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Canadian UN Missions in Rwanda

1993-1996

By: Patrick-Aurel Fournier

Patrick-Aurel Fournier

Historical Contributor

Patrick-Aurel Fournier holds degrees in both History and Criminal Justice from Nipissing University and is currently working towards his Bachelors of Education and completing his Masters Degree in History with his research titled: “Poppy Ville: The Commemorative Transformation of Welberg, Netherlands, 1945-2021”. Pat has always had a deep passion for history, more specifically in the reasons why and methods behind commemorations. In 2019, Pat was selected as 1 of 7 Canadian guides to work at the Juno Beach Center in Normandy, France; during the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Born and raised in Northern Ontario and currently living in North Bay, ON; he hopes to one day begin teaching in the area and help foster the love and curiosity for history as was sparked in him by past educators. Pat is extremely excited to be able to help DMC in sharing our country’s history and hopes to spark curiosity and passion within his readers.

Content Warning

The content of this article discusses topics of extreme violence in relation to human rights violations in Rwanda during the mid-1990s. This content is disturbing and readers should proceed with caution. If you believe that the reading of this article may be triggering or traumatizing, then please forgo it.

In 1990, a crisis began in the small African country of Rwanda. Located in the mountains of central Africa, Rwanda is populated by two main ethnic groups: Hutu and Tutsi. After decades of ethnic violence between the two groups and the expulsion of thousands of Tutsis from Rwanda in 1960, the situation came to a peak in 1990. In that year, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a Tutsi-led rebel militia based in the neighbouring country of Uganda, invaded Rwanda in an attempt to restore Tutsi majority rule in Rwanda, ultimately leading to a civil war. For the next three years, Rwanda endured a brutal war that left millions of citizens fearing for their lives. 

In 1993, a ceasefire and peace plan were agreed upon to create a new transitional government, representing the RPF, the Hutu government, and the official opposition, ultimately leading to new democratic elections in Rwanda. In October of the same year, the United Nations became involved in the situation by establishing the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda. The aim of the mission was to ensure the maintenance of the ceasefire, without the use of military force; Canadian Major-General Roméo Dallaire was chosen as force commander. Dallaire and his support staff took command of the mission in October 1993, but it wasn’t until months later that other UN countries began sending troops. The mission reached its full strength once 2,500 troops had arrived, of whom 400 were from Belgium, which had governed Rwanda from the First World War until its independence in 1962.

Major-General Roméo Dallaire and members of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda with local refugee children. Photo taken on  August 17, 1994. Image courtesy of the Canadian War Museum.

In the first few months of the mission, the UN witnessed an increase in extremist propaganda from Hutus calling for violence against Tutsis and their supporters. By January 1994, the magnitude of the situation was apparent to Dallaire, and he sent a message to UN senior officials in New York predicting a potential genocide in the coming months. Regrettably, Dallaire’s warning was overlooked. On April 6, 1994, an airplane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down over Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, killing all aboard. Each side accused the other of the crime. Shortly after, the systemic murder of Tutsis and moderate Hutus began. The extermination had been planned in advance and was executed by both Rwandan government forces and by the Interahamwe, an  extremist Hutu militia group. With the genocide beginning, the RPF resumed their fighting, in the name of all Tutsis in the country. By July 1993, RPF forces had taken control of Kigali, forcing Hutu leaders and other extremists to flee. 

The genocide had lasted 100 days, leaving more than 800,000 dead and hundreds of thousands more maimed, raped, or left homeless. On the first day of the killings, 10 Belgian peacekeepers were ambushed, tortured, and murdered by Hutu forces. This event triggered multiple UN nations to withdraw their peacekeepers from the country. As UN forces withdrew, they abandoned their temporary camps, along with the hundreds of Rwandans that had taken shelter at those bases. It took no time for extremists to move into these camps to continue their killings. Dallaire once again pleaded with the UN for reinforcements, to no avail. The initial 2,500 members of the mission quickly dwindled down to a few hundred, all with UN approval. As the situation worsened, however, Dallaire refused to abandon the mission. Even after the UN finished pulling out its troops, Dallaire and others who stayed continued to provide support and protect the children and people of Rwanda who were fighting for their lives.

Rwandans in a makeshift refugee camp in Benako, Tanzania after being left homeless as a result of the genocide. Image credit: Sebastiao Salgado. Image courtesy of The New York Times.

As the genocide came to an end with the RPF’s capture of Kigali and the retreat of Hutu officials and extremists, the UN pledged assistance to Rwanda after the fact by establishing the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda II. Whereas the first UN mission had been mandated with ensuring the implementation of the ceasefire and the peace plan, the second UN mission was tasked with picking up the pieces from the massacre that had just unfolded. Fearing punishment for their crimes, millions of Hutus and genocide leaders fled to neighbouring countries, leaving behind a Rwanda in ruins. 

The new UN mission saw 5,500 troops deployed, of which a contingent of several hundred Canadians was the first to arrive. Many of them army engineers, the Canadian troops were tasked mainly with facilitating the reintegration of refugees, distributing humanitarian aid, and providing support in areas such as communications, intelligence, and logistics. Canadian troops also distributed food and provided health services to starving people, patrolled city streets and rural villages with land-mine-filled roads, built orphanages, and restored basic infrastructure such as plumbing and lighting systems. The Canadian contingent included a new commander, Major-General Guy Tousignant, sent to Kigali to replace Dallaire. Aside from having to deal with countless homeless people and orphans in a land covered in dead bodies and shallow mass graves, Canadian forces on this mission also faced significant hostility from Rwandans who accused the UN of deserting them during the genocide. 

Canadians were present throughout the UN involvement in Rwanda from 1993 to 1996. Dallaire and members of his staff were some of the only UN peacekeepers to remain in Rwanda throughout the genocide. Many of the Canadians who saw time in Rwanda during these years, including Dallaire, came home with some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. “We have been deployed many places in the world and we’ve seen things, but that one was just totally out of this world,” said Denis Lebrun, regimental sergeant major for the signals regiment in the second UN mission. “It was not a mission; it was a nightmare.” During the three years that Canadians were in Rwanda, one Canadian gave his life, while countless others remain scarred to this day from what they witnessed. The last Canadian peacekeeper left Rwanda on February 15, 1996.

Tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees forced to return to their country despite fears they will be killed upon their return stream back towards the Rwandan border on a road in Tanzania, Dec. 19, 1996. Image credit: Jean-marc Bouju. Image courtesy of ABC News.

Major-General Guy Tousignant 

Born in 1941 in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Guy Tousignant received a bachelor of arts degree from his hometown Université de Sherbrooke in 1962. That same year, Tousignant enrolled with the Canadian Officers’ Training Corps to train as a military officer. He was promoted to major in 1973 and lieutenant-colonel in 1979. By 1983, he had reached the rank of colonel and was made an officer of the Order of Military Merit. In 1990, he was promoted to brigadier-general and was appointed base commander of CFB Borden. It was around the time of his appointment as major-general and as the commandant of the National Defence College in 1993 that his career became intertwined with the UN mission in Rwanda.

As the UN returned to Rwanda with its second assistance mission, Tousignant was called on to replace Dallaire as commander. Inheriting the volatile situation from the previous three years, Tousignant led the deployed forces through a time of great turmoil, from August 1994 to December 1995. He has been praised for the outstanding leadership, courage, and professionalism that he displayed during fragile negotiations with the enemy. He also played a significant role in facilitating the safe repatriation of several thousand Rwandan refugees. For his efforts and determination, he was awarded the Meritorious Service Cross. 

Tousignant also played important roles in other international and military programs, including serving as secretary-general of the CARE International Secretariat. CARE International is a 75-year-old poverty-fighting non-governmental organization that delivers emergency relief and long-term international development projects. CARE was on the ground in Rwanda during the civil war and its aftermath, constantly offering relief and support. 

Canadian Major-General Guy Tousignant presenting a UN medal to Australian Corporal Brendan Reilly, November 5, 1994. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

Sources & Further Readings

Adams, Sharon, “Witnessing Genocide,” Legion Magazine (April 7, 2021). 

Australian War Memorial, “United Nations (UN) Military Chief in Rwanda, Major General Guy Tousignant, Presents Corporal Brendan Reilly, with His UN Medal.”  

Bentson, Clark, “Rwanda Genocide Remembered 25 Years Later,” ABC News (April 6, 2019). 

Canadian War Museum, “United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda Team.” 

CARE International, “75 Years of CARE.” 

Costanza, Kari, “Rwanda: 20 Years Later,” World Vision (April 27, 2023). 

Cowell, Alan. “Rwanda Marks 25 Years since the Genocide. The Country Is Still Grappling with Its Legacy,” The New York Times (April 6, 2019). 

Dallaire, Roméo. Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (Penguin Random House, 2003).  

Foot, Richard, “Canadian Peacekeepers in Rwanda,” The Canadian Encyclopedia (August 2, 2019). 

Galloway, Gloria, “The Forgotten Rwanda Mission: How Canada Remembered Genocide and Failure, But Ignored the Successes That Came After,” The Globe and Mail (February 11, 2019). 

Governor General of Canada, “Major-General Guy Claude Tousignant, Meritorious Service Decorations – Military Division.”

Spottiswoode, Roger, director. Shake Hands with the Devil (film, 2007).

Tousignant, Guy. La mission au Rwanda: Entretiens avec le général Guy Tousignant (Liber, 1997).

United Nations, “Major-General Guy Tousignant of Canada Appointed Force Commander of United Nations Operation in Rwanda” (1994). 

United Nations, “Rwanda – UNAMIR” (1996). 

Valour Canada, “Rwanda: Peacekeeping.” 

Veterans Affairs Canada, “Canada Remembers: The Canadian Armed Forces in Rwanda.”

Veterans Affairs Canada, “Rwanda.”