"It is certainly important for me and my senior commanders to arrive here early on to get a sense of what they will be doing, talk to the allies, get a sense of any lessons to take away," he said moments after the first Canadian plane landed in Gao on a dirt runway still under construction in the shadow of a terminal scarred by rocket attacks.
Part of the presence, too, is about Canadians back at home, letting them know what the Canadians in Mali "will or won't be doing," he says.
Politically, Canadians who remember the last substantial peacekeeping mission of a couple decades ago will have to brace themselves to accept that this is not that.
"This is a mission sponsored by the UN, and so think of it as a UN mission, not necessarily a peacekeeping mission," he says.
But the reality has shifted. It is, as he puts it, "far messier."
The mission in Mali will not be about two once-warring states asking for UN help to maintain fragile peace. This is about a teetering country besieged in parts by extremists who are not loosening their grip and battling everything from climate change to poverty.
Nothing about this will be easy. Not even the getting here was straightforward.
Yesterday, a sandstorm scuttled Gen. Vance's first attempt to fly in with about a dozen members of Canada's theatre activation unit — they are, effectively, the advance team for the advance team.
Then, this morning, an almighty thunderstorm kept the loaded Hercules on the tarmac in Bamako, Mali's capital, from rising. With Gao's runway under repair and no option to move equipment into the landlocked country by sea, clearly just getting Canada's UN commitment here will be tricky.
It looks as though 250 troops will be in place by Aug. 2. Two Chinook helicopters and four armed Griffons must ready to be in the air at all times for medical evacuations.
There will be extras nearby serving as spares.
Will Canada contribute more?
This is a point Gen. Vance repeats, just to be clear. There is sensitivity in the Canadian ranks after the UN criticized the Canadian effort for Mail in April as too little. But the question lingers: why not contribute more?
There are other nations doing all that they can and that is being asked of them, but the matter of offering ground troops never apparently came up.
"The mission didn't have any gaps, and to this point does not have any gaps for that kind of capability. They needed helicopters."
Is there more to this mission than filling a need? This likely doesn't hurt Canada's efforts to try to secure a UN Security Council seat. But Gen. Vance swats away the suggestion of a link like he would the ever-present mosquitos here.
"I see no connection whatsoever between this and that," he said firmly. "Not really my part of the ship."
To stand on the tarmac is to feel the angst of the German soldiers nearby.
Canada is replacing one of their contingents; they are now veterans of the conflict. They have seen how nasty the fight can get, the rockets that target the bases, the attacks directed at the forces — blue helmets or otherwise.
The Canadian flag, as of this evening, now flies over Camp Castor in Gao.
This is the beginning, but Gen. Vance is clear, there is a defined ending: one year.
"A hard out?
"What would change that?
Let's see how much pressure the UN applies over the next 12 months. For more militarily, that is.
Canada is already a major contributor to Mali, with tens of millions of dollars invested in development and human rights.
That's all vital. Security means more than weaponry.
But Mali is vulnerable now, and success here is by no means guaranteed. Nothing is.
Tonight on The National - Adrienne Arsenault reports from Mali and interviews Gen. Jonathan Vance at 10 p.m. ET on CBC-TV, and 9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network and CBCNews.ca.