Tag Archives: Canadian military

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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A shameful episode from Canada’s history in Africa

Few Canadians are familiar with pre-colonial African cities, and even fewer know a Canadian military leader helped sack one of West Africa’s great metropolises.

In the fifth installment of its Story of Cities series, the Guardian recently focused on Benin City, the lost capital of an important precolonial state. At its height in the “Middle Ages,” Benin City and 500 interconnected settlements were the site of the largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era. The walls built in what is now southern Nigeria were “four times longer than the Great Wall of China” — 16,000 km in all.

Before most other cities, Benin City had public lighting. In 1691 Portuguese ship captain Lourenco Pinto wrote that the city was “larger than Lisbon” and “so well governed that theft is unknown.”

Dating to the 11th century, Benin City faced growing pressure from European encroachment and the transatlantic slave trade. Finally, in 1897 a well-armed British force of 1,200 sacked the city, stealing or destroying its wealth. Today one is more likely to find remnants of the Benin City in the British Museum in London than in Nigeria.

And the Canadian connection? A star pupil of the Kingston, Ontario, based Royal Military College played a part in this little-known imperial history. Born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, William Heneker helped London conquer Benin City and surrounding territory. In his 1906 book Bush Warfare, the RMC grad writes: “Savage nations have, as a rule, to be cowed, either by having their warriors severely beaten in action and made to suffer heavy losses, as, in the case of the taking of Benin City.”

During the Benin Expedition of 1897 Captain Heneker guarded an imprisoned chief, Oba. Not long thereafter Heneker helped capture Oba’s son.

In May 1898 Heneker was part of a small force that conquered the town of Ehor and surrounding villages of the decaying Benin Empire. One account notes how British forces “seized the opportunity to utterly destroy it [Ehor], burning it and knocking down the walls.”

The next year Heneker was an intelligence and survey officer in the Benin Territories Expedition, which was the final destructive blow to Benin resistance. In Correspondence Relating to the Benin Territories Expedition, 1899 consul general Sir R. Moor mentioned Heneker leading a force that destroyed the towns of Udo and Idumere and a company under the RMC graduate’s command “burnt and completely destroyed the large town of Ugiami, including the King’s house.”

The invasions of Benin gave the British access to valuable commodities. Author William Geary remarks that “the results of the operations opened up 3000 or more square miles rich in rubber forests and other African produce.” After the expedition British capitalists intensified efforts to exploit the area’s rubber forests and the Royal Niger Company expanded deeper into Benin.

As he rose through the ranks of the Southern Nigeria Regiment, which was part of the West African Frontier Force, Heneker led ever more soldiers. With a force of more than 200 men, he commanded the Ulia and Ishan Expeditions. In Bush Warfare, Heneker described the scorched-earth policy the Ishan Expedition employed: “A fighting column left camp every morning, and one after another each town in the country was attacked and taken. All the juju groves [sacred natural forests] were cut down, and stores of food either destroyed or carried back to camp.”

Heneker and other Canadians’ role in the region steadily grew. “Canadian participation in the pacification of West Africa,” notes Canadian Army Journal editor Andrew Godefroy, “”ppeared to climax in late 1901 when the British launched a substantial civil-military operation against the Aro group of the Ibo tribe.”

At least a dozen Canadians were among the white officer corps who led a force of some 2,000 soldiers and 2,000 porters to open a 193 km wide and 144 km long area of today’s Eastern Nigeria to British directed commerce. Early planning for the Anglo-Aro War was actually initiated by the Royal Niger Company, which wanted a bigger piece of the area’s trade.

Canadian Militia Lieutenant J.L.R. Parry was “Mentioned in Dispatches” for his services during the Aro Expedition. So was Canadian Militia Lieutenant James Wayling. During a major battle at Edimma, wrote overall British commander A. F. Montanaro, “Lieutenant A.E. Rastrick, Canadian Militia … who was in command of the Maxim [gun], used it with great effect, and so good was the fire control and discipline that the enemy was forced to retreat.”

Heneker was the senior Canadian during the Aro campaign. Second in authority to Montanaro, the RMC grad led one of the four columns dispatched in November 1901 towards Arochukwu, the capital of the Aro families. His force consisted of 19 European officers and 700 local rank and file.

The capture of Arochukwu was a brutal, one-sided affair. S. O. Onwukwe describes the “total destruction of the Empire” in The Rise and Fall of the Arochukwu Empire, 1400-1902. “The British invaders did not spare Arochukwu, they were waging a punitive war and had no respect for any shrine. The order to the troops was ‘attack, destroy and burn.’ The field force took this instruction literally.”

Between 1897 and 1906 Heneker fought in a dozen separate campaigns in West Africa. During a decade of working to conquer southern Nigeria Heneker received several “Mentions in Dispatches” and a series of awards including the Distinguished Service Order. “One of the most successful British combat leaders on the West African coast,” Heneker would later be promoted to major general, lieutenant general and, finally, general. Heneker was one of dozens of Canadians trained at RMC, which opened in 1876 partly to train “proper white gentleman” to be officers of British imperialism, who participated in the turn of the 19th century “Scramble for Africa.”

After completing his service in West Africa Heneker published Bush Warfare, which for years was “required reading and a resource for all commanders” and would inform the later War Office manual Notes on Imperial Policing. In a section of his book titled “General Dealings” Heneker writes, “the great thing is to impress savages with the fact that they are the weaker, and that it is intended to occupy the country, enforce the will of the white man, and accomplish the object for which the expedition is organized. No leniency or half measures are of any use until the savage has felt the power of force. Leniency is treated as a sign of weakness.”

Unsettling words from a Canadian who helped destroy one of Africa’s great precolonial cities. And part of our history.

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Filed under Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, Canada in Africa