadians.
A group called Students Taking Action Now: Darfur has collected 10,000 signatures in about two weeks on university campuses and in high schools, urging the government to play a leadership role.
Ben Fine, one of the organizers, said the group will present its petition on Parliament Hill next Thursday.