Category Archives: A Propaganda System

Media bias is real, and everywhere

Can you trust any media outlet to tell the truth about foreign affairs? Or are they all part of some propaganda system? Perhaps the best we can do to understand what’s really happening in the world is read/listen/watch a variety of sources, but assume they are all biased in one way or another?

These questions came to mind after a recent Montréal event about Syria.

In a La Presse article, international affairs reporter Agnès Gruda essentially dismissed a presentation by a freelance journalist who has covered the war in Syria by writing: “for who does Eva Bartlett really work? During her conference, she confirmed that she wrote commentaries for Russia Today — a Russian propaganda organ.”

Gruda isn’t the only reporter to highlight Bartlett’s ties to RT when discussing her Syria work. A Hamilton Spectator story about her talks in that city noted, “Bartlett maintains a blog for the state-funded media outlet Russia Today” while Pulse reported that she contributed to the “Kremlin broadcaster Russia Today.” (Bartlett has published five articles about Syria for RT.)

Of course, the question of where journalists publish or who employs them and the interests of the owners/funders of said media does deserve attention. It is not unreasonable to be skeptical of a Russian media outlet’s reporting on Syria. While I’m not current with RT, it’s hard to imagine that a station set up by the Russian government wouldn’t be biased in favor of Moscow’s position in a conflict it is a major player in.

But, does Gruda describe herself as an employee of the billionaire Desmarais family that is heavily involved in Canadian and other countries’ politics? How does Gruda describe journalists who’ve written for Al Jazeera, which is owned by a Qatari monarchy that has backed armed opposition to Assad? Or how about the BBC, CBC and other media outlets owned by governments?

Does Gruda offer readers similar background on journalists who’ve worked on a National Film Board documentary? Created as part of the Canadian government’s World War II propaganda arsenal, the 1950 National Film Board Act calls for it to “promote the production and distribution of films in the national interest.”

Or, does she mention journalists’ ties when they have freelanced for Radio Canada International, a “Canadian government propaganda arm”? Initially focused on Eastern Bloc countries, beginning in 1945 RCI beamed radio abroad as part of “the psychological war against communism”, according to external minister Lester Pearson. Early on External Affairs was given a copy of the scripts used by commentators and it responded to criticism of Canada’s international policies. Into the 1990s RCI’s funding came directly from External Affairs.

Or what about the Canadian Press? The influential media institution has significant historic ties to official Canadian international policy. During World War I Ottawa helped establish the Canadian Press to increase pro-war coverage and strengthen national identity. A predecessor newswire disseminated Associated Press stories in Canada but the war spurred criticism of the US news agency, which did not cheerlead British/Canadian policy loud enough for some (Washington had yet to join the fighting). “In effect, an arm of the British Foreign Ministry”, Reuters offered Canadian newspapers free wire copy during the war. But, the British press agency would only deliver the service to Ottawa. If the federal government “wanted to ensure that this pro-war imperial news service was distributed effectively across the country”, it had to subsidize a telegraph connection to the West Coast. To support CP the federal government put up $50,000 ($800,000 in today’s dollars) a year, which lasted for six years.

CP “cemented” itself as Canada’s national news service during World War II. “To accomplish this,” Gene Allen writes in a history of the organization, “CP cultivated unprecedentedly close relations with Canada’s military authorities — who had reasons of their own for wanting extensive coverage of the national war effort — and thereby moved some distance away from traditional notions of journalistic independence.” In an extreme example, CP recruited a Canadian Forces public relations officer who led reporters into battle zones. Bill Boss remained with the same unit but began reporting for the news service and would become one of Canada’s most famous war correspondents.

Nationalism remains an important media frame at the CP. “As a warcorrespondent in the 1990s”, former CP reporter Stephen Ward describes facing nationalist pressures. “I came under pressure to be patriotic when reporting on Canadian soldiers or peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere [Iraq] … I should not embarrass Canada by reporting on mistakes in the field; I should not quote soldiers puzzled about their mission; I should do ‘feel-good’ pieces about soldiers watching hockey via satellite in warring Bosnia.”

Most Canadian media face similar pressures in their international coverage, as I detail in A Propaganda System: How Canada’s Government, Corporations, Media and Academia Sell War and Exploitation.

Certainly Russia’s foreign affairs machinery isn’t the only one that shapes international coverage. Highlighting Russia’s “propaganda system” to a Canadian audience without mentioning the one at home indicates either a journalist’s ignorance or that she is part of it.

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Israel apologists claiming to support refugees are hypocrites

It is strange how supporters of Israel are responding to Donald Trump’s Muslim and Syrian refugee ban. Some have applauded it, effectively acknowledging that Israel cheerleading is a right wing cause. Others have sought to be seen taking the side of anti-racism and religious tolerance, all the while ignoring Israel’s terrible treatment of Palestinian, Syrian and other refugees.

The case of Bernie Farber illustrates the difficulties this left/liberal camp faces. On Facebook the former Canadian Jewish Congress president and self-styled refugee rights advocate recently wrote, “while Trump is barring Syrian refugees…” and contrasted the move by posting a Times of Israel story titled “Israel said readying to take 100 orphaned Syrian refugees.”

In fact, Israel has an appalling record on helping with Syrian refugees. All the other states bordering Syria have accepted thousands of times more people fleeing the conflict. Over two million Syrian refugees are in Turkey. Far poorer and less populous than Israel, Jordan has around one million Syrian refugees while Lebanon has over one million. Even Iraq, which has three million internally displaced, has over 200,000 Syrian refugees.

Despite signing the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 refugee protocol, Israel announced in 2011 it would block anyone crossing into the Golan Heights, which violates the principle of non-refoulement (not forcing those seeking asylum to return to a country in which they are likely to be persecuted). Instead of adhering to its international legal responsibilities, Israel re-fortified a 90-kilometre fence in the occupied Golan Heights and laid new minefields to deter crossings. It also added a 30 km long fence on part of its border with Jordan partly to block Syrians from coming through that country and in 2013 completed a 200 km barrier along its border with Egypt largely to stop East African migrants (Israel already has a fence on its border with Lebanon and another one in the West Bank).

A June 2016 Financial Times story titled “Israel: walled in” depicts the numerous barriers the country has erected partially to deter refugees. The British paper quoted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling for Israel to surround itself with fence “to defend ourselves against wild beasts” in the region.

Now, six years into the conflict, Israel is saying it will take 100 Syrians. Only someone afflicted by ‘Israel worship’ could claim to support refugee rights and applaud this disgraceful record.

In a September 2015 story titled “One country that won’t be taking Syrian refugees: Israel” the Los Angeles Timesquoted Netanyahu’s rationale for shutting the door on those fleeing the humanitarian tragedy. Netanyahu claimed his country’s “lack of demographic and geographic depth” made it impossible to accept any refugees. (With 60% of Israel’s population, half its landmass and a sixth of its GDP, Lebanon has taken over one million Syrians.)

In Ynet Netanyahu’s former Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy, Yoaz Hendel, elaborated on why “Israel can’t take in refugees.” Hendel writes, “the demographic threat is real, and the need to preserve the Jewish nation state’s character as a democracy doesn’t allow for large minorities. The current numbers of Muslims pose a complicated challenge even without additions.”

In effect, Syrian refugees threaten what Farber et al. euphemistically call Israel’s “right to exist”. As non-Jews, particularly Arabs, they threaten the Jewish supremacist character of the state. Any Jew living comfortably in Toronto or Montréal, whose family migrated to Canada from Eastern Europe a century ago, can immigrate to Israel tomorrow. But, Israel lacks the “demographic and geographic depth” to offer temporary (or permanent) shelter to individuals fleeing a conflict 50 km away.

Israel’s response to the humanitarian tragedy on its border reflects its status as a 19th century European colonial outpost. Even the European and North American colonial states that spawned and promoted Zionism have become more racially and ethnically accommodating. There are some 200,000 Syrian refugees in Germany, 5,000 in Britain, 15,000 in the US and 40,000 in Canada.

Israel has taken fewer Syrians than countries 10,000 kilometres away. Venezuela announced it would accept 20,000 Syrians while Brazil proposed a multi-year plan to take up to 100,000 Syrian refugees.

Despite its unconscionable record, Farber found cause to applaud Israel. Rather than contrasting Trump’s ban with Israel’s openness, if the former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress truly embraced universal human rights he would criticize the US president for mimicking Israeli policy.

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Canada’s largest PR machine troubled by a few ‘toxic’ stories

The media is unfair to the military, according to the Chief of Defence Staff. During a speech to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade last week General Jonathan Vance slammed “very toxic narratives” in reporting on the Canadian Forces.

“If you’re paying attention to the news today, there are some very toxic narratives about the armed forces,” Vance said. “The narrative that seems to prevail right now is if you join the armed forces, you are going to be sexually assaulted, raped or you’re going to suffer from PTSD at some point and may commit suicide.”

Reporting the truth is toxic?

With the largest PR machine in the country, the CF aggressively always protects its image and promotes its worldview. As I detail in my latest book A Propaganda System: How Canada’s Government, Corporations, Media and Academia Sell War and Exploitation, the military runs a slew of journalistic, academic and cultural initiatives. The military produces dozens of publications and its numerous websites make articles, speeches, reports and other types of information easily accessible to the public. The Canadian Forces also employs YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to promote its positions and recruit new members.

In 2010-11 the Canadian Forces admitted to spending $354 million on public relations and related military commemorations. Six hundred and sixty-one staff members worked on this effort. According to another 2011 report, the Department of National Defence’s Public Affairs department had 286 staff.  Public Affairs Officers’ write press releases, organize press conferences, monitor the news, brief journalists, befriend reporters and editors, or perform various other media-related activities. A large proportion of the news stories about the military are based on CF statements and events.

But that clearly isn’t good enough for the Chief of Defence Staff. After taking charge of the CF, Vance immediately sought to reinforce their influence over news coverage of military affairs. In fall 2015, Ottawa Citizen military reporter David Pugliese revealed Canada’s top soldier’’ call for the “weaponization of public affairs.” Vance proposed a plan to induce positive coverage and deter critical reporting. Journalists producing unflattering stories about the military were to be the target of phone calls to their boss, letters to the editor and other “flack” designed to undercut their credibility in the eyes of readers and their employers.

While the “weaponization of public affairs” slogan was novel, Pugliese pointed out in a blog that “Vance isn’t the first to attempt to bring pesky journalists to heel. It was quite common for officials working for then Defence Minister Peter MacKay to phone editors of various publications to complain about reporters.”

The CF didn’t stop at complaining to journalists’ bosses. The top brass repeatedly asked the military’s National Investigative Service (NIS) to investigate reporters’ sources. In 2011 NIS investigated prominent CTV journalist Robert Fife after he uncovered documents about Chief of Defence Staff Walt Natynczyk spending over $1 million in public funds flying to hockey games and a Caribbean vacation. Pugliese described this as a blatant “intimidation tactic by the NIS against a journalist who was clearly not playing military cheerleader.”

In a similar incident, NIS spent more than a month investigating how Pugliese obtained information about a major Pacific Ocean military exercise in spring 2012. While the Ottawa Citizen defence reporter said the information came from a U.S. Navy release, which the NSI investigation ultimately supported, DND officials believed Pugliese was tipped off by a friendly Public Affairs Officer. Esprit du Corp editor Scott Taylor pointed out that the investigation had nothing to do with operational security. “No classified information was divulged. No operational security jeopardized. No Canadian sailors’ lives were put in peril as a result of Pugliese’s rather innocuous story, but [defence minister Peter] MacKay’s timetable for release [of the information] had not been strictly adhered to.”

According to Taylor, NIS was employed on at least four occasions to investigate the source of information for stories. Yet in none of these instances was classified material reported.

The military is sensitive about embarrassing leaks. A July 2014 Embassy story titled “DND points to ‘challenges’ with former soldiers talking to media” reported on ministerial briefing notes concerning the problem of “leaks.” A year earlier the CF required soldiers wounded in Afghanistan to sign a form saying they wouldn’t criticize senior officers on Facebook or other social media. Former soldiers are a concern since active CF members are restricted in what they can say publicly or post online.

An extremely centralized organization, the people at the top of Canadian Forces want to control everyone and everything.

To paraphrase a widely circulated quote: when you’re accustomed to shaping coverage, a bit of criticism can feel like a “toxic” media environment.

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Strange bedfellows at ‘anti-racism’ forum

Why would one of Toronto’s leading anti-racist writers share a stage with three individuals who support an explicitly racist institution?

Recently radio host and Toronto Star columnist Desmond Cole spoke at a forum put on by the Mosaic Institute titled “Canada in a Trump World”. It was about “increased racist and xenophobic attacks” and offered a “dialogue for communities to come together for honest conversation.”

Executive director of the Mosaic Institute and head of the Canadian Jewish Congress between 2005 and 2011, Bernie Farber also spoke. So did former Executive Director of the B’nai Brith league for Human rights, Karen Mock. The chair of the event was Warren Kinsella, a former board member of the Canada-Israel Committee.

All three of these individuals have worked with or expressed support for the Jewish National Fund. An owner of 13 per cent of Israel’s land, the JNF discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel (Arab Israelis) who make up one-fifth of the population. According to a UN report, JNF lands are “chartered to benefit Jews exclusively,” which has led to an “institutionalized form of discrimination.” Echoing the UN, a 2012 US State Department report detailing “institutional and societal discrimination” in Israel says JNF “statutes prohibit sale or lease of land to non-Jews.”

In October JSpaceCanada, which Karen Mock chairs, was a “participating organization” with JNF Canada on an event honouring the life of former Israeli president Shimon Peres. Mock also sat on the board of the Canadian Peres Center for Peace Foundation, which raised funds for the Israeli-based Peres Center For Peace. In Israel the Peres Center operated a slew of projects with JNF Canada and other branches of the racist organization.

In 2001 Mock spoke at a Hamilton rally titled “Israel under siege”.

In August Warren Kinsella criticized a Green Party of Canada resolution calling on the Canada Revenue Agency to rescind the JNF’s charitable status because of its “discrimination against non-Jews in Israel.” Alongside Ezra Levant, Kinsella sat on the board of directors of the Canada-Israel Committee, whose personnel were often close to the JNF. In 2014 Kinsella approved of Israel’s invasion of Gaza, which led to the killing of 2,200 Palestinians.

For his part, Bernie Farber called the Alliance of Concerned Jewish Canadians (Independent Jewish Voices predecessor) “a rump on the edge of Jewish society” because it, among other things, called for the Canada Revenue Agency to rescind the JNF’s charitable status. During Farber’s quarter century at the Canadian Jewish Congress the organization and its personnel had many ties to the JNF. In 2015 the Consulate of Israel in Toronto co-hosted an event with Farber’s Mosaic Institute.

Should we laugh or cry at an antiracist forum put on by individuals with ties to an organization practicing discriminatory land-use policies outlawed in this country half a century ago? Does Farber, Mock and Kinsella’s support for an explicitly racist institution concern Desmond Cole or does he have an opinion about Ottawa subsidizing racist land use policies abroad?

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Toronto Star leaves readers ignorant of Canada’s real role in Africa

The media’s foreign affairs motto often seems to be ignorance is bliss. The Toronto Star, for instance, has devoted significant attention to the Trudeau government’s plan to dispatch 600 soldiers to Africa, but it has largely ignored the most relevant information.

In a recent installment of its “Should Canada go to Africa?” series the Star quoted former Royal Military College board member Jack Granatstein saying, “wherever we go in Africa is not where we should be going” and Canada’s contribution will “achieve nothing.” Countering Granatstein’s Afro-pessimism, the story cited Royal Military College professor Walter Dorn’s blanket support for UN missions since “the image of the peacekeeper is key to the Canadian identity.”

While Canada’s most progressive English daily offers its pages to embarrassingly simplistic pro and con positions, the Star has all but ignored the economic, geopolitical and historical context necessary to judge deploying 600 troops to the continent. While the Star published 19 stories last year discussing a potential Canadian peacekeeping mission in Africa, only one mentioned Canada’s main mark on the continent and that story simply noted, “officials also considered the extensive business interests of the Canadian mining industry” when deciding not to deploy troops to the Congo seven years ago.

That’s it? Even though Canada is home to half of all internationally listed mining companies operating in Africa. Even though Canada’s government has paid for geological educationjoint NGO–mining company projects and extractive sector policy initiatives, as well as opposing debt forgiveness and negotiating Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements with a dozen African countries — all to support corporate Canada’s $30 billion in mining investment. Even though the two most cited possible destinations to send troops – Mali and Congo – are home to a significant Canadian mining presence.

In addition to Canadian mining interests, Star coverage has ignored Canada’s growing military footprint in Africa over the past decade. Working closely with the new United States’ Africa Command (AFRICOM), Ottawa has funded and staffed various military training centres across the continent and Canadian special forces have trained numerous African militaries. The Canadian Forces Operational Support Hub also moved to establish small permanent bases on the east and west coasts of the continent and the Canadian Navy has expanded its presence, particularly off the coast of Somalia.

Evaluating Canada’s current military and economic role on the continent is a prerequisite for having a proper debate about deploying troops. So, is a critical look at past UN missions, which has also been absent from the Star.

For example, in 1960 the UN launched a peacekeeping force that delivered a major blow to Congolese democratic aspirations by undermining elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. As detailed in Canada, the Congo Crisis, and UN Peacekeeping, 1960-64, Canadian soldiers played a significant role in the mission that enabled Lumumba’s assassination by US and Belgian-backed forces.

In 1992, about 900 Canadian military personnel joined a US-led humanitarian intervention into Somalia, which later came under UN command. While the soldiers who used the N-word and tortured a teenager to death received significant attention, the economic and geopolitical considerations driving the deployment did not. In 1993 Project Censored Canada found the prospects for extracting oil – Chevron, Amoco, Phillips, and Conoco had exploration rights to two-thirds of Somalia – the most under-reported Canadian news item that year. Alongside securing hydrocarbons from the ground, planners had an eye to the oil passing near Somalia’s 1,000-mile coastline. Whoever controls this territory is well placed to exert influence over oil shipped from the Persian Gulf.

Three years after the Somalia debacle Canada led a short-lived UN force into eastern Zaire. Presented as a way to protect one million Hutu refugees, it was really designed to dissipate French pressure for a UN force to deal with the refugee crisis and ensure Paris didn’t take command of a force that could impede Rwanda’s invasion of what’s now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Washington proposed Ottawa, with many French speakers at its disposal, lead the UN mission since it didn’t want pro-Joseph-Mobutu-Sese-Seko France to gain control of the UN force. Ultimately, most of the Canadian-led UN force was not deployed since peacekeepers would have slowed down or prevented Rwanda, Uganda and its allies from triumphing, but not before Canadian, British and US officials “managed the magical disappearance” of half a million refugees, to quote Oxfam Emergencies Director Nick Stockton. That 1996 US-backed Rwandan invasion of the Congo and reinvasion in 1998 led to a deadly eight-country war and is the reason UN forces are there today.

But, little context — economic interests, past military involvement or critical history in general — has been presented.

While it’s published two editorials promoting planned UN mission, Star coverage of the issue demonstratesCanada isn’t ready to deploy troops to Africa. The public is almost entirely ignorant of this country’s role on the continent and our political culture gives politicians immense latitude to pursue self-serving policies there, present them as altruistic and face few questions.

Canadians who want a foreign policy that is a force for good in the world (or at least does no harm) must demand better of our media.

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Putting Palestine into the NDP leadership race

To the sound of crickets chirping from opposition benches Justin Trudeau’s government has once again isolated Canada on Palestinian rights. But, recent developments suggest this shameful chapter in Canadian diplomacy is past its political best before date.
On November 21 Canada joined the US, Israel, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau in opposing a UN Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee resolution in support of “the right of Palestinian people to self-determination” backed by 170 countries. Two weeks earlier Ottawa aligned with Israel, the US, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau in opposing a motion titled “Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and the occupied Syrian Golan” supported by 156 countries.
While the Trudeau government disgraced this country at the UN, prominent figures including Yann Martel, Naomi Klein, Bruce Cockburn, Richard Parry (Arcade Fire), Gabor Mate and Rawi Hage worked to redeem Canada from its extreme pro-Israel position. At the end of November over 50 authors, musicians, labour leaders, environmentalists, academics and filmmakers appealed to Green Party of Canada members to support “concrete international action” for Palestinian rights and applauded the party’s August vote to support “the use of divestment, boycott and sanctions (BDS) that are targeted to those sectors of Israel’s economy and society which profit from the ongoing occupation” of Palestinian land.
The former head of CUPE Ontario and the Ontario Federation of Labour, Sid Ryan, signed the appeal. “Sid Ryan for NDP Leader”, a recently launched website to enlist him to run for the head of the party, notes: “Sid Ryan’s advocacy for the Palestinian people, starting in his days in CUPE where he endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, shows that an NDP leader could muster broad support for a process where Canada is non-aligned, expresses solidarity with Palestinians and other oppressed nations in the Global South, and champions a foreign policy based on peace, democracy, social justice and human rights.”
No matter who wins the campaign to become NDP leader in October it’s hard to imagine they will be as hostile to Palestinians as outgoing leader Tom Mulcair — who once said “I am an ardent supporter of Israel in all situations and in all circumstances”.
Putting pressure on NDP leadership candidates, last weekend the Green Party reconfirmed its support for “government sanctions, consumer boycotts, institutional divestment” to support the Palestinians. Backed by 85% of those at a special general meeting in Calgary, the motion encompasses the Palestinian-civil-society-led BDS campaign’s three demands: equal rights for the Arab minority in Israel, the right of refugees to return and an end to “Israel’s illegal occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and the Golan Heights, and Israel’s siege of Gaza.”
The new resolution also details Canadian complicity in dispossessing “the indigenous people”, calling on Ottawa to renegotiate the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement, end “all military and surveillance trade” with Israel and “to divest from any companies which are directly benefiting from activity within Israel’s illegal settlements.” Finally, it calls on Ottawa “to ask the International Criminal Court to prioritize its investigation into charges of potential war crimes by members of the Israeli forces.”
Green leader Elizabeth May backed the new policy, which makes her publically stated position on Palestinian rights the strongest of anyone with a seat in the House of Commons.
As the NDP leadership campaign heats up, expect Palestine to be a major point of debate. Hopefully before long a new NDP leader will begin to pressure the government to end Canada’s shameful international opposition to Palestinian rights.

This article first appeared in The Hill Times.

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Canada opposed Cuba’s key role in ending apartheid

Did Canada lead the international charge against apartheid and white rule in South Africa or criticize a country that, in fact, did?

Recent commentary about Canada’s policy towards southern Africa’s liberation struggles distorts history that should inform debate over Canada’s planned military deployment to the continent today.

Globe and Mail article last month described “Canada’s strong support for the anti-apartheid movement” while a Kingston Whig Standard story last week claimed a “senior Canadian diplomat and his wife became engaged in providing support to a wide array of South Africans actively opposing the apartheid regime.” A Le Devoir columnist wrote that “faced with apartheid South Africa, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, in the 1980s, was the first in the Commonwealth to adopt a policy not of inclusion but of economic sanctions, against the government of Pieter Botha.” But, this statement is only plausible if you reduce the Commonwealth to the European settler states. Does anyone actually believe Ottawa was more opposed to the white regime than Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, India, etc.?

Toronto Star editorial about Fidel Castro’s death hinted at a position hard to align with this self-congratulatory revisionism. (Or a Star story after Nelson Mandela’s death titled “Canada helped lead international fight against apartheid”). The editorial pointed out that in the late 1970s Prime Minister Pierre “Trudeau was also voicing deep concerns to Castro… over Cuba’s military involvement in Africa, especially Angola.” The Star editorialists failed to elaborate on Trudeau’s “deep concern”.

Not long after Angola won its independence from Portugal, apartheid South Africa invaded. In an important display of international solidarity Cuba came to Angola’s defence. Thousands of Cuban troops, most of them black, voluntarily enlisted to fight the racist South African regime. Contrary to Western claims, Cuba decided to intervene in Angola without Soviet input (Washington knew this at the time). Cuba’s intervention helped halt South Africa’s invasion.

This successful military victory by black forces also helped bring down apartheid in South Africa. The famous township rebellion in Soweto took place three months after South Africa’s initial defeat in Angola. Nelson Mandela’s ANC noted “their [the South African army’s] racist arrogance shrank when our MPLA [Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola] comrades thrashed them in Angola.” For its part, Johannesburg’s Rand Daily Mail warned that the legacy of Angola resulted in “blows to South African pride.” The paper viewed the defeat as, “the boost to African nationalism which has seen South Africa forced to retreat.” In a similar vein another South African analyst observed “whether the bulk of the offensive was by Cubans or Angolans is immaterial in the colour-conscious context of this war’s battlefield, for the reality is that they won, are winning, and are not white: and that psychological edge, that advantage the white man has enjoyed and exploited over 300 years of colonialism and empire, is slipping away. White elitism has suffered an irreversible blow in Angola and Whites who have been there know it.”

Ottawa freaked out, diplomatically speaking. Trudeau stated: “Canada disapproves with horror [of] participation of Cuban troops in Africa” and later terminated the Canadian International Development Agency’s small aid program in Cuba as a result.

Conversely, Ottawa funnelled aid to Zambia during this period partly to support its “moderate” position in southern Africa’s racial conflict. In Canadian Development Assistance to Zambia Sinkala Sontwa explains how Ottawa “lent support to what they considered as Zambia’s moderate stand among the Front Line States on Southern African politics.”

A few years earlier Canadian officials expressed apprehension about providing indirect backing to Ghanaian and Tanzanian proponents of what Ottawa dubbed a “war of liberation” in southern Africa. At the end of the 1960s, Canada failed to renew its military training in Tanzania partly because the government provided limited support to the liberation movement on its southern border in Mozambique.

Canada’s position towards the African liberation struggles of the 1970s and 80s should influence how we view deploying troops to the continent today. This history – and the media’s distortion of it – suggests the need for a healthy dose of skepticism towards Ottawa’s intentions.

To paraphrase George Santayana, Canadians who cannot remember the past are condemned to allow the bad guys to repeat it.

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