Canadian Gunboat Diplomacy

Canada has repeatedly used naval might as a “diplomatic” tool. According to Royal Military College historian Sean Maloney, the first recorded instance of Canadian gunboat diplomacy was during the Mexican Revolution. In 1915 HMCS Rainbow was dispatched to protect British interests and the expatriate community in the Pacific port city of Mazalatan and later that year Ottawa sent the Athabascan destroyer a little further south to Manzanillo.

In 1917 the Royal Bank loaned $200,000 to unpopular Costa Rican dictator Federico Tinoco just as he was about to flee the country. A new government refused to repay the money, saying the Canadian bank knew the public despised Tinoco and that he was likely to steal it. “In 1921,” Canadian Gunboat Diplomacy notes, “in Costa Rica, [Canadian vessels] Aurora, Patriot and Patrician helped the Royal Bank of Canada satisfactorily settle an outstanding claim with the government of that country.”

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In a chapter of Canadian Gunboat Diplomacy titled “Maple Leaf Over the Caribbean: Gunboat Diplomacy Canadian Style” Maloney writes: “Since 1960, Canada has used its military forces at least 26 times in the Caribbean to support Canadian foreign policy. In addition, Canada planned three additional operations, including two unilateral interventions into Caribbean states.”

In May 1963 two Canadian naval vessels joined US, British and French warships that “conducted landing exercises up to the [Haiti’s] territorial limit several times with the express purpose of intimidating the Duvalier government.” The 1963 mission was largely aimed at guaranteeing that Duvalier did not make any moves towards Cuba and that a Cuban-inspired guerilla movement did not seize power.

Two years later thousands of US troops invaded the Dominican Republic to stop a left-wing government from taking office. Alongside the US invasion, a Canadian warship was sent to Santo Domingo in April 1965, in the words of Defence Minister Paul Hellyer, “to stand by in case it is required.”

The next year two Canadian gunboats were deployed to Barbados’ independence celebration in a bizarre diplomatic maneuver designed to demonstrate Canada’s military prowess. Maloney notes: “We can only speculate at who the ‘signal’ was directed towards, but given the fact that tensions were running high in the Caribbean over the Dominican Republic Affair [1965 US invasion], it is likely that the targets were any outside force, probably Cuban, which might be tempted to interfere with Barbadian independence.” Of course, Canadian naval vessels were considered no threat to Barbadian independence.

While the Canadian Navy has long flexed its muscles in the Western hemisphere, over the past decade the Canadian Navy has played a greater role in Africa. In the summer of 2008 Canada took command of NATO’s Task Force 150 that worked off the coast of Somalia. Between the start of 2013 and fall of 2015 Canadian warships HMCS Regina and HMCS Toronto participated in a 28-nation Combined Maritime Forces operation in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. At the start of 2015 twenty-six Canadian Armed Forces members participated in the multinational maritime security exercise Cutlass Express 2015. Sponsored by the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), it took place off the East African coast.

As part of what’s been dubbed Africa’s “encirclement by U.S. and NATO warships”, HMCS Athabaskan led Operation Steadfast Jaguar 2006 in the Gulf of Guinea. A dozen warships and 7,000 troops participated in the exercise, the first ever carried out by NATO’s Rapid Response Force.

The following year HMCS Toronto participated in a six-ship task group of the Standing Naval Maritime Group 1 of NATO that traveled 23,000 kilometres around the continent. Oil largely motivated operations off Nigeria’s coast. Nigeria’s Business Day described NATO’s presence as “a show of force and a demonstration that the world powers are closely monitoring the worsening security situation in the [oil-rich] Niger Delta.” More broadly, the objective of circumnavigating the continent was to develop situational knowledge of the various territorial waters, especially Nigeria and Somalia.

In early 2011, 15 days before the UN Security Council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, HMCS Charlottetown left Halifax for the North African country. Two rotations of Canadian warships enforced a naval blockade of Libya for six months with about 250 soldiers aboard each vessel.

Later that year, on May 19, HMCS Charlottetown joined an operation that destroyed eight Libyan naval vessels. The ship also repelled a number of fast, small boats and escaped unscathed after a dozen missiles were fired towards it from the port city of Misrata. After the hostilities the head of Canada’s navy, Paul Maddison, told Ottawa defence contractors that HMCS Charlottetown “played a key role in keeping the Port of Misrata open as a critical enabler of the anti-Gaddafi forces.”

On one occasion a Canadian warship, part of a 20-ship NATO flotilla purportedly enforcing the UN arms embargo on Libya, boarded a rebel vessel filled with ammunition. “There are loads of weapons and munitions, more than I thought,” a Canadian officer radioed HMCS Charlottetown commander Craig Skjerpen. “From small ammunition to 105 howitzer rounds and lots of explosives.” The commander’s response, reported the Ottawa Citizen, was to allow the rebel ship to sail through.