Tag Archives: propaganda

How Canadian military tries to control what soldiers think

The Canadian Forces spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to shape popular discussion of military affairs. But, did you know that commanding officers also aim to control the flow of information to rank and file soldiers?

Recently, the newspaper at the Esquimalt, British Columbia, naval base rejected an ad from a law firm seeking to represent CF members who had been sexually harassed/assaulted. Quoting a comment by Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance on the impact of sexual assault in the military, Acheson, Sweeney, Foley and Sahota sought to advertise a “safe and supportive environment to tell your story.”

Esquimalt’s Lookout is among dozens of military run newspapers, journals and websites aimed at armed forces personnel. CF public relations officials generally decide what is published in them. The top brass has also sought to control independently owned media targeted at soldiers, notably Esprit de Corps, which aims “to contribute to the esprit de corps that has made the Canadian military one of the finest professional armed forces in the world.”

To gain access to Air Canada military charters in the late 1980s, the magazine was supposed to obtain DND “approval for all editorial content prior to publication.” But, in 1991 Esprit de Corps criticized the appointment of Marcel Masse as defence minister and interviewed Vice Admiral Chuck Thomas after he resigned as vice chief of defence. In response DND directed Air Canada to stop carrying Esprit de Corps. According to founding editor Scott Taylor in Unembedded: Two Decades of Maverick War Reporting, the airline sent the magazine a note saying, “due to concerns over editorial content, the Department of National Defence has ordered Air Canada to cease distribution of Esprit de Corps aboard military charter flights.”

Almost entirely distributed in-flight at the time, DND’s move would have crippled the magazine. The CF only backed down after Esprit de Corps went public and then privately threatened to reveal a possible conflict of interest between Chief of Defence Staff John de Chastelain and Canadian Defence Quarterly.

When Esprit de Corps helped expose the military’s attempt to cover up the 1993 Somalia Affair killings, the CF again targeted the magazine. Taylor writes, “memos were sent to the CANEX military retail stores, ordering them to cease the sale of our publication; the copies we had donated through the Royal Canadian Legion were to be burned, according to the official directive from National Defence Headquarters.” Even more debilitating for the magazine, DND asked Esprit de Corps defence clients to “cancel their advertising contracts.”

The military seeks to control what active soldiers can say publicly or post online. Under the Defence Administrative Orders and Directives and Queens Regulations and Orders, soldiers are not allowed to discredit the CF or discourage other troops from their duties.

With the rise of social media the Chief of Defence Staff ordered CF members to obtain authorization before posting information on Facebook or other online outlets. In 2006 Rick Hillier wrote, “[CF] members are to consult with their chain of command before publishing [CF]-related information and imagery to the internet, regardless of how innocuous the information may seem.”

In a reiteration of standing policy, in 2013 the CF required soldiers wounded in Afghanistan to sign a form saying they wouldn’t criticize senior officers on Facebook or other social media. Given to injured personnel transferred to the Joint Personnel Support Unit, the form stated “it must be clearly understood that the inappropriate use of social media can have serious ramifications for the CAF; it can erode public trust, cause serious breeches of security and destroy team cohesion.”

Alongside overt information control, DND operates numerous educational institutions. With two television studios, two radio studios, editing suites, a control room and 25 staff, the Defence Public Affairs Learning Centre trains soldiers in public relations. The Canadian Special Operations Training Centre trains Joint Task Force 2 and the Canadian Special Operations Regiment. Canadian Defence Academy includes the Toronto-based Canadian Forces College, Royal Military College Saint-Jean and Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) in Kingston. With over 150 faculty the RMC is the only federally run degree-granting university. DND provides about $70 million annually to RMC and the defence minister is chancellor of a university with 2,500 students.

The federal government spends heavily on shaping soldiers attitudes. With 120,000 active soldiers, reservists and DND employees the military’s internal ideological capacity has a wide reach.

In a mainstream media story about one of Canada’s “enemies,” this sort of activity would be called brainwashing.

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Snowbirds so much more than just pilots and planes

Canada’s massive military cultural outreach effort suffered a blow last week. The Snowbirds aerobatic team was forced to cancel a half-dozen scheduled appearances because they require “additional practice and training.”

Each year the famed Snowbirds participate in some 60 air shows across North America. Over the years they’ve flown more than 2500 shows and cultural events such as Canada Day celebrations. As many as six million people watchSnowbird planes fly annually. Additionally, the military’s demonstration team has been celebrated in books and on Canada Post stamps.

Eighty Canadian Force’s (CF) personnel work full-time with the squadron and the military spends $4.3 million annually on flying costs for the Snowbirds. The CF plans to spend $755-million on a new fleet of aircraft for the aerobatics team.

But, the Snowbirds do not contribute to the CF’s combat capabilities. They are simply, according to the Department of National Defence, an “important public relations and recruiting tool.” Recruitment and community outreach are closely intertwined. DND spends $10-$20 million annually on recruitment. The CF advertises on Xbox video games and Twitter, as well as bus shelters and Stanley Cup playoff broadcasts. Describing it as “one of the primary windows through which Canadians view their military”, Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Goodspeed calls “recruiting advertising … the most powerful form of PR available to the CF.” Its “Fight Distress, Fight Fear, Fight Chaos—Fight with the Canadian Forces” recruiting campaign won a series of marketing awards in the late 2000s.

At the height of the war in Afghanistan the CF launched Operation Connection to mobilize the whole armed forces to “make contact and attract recruits.” A message sent to soldiers in 2006 explained:

As a member of the Canadian Forces, we count on your presence at the hundreds of activities we will participate in over the next year … festivals, ship visits, visits to schools, car shows, job fairs, air shows, sports events … Telephone your children’s schools or your grandmother’s seniors’ residence and ask if you and/or your unit could be of help planning a Canadian Forces Day event or setting up a Remembrance Day program.

Operation Connection showcased the CF at Canada Day festivities, Santa Claus parades, NHL games etc. CBC Our World host Brian Stewart describedthe “information machine” responsible for Op Connection as “a public affairs unit that dwarfs all other government promotion offices.”

In 2010-11 the CF 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.

Ottawa also celebrates specific wars and battles. Recently, the government spent millions of dollars to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. In 2012 the federal government launched a $28 million initiative to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.

Commemorating “glorious” wars can boost the CF’s standing. Bruised by the long and unpopular war in Afghanistan, the CF sought “several positive, proactive communication opportunities” to shore up its image. According to an internal file Canadian Press uncovered, the military had “plans for commemorative activities, including a series of World War I events”, which were to receive millions of dollars of CF money through 2020.

Alongside specific war commemorations, the federal government spends tens of millions of dollars on war monuments. Ottawa is home to a National War Memorial, Korean War Monument, National Victoria Cross Memorial, Veterans Memorial Highway, National Aboriginal Veterans Monument, Boer War Memorial etc. There are more than 7,500 memorials registered with Veterans Affairs’ National Inventory of Military Memorials.

Veterans Affairs allocates tens of millions of dollars annually to war memorials and related “awareness” activities. Between 2006 and 2014 the department’s Community Engagement Partnership Fund dished out $13 million for hundreds of small projects recognizing veterans such as $5,000 for a Remembrance Day service at the University of British Columbia. During 2010-11 fiscal year $41 million was spent on Canada Remembers, which included“awareness and participation of Canadians in remembrance activities” and “maintenance and improvements of memorials, cemeteries and grave markers.”

The Snowbirds’ recent troubles are a small setback to the government’s massive cultural outreach. It’s time, however, for a concerted challenge to this unbridled militarism.

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Victims of Canadian colonialism celebrated for joining imperialist war

Amidst an orgy of martial patriotism that is finally over, there was a sad irony.

In recent days the Canadian Forces, banks, politicians, sports TV networks, private foundations, the news media, etc. have all promoted the idea that the centennial of Canadian troops capturing some high ground in France during a minor Word War 1 battle somehow represented the “birth” of Canada. The notion that the battle of Vimy Ridge “created our country” is bizarre enough but the celebration of First Nations’ participation in this episode of Canadian imperialism pushed the exercise into the realm of the absurd.

One hundred years ago in northern France 10,000 Canadians and 20,000 Germans were hurt or killed during four days of fighting to capture Vimy Ridge. Despite the claim it represented the “birth” of Canada, the soldiers were under British command and the battle had little impact on the war. The young men fell in a war spurred by intra-imperialist competition in Africa and elsewhere.

Strangely, the recent Vimy commemorations included an indigenous component. The prime minister’s office put out a number of press releases that mentioned the “Indigenous organizations” part of his official delegation to France. APTN did a story titled “Métis man with special connection to Vimy Ridge battle will see history up close” while a CKOM headline noted, “Indigenous veteran reflects on personal ties to Vimy Ridge”. A Two Row Times article was titled “’Indian’ warriors of Vimy Ridge” and on CBC’s Unreserved former Native Women’s Association of Canada president Marilyn Buffalo discussed her grandfather, Henry Norwest, who died at Vimy.

Historically the racist, colonialist narrative erased the contribution of First Nations to Canadian warfare. But, the recent “truth and reconciliation” process has included significant attention devoted to indigenous members of the Canadian armed forces. The Canadian Forces, government commissions and indigenous veterans associations, often backed by Veteran Affairs, have produced much of the laudatory literature on aboriginal war veterans.

A dozen books and theses, as well as hundreds of articles, detailing first nations’ contribution to Canadian/British wars mostly echo the military’s perspective of those conflicts. In The Awakening Has Come: Canadian First Nations in the Great War Era, 1914-1932, Eric Story depicts WWI as a noble affair. “The Great War had put First Nations shoulder to shoulder with Euro-Canadians in a fight for human rights and dignity”, writes Story in Canadian Military History Journal. The editor of We Were There said the aim of the Saskatchewan Indian Veterans Association book is to convince kids they fought for “freedom”. “I wanted to publish… to let Indian children know that their fathers and grandfathers fought for the freedom we now cherish.” (In truth Canadian soldiers have only fought in one morally justifiable war: World War II.)

The Canadian Aboriginal Veterans and Serving Members Association (alongside other indigenous veterans’ groups) have been pressing the federal government to proclaim November 8 National Aboriginal Veterans Day. In 2016 Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr attended an Ottawa celebration while Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett participated in a Fredericton ceremony. In a statement Hehr noted, “we thank the thousands of indigenous Canadians in uniform who answered the call of duty and made the ultimate sacrifice. Their contributions and efforts have helped our country in its efforts to make this world a safer place.”

There is even a current of ‘progressive’ thinking that draws on indigenous military contributions to legitimate criticism of Canadian colonialism while simultaneously promoting Canadian imperialism. In a 2013 Huffington Postblog titled “Whitewashing Remembrance: I Wear A Poppy For Native Veterans” Elizabeth Hawksworth made an anti-racist argument for wearing the red poppy. “I choose to wear it because as a woman with Native ancestry, I want to remember those whose faces we never see in the Heritage moments or on the Remembrance Day TV spots.… I wear the poppy not just as a way to remember, but as a statement: freedom doesn’t just belong to white folks.”

Of course, the red poppy is the property of, and raises funds for, the jingoist Royal Canadian Legion. Additionally, red poppies were inspired by the 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian army officer John McCrae. The pro-war poem calls on Canadians to “take up our quarrel with the foe” and was used to promote war bonds and recruit soldiers during WWI.

In a TVO interview marking the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I author Joseph Boyden said indigenous men enlisted to “do what’s right”. As he denounced the mistreatment of indigenous peoples after WWI, the author of Three Day Road, a novel dedicated to “the native soldiers who fought in the Great War”, called their fighting a “beautiful corner” of Canadian history.

But, there was nothing “beautiful” about World War I. It was an inter-imperialist conflict that left 15 million dead. All the ordinary soldiers who participated in it were victims of the ruling classes’ imperial ambitions.

And glorifying First Nations’ participation in imperialist wars as part of overcoming Canada’s colonial treatment of First Nations is, at a minimum, ironic.

This is where blind foreign policy nationalism and so-called patriotism has taken us.

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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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Who owns the ‘school’ that studies Canadian foreign policy?

Next week the Fraser Institute’s newly established Peter Munk Centre for Free Enterprise will offer a day long “Introduction to Economic Reasoning” seminar for Grade 10-12 students in Scarborough. Launched in June with $5 million from the founder of Barrick Gold, the Centre for Free Enterprise cements Munk’s position as leading contributor to right-wing ideas. But, the ideologue’s biggest contribution has been to a venerable public institution.

The Munk School of Global Affairs reveals much about the state of foreign-policy debate in this country. Among 35 million Canadians, the University of Toronto would be hard pressed to find a less credible source of support for the study of international affairs.

Peter Munk is a right wing ideologue and mining magnate with an important personal stake in a particular foreign policy. The Munk founded Barrick Gold has benefited from Canadian diplomatic support, export financing and development aid.

With its projects spurring ecological devastation, communal conflict and dozens of deaths on six continents, the Toronto company has led the charge against moves to withhold diplomatic and financial support to Canadian companies found responsible for significant abuses abroad. After An Act Respecting Corporate Accountability for the Activities of Mining, Oil or Gas Corporations in Developing Countries was narrowly defeated in 2010 Munk wrote a letter in the Toronto Star “celebrating those MPs who had the courage” to side with Canada’s massive mining industry lobby and vote against bill C 300.

Munk espouses far-right political views. In 1997 he praised dictator Augusto Pinochet for “transforming Chile from a wealth-destroying socialist state to a capital-friendly model that is being copied around the world” while two years later the Canadian Jewish News reported on a donation Munk made to an Israeli university and a speech in which he “suggested that Israel’s survival is dependent on maintaining its technological superiority over the Arabs.” In 2007 he compared Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to Hitler and later dismissed criticism of Barrick’s security force in Papua New Guinea by claiming “gang rape is a cultural habit” in that country. He responded to a 2014 Economist question about whether “Indigenous groups appear to have a lot more say and power in resource development these days” by saying “globally it’s a real problem. It’s a major, major problem.”

An initial $6.4 million contract to rename the International Studies Department the Munk Centre for International Studies stipulated the Centre would receive advice from Barrick’s international advisory board, which included US President George Bush and former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. (When asked why he appointed Mulroney to Barrick’s board, Munk told Peter C. Newman: “He has great contacts. He knows every dictator in the world on a first name basis.”) The 1997 agreement empowered Munk to stop payments if dissatisfied with the Centre. Happy with its direction, Munk contributed $5 million more in 2006 and $35 million to launch the Munk School of Global Affairs in 2010. That deal committed the U of T to pony up $39 million from its endowment while the Ontario and federal governments chipped in $50 million (as well as a $16 million tax credit to Peter Munk for his $35 million donation).

Flush with resources, the School is highly influential. It co-sponsors an award for the world’s best non-fiction book on foreign affairs, Canadian Forces College workshops, annual lecture with Washington’s National Endowment for Democracy and Toronto International Film Festival speakers series. The School also co-sponsors the Munk Debates, which held the first-ever Canadian foreign policy leaders debate during the 2015 federal election.

The School’s Munk Fellowship in Global Journalism awards twenty fellowships for a year-long program run in partnership with the Globe and MailCBC NewsToronto Star, Postmedia and Thomson Reuters. The School has significant ties to the Globe and Mail with former editors-in-chief John Stackhouse and William Thorsell both senior fellows at the School.

While executive director at the Munk Centre in 2007, Marketa Evans helped spawn the Devonshire Initiative, a project for NGOs and mining companies to discuss corporate social responsibility and development issues. Named after the street where the School is located, the Devonshire Initiative undermined a government–civil society Roundtable that called for withholding government financial and political support to resource companies found responsible for major abuses abroad. Evans would later be appointed Canada’s inaugural Corporate Social Responsibility counselor, a post the Harper Conservatives set up to alleviate pressure to restrict government support for companies found responsible for international abuses.

The School supported the Harper Conservatives’ low-level war against Iran. After severing diplomatic ties and designating Iran a state sponsor of terrorism in 2012, Foreign Affairs ploughed $250,000 into the Munk School’s Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran. The aim of the initiative was to foment opposition to the regime and help connect dissidents inside and outside Iran. Expanding the Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran, Foreign Affairs gave the Munk School $9 million in 2015 to establish the Digital Public Square project to undermine online censorship within enemy states.

Canada’s most influential global studies program is the brainchild of a mining magnet with a significant personal stake in a particular foreign policy. And the school has been shaped in his hard right image.

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