Soldier, Senator, Humanitarian

Lieutenant-General The Hon. Roméo Dallaire (Ret.) is a Canadian senator, humanitarian, author and retired general. Dallaire served as Force Commander of United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). His internationally-recognized book Shake Hands With the Devil - The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda was awarded the Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2004.

What did you know about Rwanda when you first were asked to lead a UN mission there?

As I wrote in my book, I knew it was in Africa. I knew next to nothing, apart from a bit of geography. We were so Europe-centric, and it was so encompassing professionally, that what we called "out of area" — the area being the European theatre — out of that area was unheard of; we just didn't go in there. Even in the European theatre, we knew very little of Romania and similar countries. So my knowledge of Rwanda was very superficial. Obviously, there was the challenge and the learning curve of running a command in the field, which was like a dream come true for an operations command person like myself. But my first shock was the fact that when I first went up the system and asked "What do we have on Rwanda?" , there was nothing there.

What do you mean by nothing there?

Intelligence was very, very limited. What I discovered while in New York and subsequently, was that there were a lot of solid NGO and academic reports but the greatest weakness of all that was dissemination. They didn't have areas of dissemination except in their own very cloistered areas. So there was all kinds of data and information, but no easy access to it. I did finally get to spend a couple of hours with a professor at Ottawa University.

That was the extent of your cultural awareness preparation before leaving?

That was it. All I knew was that they spoke English, French and there was another local language. I picked up a bit of information here and there in New York, but I was picking up fluff. I wasn't getting anything substantive, nothing solid.

Would it have been helpful if you had received better preparation?

We cannot underestimate the value of education in our country with regards to the rest of the world. We are a leading middle-power, we are a trading nation, and a nation that values human rights. We have grown to a point where we can provide a lot but we have also discovered that we are neophytes in the world. And a big weakness is our education. It is parochial, it is regional, it is local and it doesn't grasp the nature of humanity nor the world. I think that Canada should be far more attuned to the developing world and not just the developed world. We should get our youth out there and they should be getting their boots dirty. Smelling and tasting and feeling the reality of 80% of humanity and not just what goes on in Europe, Canada and the other 20%.

When we do that, I think we'll change the nature of this country and I think the young people of this nation are far more attuned to do that than we were. They don't seem to have the same boundaries that my generation did.

What were your first impressions getting off the plane in Rwanda?

Extraordinary. Let me give you an example: I first went to Europe in 1972 to join with the Canadian Forces. When I was on the plane, I wondered whether or not the air in Germany was the same as in Canada. Would it be more dense, would it smell differently? This is me, from east end Montreal going to Europe. Now imagine going to Africa, with all its history and lore. What was it going to be like? What would that first smell be like?

And it was absolutely like flying into heaven, flying into paradise. It was extraordinary. The greenery, the hills, and meeting the people, who I came to understand had a lot more depth of the human entity. Their culture is a lot deeper in their soul than ours is. It's not constrained. I used to sit with the elders at times, for 15 or 20 minutes, and the only communication between us was basically a grunt here and there. But I left there feeling a kind of vibe and feeling that a link had been established. I think they have far more potential for reconciliation and flexibility than we have. If you move from the city to a small remote community in Canada, how many years do you need to be considered a local? Even if you look like them and speak the same language? That's why I think we need to push and maximize the education of our youth towards an openness and awareness of these other cultures.

There was a sort of soulness to the people that you found compelling?

My soul is still in the hills of Rwanda. And it's with the souls of hundreds of thousands of other Rwandans. I say that when I'm in Rwanda and I believe it; when I say it here in Canada, I don't believe it. Here I have a problem. The communion between the environment that we live in and us as individuals has so many arbitrary artifacts and layers here in Canada. While in Rwanda, it is right there — bare-bum. It's extraordinary, and that's why I believe that Africa doesn't leave your blood. It gets in your soul and you actually commune with people and the environment there like you can't do here.

Maybe you just have an African soul?

No, I don't think so. But I'll tell you that it's not back here anymore. It was captured there.

You and your wife Elizabeth want to go back there?

Oh yes. We will go back. We are going to spend at least a year there. Elizabeth has already chosen the apartment there and has a number of projects going on there with the nuns; she's also a kindergarten teacher. All I want to do is be a pilgrim; I'm just going to walk the hills, talk and feel.

Do you think it is truly possible for Rwandans to reconcile? Or do we have to wait another generation?

As I said earlier, I think they have a strong potential for reconciliation, but their situation is complex, although they have a lot going in their favour — language, religion and so on. You have the two ethnicities and the history between them; you have a diaspora that has come in; you have those who survived the genocide and those who participated in it. And you still have extremism floating around. It is not an easy task. On top of that, Rwandans want to create a new Rwanda without any reference to ethnicity, when in neighbouring Burundi, who has the same ethnic makeup, they have decided to build on these differences. So you have an experiment going on there. My sense is that reconciliation is possible if women are involved and if we have objective, value-based education for their children. If you enable the women, they have far more capacity to bring this stuff together than men. You simply cannot break the egos of the men — that would be the exception — and that is what is going to hold them back. But if you empower women economically and in other ways, they have the ability to move the yardsticks.

In Rwanda, you had under your command people from 26 different countries. What kind of challenges did that pose?

It was incredible. I had just finished commanding a Brigade of 5200 soldiers for two years in Valcartier, Quebec. In Rwanda, I end up with a command where I don't choose the people, I don't know what their training is, I don't know what their ethos is, I don't know what their values or ethics are, and I don't know what their competencies are; I'm just taking what's coming off the plane and making it work. It's the most ineffective methodology existing. Not because they are from different cultures, but because there are no standards and no reference points. It's all over the map; I had countries under my command — under the Charter of the UN — who couldn't even spell human rights. I had others that were working and carrying 70% of the load.

And here is where I will say that Canadians bring an incredible work ethic to the mission. We just don't have the patience to sit there and wait for someone else to get there and fix the problem. It's just not in us to do that. We master technology, we believe in human rights and we have absolutely no intention to subsume other people. No imperialism, no colonialism. Those are pretty significant assets to bring to the table.

From a cross-cultural perspective, what should we be doing to better prepare Canadian Forces personnel deploying internationally?

The Canadian officer corps must acquire, beyond its combat skills, conflict resolution skills based on anthropology, sociology, and philosophy. They must bring value-added to conflict resolution and not just be simply an extreme component of it. That's where we have to move. Yes, everyone should get basic knowledge on the country and culture, but the officer corps and the leadership need far more intellectual depth into the entity of conflict resolution and how to work with different cultures. How to just sense and feel the conflicts, the frictions and tensions and remediate them.

In a previous interview with Carolyn McAskie, one of her messages was that you have to address basic issues such as poverty and access to resources if you're going to have lasting peace. And this requires a long term commitment from the international community.

When a country is trying to pull itself out of conflict, we should be pouring in as many assets as possible. Money, brainpower, and other assets. But we are not always very good at that. We build up this peace process and then we pull out because we lose patience. If you are working in these countries, you're there for 10 to 20 years. If you are going to do anything less than that, don't go because you're just going to destabilize the place. And in my humble opinion, you can still do development work even though you have a security problem. You can't just pack up and go home just because there is fighting in the country.

Let's shift topics a bit. What do you think fundamental Canadian values are?

Fair play.
If it's broken, they absolutely want to fix it.
Self-reliance.
Respect as opposed to tolerance.
A sense of humanity.

So you can use all the terminology like human rights, good governance and all that, but we fundamentally believe that it's not fair that people suffer because they're born somewhere else and they're getting screwed by the environment, by their governments.

How do these values advantage us over other nations, for example in peacekeeping or peacebuilding?

One of the interesting dimensions of Canada is the fact that we are not dominated by self-interest. We're not a great power, we're a middle power and so we can actually do things because we believe in them and not because we'll get something in return. We believe that all humans are human. That gives us a sensitivity.

The other side is that we have been the new kid on the block that you can count on. I think that we are now moving from this mindset to one of being young adult with different views on how to solve problems. We are a leading middle power; we can lead things and we can initiate things.

Does the fact that we are such a diverse nation advantage us?

Although I think that we have messed up miserably with our First Nations people, and they have never gotten the attention they needed, I think the fact that we have English and French as founding nations has been a great asset. How we created the governance systems to recognize this case is a fundamental experience of Canada.

Now the new diversity dimension has yet to be truly exercised. I'm not convinced that we've actually sorted it out. We are living on a theory of multiculturalism but we have not necessarily put it in practice. But what we have been doing is working at it and making these things better, but I don't think that we are quite where we want to be yet. I do believe that the diversity of this country should be seen as an instrument to maximize our leadership role in the world.

Thank you very much Senator Dallaire.

You're very welcome.