Massive presence and promotion by the military have become a common part of many events around the city, from the PNE to Canada Place. The Canadian Armed Forces have even become part of celebrations involving the Stanley Cup and the Memorial Cup, Canada’s two revered hockey icons. And on October 30, four CF-18 fighter jets were flying overhead in Victoria as Vanoc revealed that two former Olympic gold medallists, Simon Whitfield and Catriona Le May Doan, would be the first to carry the Olympic torch.
It was especially hard to miss the expansive display put on by the Forces at this year’s Canada Day celebrations near Canada Place.
Taking up an entire block of West Cordova Street in downtown Vancouver, the Forces were obviously on a mission.
Funnelled into a tented area, flag-bearing holiday revellers, adults and children alike, were shown a plethora of military weapons—including various types of machine guns—and taught how to load, aim, and shoot. More than 60 soldiers in full camouflage and other Canadian Forces and Department of National Defence employees lined the tables, teaching people about their jobs and answering questions about what it’s like to join the Forces. Display walls with flat screens showcased stock military photos and footage of Afghanistan. People were encouraged to try out a firearms simulator and climb into a fighter-jet cockpit. Children and teenagers were gathered around a group of soldiers who used spray guns to apply military-themed tattoos to their arms and faces. Exiting the display, the people passed under an archway composed of two giant converging guns and walked past a wall-size image of soldiers and words in large print that proclaimed: “Strong. Proud. Today’s Canadian Forces.” (A similar exhibit graced the north side of the PNE grounds a few months later.)
Approximately 70,000 people visited the Canada Place display, which was part of Op Connection, a public-awareness program. Launched in 2006, the recruitment initiative informs Canadians of their military’s roles, responsibilities, and capabilities.
And the people ate it up.
Swarms of people crowded around the table with the guns, clamouring to try them out. Parents’ faces shone with pride as their children were shown how to load the weapons. Soldiers proudly described the use of the weapons to the young spectators—who looked up at their instructors with curiosity and admiration—before allowing them to hold the guns. The line for the firearms simulator almost spanned the entire block. Grown men grew giddy at the chance to sit in the fighter jet and teenagers shoved in front of each other to get multiple military tattoos temporarily displayed on their bodies. As people exited the display under the artillery barrels, they radiated excitement as if they’d just gotten off a carnival ride.
Lt. (Navy) Joseph Frey, public affairs officer of the Canadian Forces Recruiting Group, told the Georgia Straight that the vast majority of visitors to the Op Connection Canada Day display were “extremely pleased with the event”.
But to some, the event was an unwanted element of Canada Day celebrations in Vancouver. It was an unabashed endorsement of violence for young children and an unprecedented public salute to a type of military involvement contradictory to Canada’s traditional image of peacekeeping.
“Canada Day was ruined for me,” said Jillian Skeet, mother of two. “We actually stepped over all sorts of cables and posts to get around it.” Skeet, a former Ottawa resident, recalled that Canada Day festivities in Ottawa revolved around Canadian talent that filled spectators with pride.
Yet a letter to the editor in a daily newspaper, criticizing the display and its place among the Canada Day festivities, was furiously shot down by the majority of printed responses. Most used examples that defended certain images of Canadian soldiers. Some rebuttals heralded a modernized, militaristic, aggressive version, while others clung to the peacekeeper image that has been adopted by Canada for the past 53 years. Finally, some replies supported a newer version of the peacekeeper myth, one in which Canadian soldiers might have to actually fight but are noble pacifists underneath.
From the clear exhibition of enthusiasm at the Canada Day event to the varying definitions of Canadian soldiers in the letter responses, it is apparent that a shift is occurring when it comes to how this country views its military.
Whatever happened to the Canadian peacekeeper image that we are all so proud of? You know, the one of the placid-faced, multicultured, do-gooder Canadian camouflaged not for battle but to help, teach, and inspire?
“Canadians have this image of themselves—and people from other countries have an image of Canada as well—as being a global force of peace in the world,” Richard Sanders, coordinator for the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade, told the Georgia Straight. “We’re seen as heroes. So that’s how we like to see ourselves and how we like others to see us.”
Michael Byers, a UBC professor of political science, agreed, adding that the traditional image of a peacekeeper was always just an image. “Even Pearson didn’t call it peacekeeping but, rather, peacemaking,” he said, referring to former Canadian policymaker Lester B. Pearson. “What happened is that after the Cold War, we began to think of peacekeeping as a light-footed, nonmilitary exercise which was essentially policing. Canada got the image because some of the missions we were involved with were heavy on the mediation aspects of peacekeeping.”
Even the Forces agree that peacekeeping is not what a lot of people think it is. “We have never been just peacekeeping,” said Lt. Frey. “We have a wide range of duties, from peacekeeping to war-fighting.”
Peacekeeping was the vision of Pearson, then the secretary of state for external affairs and later Canada’s 14th prime minister. He proposed that a multinational United Nations peacekeeping force be used to separate warring groups during the Suez Canal Crisis in the mid-1950s. Pearson was quoted as saying that “the stark and inescapable fact is that today we cannot defend our society by war since total war is destruction. And if war is used as an instrument of policy, eventually we will have total war.” The UN liked his idea, and because of its success, Pearson received the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize. Canadians also supported his ideas, and thus the image of the Canadian “peacekeeper” was born.
Traditionally, peacekeeping involved being positioned between hostile forces to separate warring factions. Later, it expanded to include the delivery of humanitarian aid, the supervision of elections, the repatriation of refugees, and other duties that ensured stable government and human rights.
Those were the glory days of peacekeeping, during which thousands of Canadians were involved in almost every peacekeeping operation initiated by the UN Security Council. In 1988, UN peacekeepers collectively received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to encourage peace and stop violence.
Then there were the 1990s.
The image most Canadians perhaps rightly held of their peacekeepers forever changed in 1994 with the launch of an investigation into events that took place in Somalia. No one could deny that something horrific had happened when trophy pictures of Canadian peacekeepers with a savagely beaten Somali boy became public.
On the night of March 16, 1993, Canadian soldiers caught 16-year-old Shidane Arone while he was sneaking onto the Canadian base to steal supplies. Whimpering “Canada, Canada”, Arone slipped in and out of consciousness as he was savagely beaten, tortured, and allegedly sodomized for several hours by two members of the Forces. Ultimately, Arone died while nine other soldiers, including ones of superior rank, either saw or heard what was happening and didn’t stop it or report it.
The Forces were in Somalia to partake in “Operation Deliverance” as part of the U.S.–led coalition known as the Unified Task Force. This was not a peacekeeping operation, although their overall mission was to provide the secure environment necessary for the distribution of humanitarian supplies.
Investigation into this incident revealed that the two main officers involved were instructed by their commander on the morning of the murder to bait and catch Somali interlopers.
The outcry by the Canadian public was palpable. How could our so-called peacekeepers do such a thing? Why weren’t they promoting peace and stopping violence as promised? Could it be that members of the Forces weren’t the heroes we all thought they were?
In her 2004 book, Dark Threats and White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping, and the New Imperialism, Sherene H. Razack challenges the notion of modern peacekeeping in Canada. She shows how peacekeeping violence is often painted as white goodness and coloured wrongs. Razack asserts that racism and violent events like the brutal rape and torture of Arone are a part of most peacekeeping operations.
Many summed up what happened in Somalia as an isolated event perpetrated by a couple of corrupt soldiers. But this incident proved not to be the only bad apple in the bunch.
Scott Taylor and Brian Nolan uncovered a flood of misdeeds in their 1996 best-selling book, Tarnished Brass: Crime and Corruption in the Canadian Military. They assert that what happened in Somalia was not an isolated event and that serious action had to be taken to restore the forever tainted reputation of the Canadian military.
In fact, Arone’s murder wasn’t the first death or abuse of a Somali during the Forces’ involvement in the African country between December 1992 and June 1993. Fifty-eight disciplinary incidents were reported in the months preceding Arone’s murder, including weapons offences, assault of a superior, alcohol abuse, and alleged murder.
“The Canadian public just kind of glommed on to peacekeeping as the next best thing,” Taylor said in a phone interview. “But calling a soldier a peacekeeper is like dressing up a pit bull and calling it a poodle and saying that it’s a very nice pet. Most people thought we were over there handing out teddy bears and chocolate bars to children. But when there’s no blue berets, you know it’s not a peacekeeping mission.”
That’s when the myth of the Canadian peacekeeper was unveiled. Canadians were forced to accept that the reality was far from the ideals they held. Yet, after the dust from the Somalia Affair settled, most still half clung to the notion that the Forces were synonymous with peace.
However, when given the chance to help stop the genocide in Rwanda almost immediately after Somalia, Canada all but turned its back. The small attempt it did make didn’t stop the slaughter of more than 800,000 innocent people.
After the events of September 11, 2001, and the invasion of Afghanistan in October of the same year, Canada became increasingly involved militarily in the country. In early 2007, news of Afghan-detainee abuse broke and Canadians were once again made to question their opinions of their soldiers. Canadian soldiers were accused of abusing prisoners who were in their custody while waiting to be transferred to Afghan authorities. In 2008, the Harper government halted the transfer of prisoners after finding compelling evidence of torture.
“We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people,” Gen. Rick Hillier, former chief of defence staff, said in 2005 in defence of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan.
Now, in 2009, most Canadians are aware that their military’s involvement in Afghanistan is not exactly about peacekeeping.
Since the 1950s, the image of the Canadian peacekeeper has gone through enormous shifts. Some observers argue that a new form of soldier, one that is more aggressive and militaristic, is gaining ground among Canadians.
“The Conservative government wants Canada to be just as militaristic as the U.S.,” said Yves Engler, author of this year’s The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, from Montreal. “There is a push to get the military everywhere, and these efforts are very well funded.”
In his 2009 essay titled “Now That Peacekeeping Is Over: Does Making War Help Hold Canada Together?”, Joseph T. Jockel, professor of Canadian studies at St. Lawrence University, says that Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan clearly marks the end of the Canadian peacekeeping myth. In addition to Afghanistan, Jockel notes that there have been three other Canadian missions recently that could never be considered peacekeeping operations. Because the country has done very little peacekeeping in recent years, Jockel believes that the peacekeeper myth is no longer sustainable. He also wonders if fighting wars will again contribute to Canada’s national identity as it has historically.
Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk carried the Olympic torch at the Esquimalt base, in a recent example of the military brass linking themselves to sports rather than to peacekeeping.
Tarnished Brass’s Taylor thinks so. He claims that a significant shift in Canadians’ view of their soldiers came with the Harper administration. “Hillier made the pit bulls proud to be pit bulls again,” he said.
And when it comes to peacekeeping missions, Taylor said we can’t really say we even do them anymore. “We are so far down the list, we barely register.”
Instead, Taylor said, there is a new emphasis on combat, and Canada is finally being considered one of the big boys on the world stage. “War buffs and nuts now want to see that,” he said. “It’s the sexiness of combat. If you can promise them that they get to fight, there would be an increase in recruitment.”
Perhaps that explains the Forces’ gritty, aggressive, and violently revamped recruitment campaign. Launched, along with Op Connection in 2006, under the command of Hillier, the new advertising and recruitment campaign seeks to up enlistment by using a darker tone and more aggressive language and images than previous campaigns. Focus is taken away from the career aspects of joining and placed more on the combat potential.
In the materials sent out to potential recruits, words like fight, combat, and destroy are dominant. Weapons-related words and images are placed throughout. On the recruitment Web site, video images known as “fight ads”, shot in black-and-white and set to the steady beat of suspenseful drums, beckon the potential recruits to a life of excitement and danger on the battlefield. Forces television ads often run immediately after video-game ads that feature fast-paced and exciting combat play.
“It used to be ”˜Serve with the Forces,’ ” UBC’s Byers remembered. “Now it’s more like ”˜Fight with the Forces.’ The kind of people who enjoy that and are attracted to that might not be ideal soldiers,” he lamented. “I think it’s a serious mistake by the CF.”
Byers also thinks that the Harper administration is largely responsible for this new shift in our military’s image: “He has chosen to adopt a more muscular image.” Byers noted that the language shift alone has had a huge effect. “It was that one comment by [Gen. Rick] Hillier about the enemy being ”˜scumbags and murderers’. You could see the diplomats cringing when he said that. That was not the language used by previous Canadian administrations.”
In spite of this newly emerging image, Canadians are still likely to hold on to the traditional view of the peacekeeper.
“Evidence consistently shows that most Canadians prefer peacekeeping and would rather spend money on things like health care and decent schools over ramping the military’s budget,” Black Book’s Engler said.
Brian Lai, assistant professor of political science at the University of Iowa and co-author of the paper Rally Around the UN: Public Opinion and Peacekeeping in Canada, shows in his research that most Canadians are, indeed, not in favour of an aggressive foreign policy as in the case of Afghanistan. “The more traditional role of peacekeeping is something that they favour for the Canadian military,” he told the Straight.
Whether Canadians see their soldiers as peacekeepers or fighting machines, the truth is that peacekeeping is on the way out. As John McNee, Canada’s ambassador to the UN, said in a recent news release about peacekeeping operations: “UN peacekeeping is under increasing strain: heavily deployed, heavily mandated, and, too often, underresourced.”
According to the United Nations Association of Canada, this country’s contribution to peacekeeping is “on a clear decline”. Currently, Canada ranks 55th out of 108 countries that contribute military and police resources to UN peacekeeping missions.
The Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade’s Sanders says that Canada has strayed from peacekeeping in many recent conflicts, including those in Iraq, Yugoslavia, Somalia, and, most recently, Afghanistan. “It’s so blatantly obvious now that we are engaged in fighting a war of aggression. So it’s really hard to maintain this illusion now,” he said.
Rima Wilkes, associate professor of sociology at UBC, also doesn’t think that anything the Canadian military has done recently fits the definition of peacekeeping. “Peacekeeping is very integral to our sense of identity as a nation. But I think in recent times we are using this in name only,” she told the Straight. “I think that people now believe that anything Canada does is peacekeeping, and this simply isn’t the case.” She concluded that there is “hypocrisy in the government’s approach” to recent conflicts, yet the message most Canadians still tout is that we “care about the people of these other countries”.
“The old mythology just doesn’t hold water anymore,” Sanders said. “Now the mythology is that the wars that we’re fighting are simplistic, black-and-white, good guys against the bad guys, where we’re on the side of purity and peace and humanized democracy and protecting women’s rights in Afghanistan and doing all these wonderful things. The reality is really different. Presenting us as if we are this warrior for peace, democracy, human rights, and all that is just, sadly, not true.”
Not everyone buys into these myths, though. “Many in the military, including top generals, are trying to move away from this idea of Canada as a peacekeeper because it’s holding them back,” Sanders said. “They’ve had enough of peacekeeping now and they just want to be recognized for what they’re actually doing.”
Taylor, a former soldier himself, agreed. “No soldier would like to be called a peacekeeper,” he said.
“The average Canadian tends to have high regards for their military,” Lai said. But there is a difference between what they think of the soldiers and what they think of what the soldiers are doing. “Where there’s disagreement is at the more political area. That is, how the military should be used,” he finished.
This could explain why these military displays have been eagerly accepted by Vancouverites as part of “all-Canadian” events such as Canada Day and the PNE.
If so, one has to wonder if they even know what their eagerness was for.