Monthly Archives: April, 2016

Toronto Star & CTV’s front-line Iraq coverage amounts to little more than a military PR exercise

Image description: The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, and Air Task Force-Iraq Commander, Colonel Shayne Elder (right), inspect the Honour Guard of Canadian Armed Forces members deployed on Operation IMPACT at Camp Patrice Vincent, Kuwait, on February 21, 2016. Vance recently travelled to the front lines in northern Iraq, where he was interviewed by the Toronto Star and CTV. (Image credit: Canadian Armed Forces)

Image description: The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, and Air Task Force-Iraq Commander, Colonel Shayne Elder (right), inspect the Honour Guard of Canadian Armed Forces members deployed on Operation IMPACT at Camp Patrice Vincent, Kuwait, on February 21, 2016. Vance recently travelled to the front lines in northern Iraq, where he was interviewed by the Toronto Star and CTV. (Image credit: Canadian Armed Forces)

The Toronto Star and CTV are currently in the midst of a three-day exclusive profile of Canadian Special Forces training Kurdish peshmerga soldiers on the front lines of the war against Daesh (the so-called “Islamic State”) in northern Iraq. But unfortunately, their reporting so far has amounted to little more than stenography, with an apolitical and pro-military point of view presented without an iota of criticism or balance. Given the recent history of the Canadian Forces’ relationship with the media, it’s reasonable to speculate that the friendliness of this coverage was a condition to which the media organizations agreed in exchange for access.

The frontline access granted to the Star and CTV is a notable departure from the intense secrecy which has shrouded this mission since its earliest days. Other than sporadic glimpses on fear-mongering political tours, reporters have generally been denied access to the area, particularly reporters who come asking difficult questions, as the Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon did in the months after the death of Canada’s lone casualty in the conflict, Sgt. Andrew Dorion, at the hands of the very Kurdish peshmerga troops he had been training.

MacKinnon was repeatedly turned away despite obtaining permission from all relevant authorities to travel to the area, and Department of National Defence officials were pointedly vague and politely uncooperative in response to persistent inquiries from the Globe on the matter. The military’s top brass was likely not too pleased with the resulting long read, which dug deeply into the many questions still surrounding Dorion’s death and highlighted the highly contingent and transactional nature of the Kurds’ alliance with Western militaries.

This was likely exactly what Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance had in mind when he criticized media coverage he perceives as being hostile to the military. Last fall, Vance, whose visit to the front lines is a central highlight of the Star/CTV coverage, put forward plans to “weaponize” the information DND shared with the media. This incredible story, broken by the Ottawa Citizen’s David Pugliese, didn’t get nearly enough attention at the time, and is extremely relevant in light of this Star/CTV exclusive:

There will be more strategic leaks by the Canadian Forces/DND to journalists who are deemed “friendly” to the military. Such leaks will consist mainly of “good news” stories or positive initiatives and the journalists will be required to heavily promote those.

Equally important, is the flip-side of this “weaponization” strategy. That is the targeting of journalists who are writing or broadcasting the stories that the [Canadian Forces]/DND don’t want out in the public domain.

Journalists seen as “trouble-makers” are those producing stories about failed equipment purchases or uncovering details about severely injured soldiers not being treated properly or individuals being sexually harassed, etc., public affairs officers tell Defence Watch.  In other words, reporters who are producing what the CF/DND views as negative or embarrassing news stories.

The “weaponization” aspect will come into play with phone calls to media bosses, letters to the editor, etc. – anything to undercut the credibility of such journalists in the eyes of readers and their employers, NDHQ public affairs sources say. Other tactics aimed at these journalists could also be developed.

Vance later tried to downplay the report, saying that while he understood why some may find the term “weaponization” “aggressive”, he merely “want[ed] Defence to be a respected voice in the very important defence dialogue that goes on in the country”. Notwithstanding these comments, given the military’s history of intimidating reporters who cover them unfavourably, it would be understandable if this threat of “weaponization” put a chill on critical coverage of Canada’s operations in Iraq.

It also simultaneously created a perverse incentive – outlets which provided positive coverage which was “friendly” to the military would be rewarded. It seems that the Star and CTV have won this teacher’s pet contest, and are doing their best to maintain their current level of access with what ultimately amount to hero-worshipping puff pieces.

The Star’s piece on Friday, sensationally headlined “Daesh is doomed, Canada’s top general says during dramatic visit to Iraq”, is an exercise in security theatre. Peppered with details on the dangers of the visit (“Anything in the bushes, avoid it. The last thing I want is for you guys is to step on something that goes boom,” a Canadian special operations sergeant cautioned journalists as they awaited Vance’s arrival”), the article is profoundly deferential to Vance, who is given a platform from which to uncritically promote the mission and confidently declare that it will inevitably be successful:

Today, the Star gushes about the incredible progress Canada’s incredible Special Forces (“experts in the craft of warfare…among the best in the world…trained to handle worst-case scenarios at home and abroad”) have made in training and assisting peshmerga troops:

“Since we’ve been working here in northern Iraq, we’ve seen outstanding progress. They are very capable fighters. They will absolutely fight to the last man to protect their homes,” a major with special operations forces told the Star…

But the Canadians are more than just military teachers. They are a welcome reassurance, a morale booster in what has been a difficult fight against the extremists…

“As peshmerga we gained a lot from the Canadians, from training to help during major attacks. We thank them for all this,” one pesh soldier told Canadian journalists as he stood watch in an observation post.

Meanwhile, CTV’s Lisa LaFlamme, absurdly wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest emblazoned with the word PRESS, opened her exclusive front-line interview with Vance with what is possibly the softest softball question of all time:

LAFLAMME: So tell me about, you know, this is such a rare opportunity for Canadians to finally see who Canada’s Special Forces are. Why was that important for you to share this message now?

VANCE: Well, I guess I’ll start with, Lisa, by saying that to me, every member of the Canadian Armed Forces is special, and every part of the Armed Forces has something special and important to offer to a military mission. In the specific case of CANSOF [Canadian Special Operations Forces], this is an organization that I want Canadians to be proud of. I think we should be proud of them. They’re wonderful people – you know, bright, motivated, and exceptionally well trained. And we’re one of a very, very small number of nations in the world that can do what we do.

Just in case you forgot – this is the exact same general who just months ago was threatening career-sabotaging reprisals against journalists who covered the military unfavourably. Is it any wonder large sections of the Star’s reporting reads like it could have been directly copied from a DND press release? Or that LaFlamme gave Vance every opportunity to make himself and his troops look good?

This “exclusive coverage” has not in any way offer the public a better understanding of Canada’s military mission in Iraq, and especially not of the fraught political context in which it operates. Instead, it’s been a fairly blatant exercise in public relations, uncritically promoting Canadian Special Forces, their peshmerga-training mission, and of course, Gen. Jonathan Vance.


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Would pipelines even solve any of Alberta’s problems?

Image description: Alberta Premier Rachel Notley speaks at a podium, with an Alberta flag and a picture of mountains and a lake in the background. Notley recently advocated for the use of pipeline revenues to fund Canada's transition away from fossil fuels. (Image credit: Premier of Alberta/Flickr)

Image description: Alberta Premier Rachel Notley speaks at a podium, with an Alberta flag and a picture of mountains and a lake in the background. Notley recently advocated for the use of pipeline revenues to fund Canada’s transition away from fossil fuels. (Image credit: Premier of Alberta/Flickr)

It’s early days yet, but already it looks as though the great debate over pipelines will be one of the defining issues of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s time in office.

The pipeline issue is hot right now. Opposition to pipelines from the pro-Leap Manifesto faction of the NDP played a significant role in unseating leader Thomas Mulcair earlier this month and may yet lead to a splitting of the party. Enbridge’s Northern Gateway, long presumed dead, is poised for a potential last-minute revival thanks to the campaign-promise-breaking support and behind-the-scenes machinations of several prominent politicians. And pipeline fever won’t be going anywhere soon; with the NEB due to deliver its recommendations on Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain in just under a month, the issue will be widely discussed and debated this summer. Meanwhile, the NEB’s final report on TransCanada’s Energy East isn’t expected until March 2018, with a cabinet decision due three months later, guaranteeing that pipeline politics will feature as prominently in the run-up to the next election as they did in the last one.

This is also an issue on which our Boy Wonder PM just can’t catch a break. He finds himself attacked on all sides for his opaquely unsatisfying position. Pipeline proponents like Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, and Conservative Party interim leader Rona Ambrose have slammed Trudeau for being insufficiently enthusiastic about pushing the issue, despite the seemingly unending litany of statements from senior cabinet ministers that this government is “committed” to “getting Canada’s resources to market” – indeed, that this is “one of the fundamental responsibilities of any Canadian Prime Minister”. Meanwhile, although the government has taken steps to make the pipeline review process at least appear more impartial and thorough, activists and environmentalists have slammed the piecemeal reforms as woefully insufficient, with some charging that they amount to little more than a fig leaf designed to provide cover for pipeline approval.

Pipelines occupy the precise intersection between economic issues and environmental concerns. The issues is therefore a kind of proxy war, a struggle over what kind of future we want to work towards. Concerns about catastrophic climate change clash with worries for the plight of the suddenly impoverished workforce of Alberta and Saskatchewan, who are facing a once-in-a-century economic calamity.

And this really does need to be stressed – things are BAD out west.  Continue Reading

Trudeau the Quant – “Deliverology” and the limits of data-driven governance

Image description: Justin Trudeau, in a grey jacket and white button-down shirt, stands by the side of a four-lane street, his mouth open, his brow slightly furrowed. (Image credit: Alex Guibord)

Image description: Justin Trudeau, pictured from the waist up wearing a grey pinstripe jacket and white button-down shirt, stands by the side of a four-lane Toronto street, his mouth open, his brow slightly furrowed. (Image credit: Alex Guibord)

The CBC is reporting that Sir Michael Barber, one-time “Chief Advisor on Delivery” to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is once against providing advice to the cabinet of Justin Trudeau at a retreat.

Barber first addressed the neophyte-heavy cabinet in New Brunswick in January, instructing the politicians on a delivery-focussed method for ensuring that the new government would be able to keep its promises.

If you’re unfamiliar with Michael Butler, well, lucky you. Continue Reading

ICYMI: Trudeau, Notley and Clark engaging in massive pipeline/Site C bait-and-switch

Image description: An illustrated pipeline drawn to resemble a snake slithers across a map of Alberta and British Columbia along the route of Northern Gateway, with its tail in an oil-splattered factory and its head on the Pacific Coast. Oil drips off the snake. Written across its body are the words “Enbridge: Dirty Oil Burned the Last Bridge”. Above and below in red are flaming letters reading “NO PIPELINE” (Image credit: vanessasong/UBC)

Despite widespread public and First Nations opposition, and in clear contradiction of their election promises and repeated public statements on the issue, three major Canadian political leaders are working quietly to allow Enbridge’s dangerous mega-polluting Northern Gateway pipeline to move forward.

While in opposition, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau denounced the Harper government’s contingent approval of the pipeline in 2014, and promised that if he became prime minister, Northern Gateway would not happen. During last year’s federal election campaign, he promised to impose a ban on oil tanker traffic in northern British Columbia, a proposal which would effectively killed the pipeline.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley also campaigned on opposition to Northern Gateway in last year’s provincial election. One year ago today, in the midst of a contentious campaign, she told the Calgary Herald that “Gateway is not the right decision…I don’t think there’s any point to [pushing for the project’s completion]. I think that the legal and the environmental implications are such that it’s not going to go ahead. I think most people know that.”

And British Columbia Premier Christy Clark has openly opposed Northern Gateway for many years. After the federal government announced its approval of the project in 2014, Clark’s government declared that it would deny necessary provincial permits until its extremely strenuous demands (which some pro-pipeline observers called impossible) were met. Those demands – Clark’s famous “five conditions” – were a key plank in her party’s platform during their surprise victory in the 2013 provincial election.

Given this seemingly unanimous opposition from the three leaders, and the impending expiry of Enbridge’s permit to being construction, many analysts had assumed that Northern Gateway was dead, and pipeline proponents have focussed most of their energy and effort on the still-under-review TransMountain and Energy East pipelines.

But surprising developments in recent weeks have overturned this consensus, and suddenly, Northern Gateway’s demise looks far from certain. Continue Reading

Canada’s overlooked baggage of foreign colonialism

Image description: Several heavily armed Canadian soldiers in camouflage uniforms stand on a dusty Afghan road, rifles in hand, as a tank approaches. Off to the side, two Afghan men with bicycles lean against a partially destroyed building, watching the scene. (Image credit: ISAF/Wikipedia

Image description: Several heavily armed Canadian soldiers in camouflage uniforms stand on a dusty Afghan road, rifles in hand, as a tank approaches. Off to the side, two Afghan men with bicycles lean against a partially destroyed building, watching the scene. (Image credit: ISAF/Wikipedia)

Speaking to an audience at New York University this past week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set off a tempest of argument in Parliament and online with a seemingly off-the-cuff statement that Canada doesn’t have “the baggage” of a “colonial past”.

The remark was a reply to a question about peacekeeping, and Trudeau’s handlers and defenders were quick to point out that the Prime Minister was referring to colonialism in a foreign context, and not denying the legacy of colonialism in (so-called) Canada.

In fact, as the CBC pointed out, Trudeau delved into that painful legacy during the same talk:

Trudeau also spoke critically of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people — and specifically mentioned “colonial behaviours” — in comments that were not in the National Observer article.

“We have consistently marginalized, engaged in colonial behaviours, in destructive behaviours, in assimilationist behaviours, that have left a legacy of challenges to a large portion of the people who live in Canada who are Indigenous peoples,” Trudeau said, in answering a question from a student.

Nevertheless, Trudeau has come under fire for the comments. Some see the distinction between foreign and domestic colonialism as meaningless, as Canada is a product of colonialist ideology. It is a nation which was literally built on the colonial dispossession of land and resources from Indigenous peoples, a genocidal process which continues to this day.

Less discussed is this debate, however, is Trudeau’s erroneous assertion that Canada doesn’t have “baggage” when it comes to colonialism in other parts of the world. Continue Reading

Are Saudi threats behind Liberals’ reluctant approval of arms deal?

Image: A big-ass tank with like eight wheels and two armed soldiers sticking out the top in a sandy-looking locale. (Image credit: General Dynamics Land Systems Canada) NOTE: this may not be the actual model of Light Artillery Vehicle GDLS is selling to Saudi Arabia with Canadian governmental mediation and approval; details are sketchy, but the Globe and Mail reports that whatever they look like, they’re gonna be deadly.

Since the last time I wrote about the Canadian government’s unconscionable $15 billion arms deal with human rights pariah Saudi Arabia, it’s become clear that the Trudeau Liberals haven’t been entirely honest with the public.

Upon assuming office last November, the Liberals insisted, on the rare occasions they deigned to speak about the matter, that the deal was done, and that their hands were tied. As unfortunate as that was, there was nothing they could do about it without damaging the credibility of the Canadian government.

That was always a disingenuous argument. The Department of Foreign Affairs is required by law to block the sale of arms when it has reason to believe they may be used against civilian populations, and whatever contractual credibility the Canadian government was preserving was massively outweighed by lost credibility on human rights issues.

But it now turns out that it was also a completely inaccurate argument. The final export permits for more than 70% of the equipment involved in the sale were signed not by Rob Nicholson, Stephen Harper’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, but by Stéphane Dion, just days ago. Continue Reading

B.C. terror trial to resume without critical evidence of CSIS’s involvement in sting operation

Image description: A grinning John Nuttall, sporting a massive goatee and wearing a leather jacket and a t-shirt emblazoned with the words "SURREY WHAT" in gothic-style lettering, is seated in the passenger seat of a car, his head turned toward the driver (not pictured). (Image credit: RCMP/Project Souvenir)

Image description: A low-resolution surveillance photo of a grinning John Nuttall, sporting a massive goatee and wearing a leather jacket and a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “SURREY WHAT” in gothic-style lettering, is seated in the passenger seat of a car, his head turned toward the driver (not pictured). The photo seems to have been taken from a hidden camera in the car’s rear-view mirror. (Image credit: RCMP/Project Souvenir)

For nearly a year, defence lawyers for B.C. Legislature bombers John Nuttall and Amanda Korody have been doing everything in their power to compel the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to turn over evidence about the role one of their operatives or sources played in radicalizing the Surrey couple and encouraging them to commit violent acts of jihad.

Yesterday, after many interminable months of procedural delays and closed-door hearings, they abandoned those efforts.

Speaking in B.C. Superior Court, Marilyn Sandford, Nuttall’s attorney, told Justice Catherine Bruce that her client had simply had enough of waiting, and was willing to abandon his efforts to obtain this critical evidence if it meant the trial would be able to move forward.

“My clients have been in custody for a long time,” Sandford said. “They are anxious to proceed and they are anxious that there not be any further delay.” Continue Reading

ICYMI: Stephen Lewis lays it down

Image description: The outlines of the letters "L E A P" appear over a background of colourful shapes and patterns drawn in what looks like pencil crayon. The images include a tree, the head of a bird, triangles which may represent mountains, and a building with a smokestack. At the bottom, in small white letters, is a passage which reads: ""Moved by the treaties that formed this country and bind us to share the land "for as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the rivers flow," we want energy sources that will last for time immemorial and never run out or poison the land." - The Leap Manifesto" (Image credit: Matt Forsythe/Leap Manifesto)

Image description: The large outlines of the letters “L E A P” appear in white over a background of colourful shapes and patterns drawn in what looks like pencil crayon. The images include a tree, the head of a bird, triangles which may represent mountains, and buildings with smokestacks. At the bottom, in small white letters, is a passage which reads: “”Moved by the treaties that formed this country and bind us to share the land “for as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the rivers flow,” we want energy sources that will last for time immemorial and never run out or poison the land.” – The Leap Manifesto” (Image credit: Matt Forsythe/Leap Manifesto)

Last September, when the Leap Manifesto burst into the middle of a massively meh marathon election campaign, I was completely in favour of the proposals it espoused and entirely pessimistic about its chances of being seriously considered by any of the major parties.

The Manifesto, in case you came in late, can be read here and is essentially a concrete and detailed plan for a transformation of the Canadian economy, political system, energy infrastructure, racial relations, and worker/capitalist relations, all with the aim of making Earth more habitable and life more enjoyable in both the short and long term.

As I wrote at the time, the Manifesto seemed to be doomed due to its overt hostility towards the ruling class: Continue Reading

Mulcair’s dismissal is latest escalation in NDP’s civil war

Image description: a close up of Thomas Mulcair’s face, from bearded chin to eyebrows. Mulcair looks happy, euphoric even. There are smile creases around his eyes and his teeth are showing. The lighting is low and blue-tinged. (Image credit: Youtube)

It’s trite and commonplace, in the aftermath of a surprising turn of events, to say that we all should have seen it coming. And many pundits, struggling to explain the stunning rejection of Thomas Mulcair by the NDP’s membership, are already hastening to reassure us all that the signs were there all along that Mulcair was done for.

Chantel Hébert, writing in the Star, insists that the “writing was on the wall for Mulcair”, and that it should have been obvious to everybody that the record-high turnout for the NDP convention foreshadowed a shakeup at the top. The pundits on CPAC, reeling from the shock of the result, anxiously rattled off a long list of signs that things hadn’t been going the way Angry Tom had planned.

But all those same pundits had spent the last few weeks talking about a hypothetical 70% approval rating threshold, and whether or not Mulcair would be able to cling to power had he failed to achieve that magic number. A lot of attention was paid to many scenarios, from a commanding Mulcair victory to a mid-50s approval, but not one professional commentator I heard or read even suggested that outright rejection at the hands of the party was possible.

In retrospect, yes, it seems obvious that Mulcair was doomed. But if we’re gonna get all retrospectively prognosticatory, why cast our gaze back only a few days? Why not cast it back even further than last October’s disastrous election night, in which the NDP lost more than half its seats and its best-ever chance at forming government?

We should have seen it all coming the day that Naomi Klein launched her Leap Manifesto with the support of an all-star line-up of Canadian activists and leftists. Continue Reading

Pre-crime arrest shows Trudeau Liberals intend to leave C-51 mostly intact

Image: A hand holds a cardboard sign reading “C-51 IS TERRORISM – REJECT FEAR”

For well over a year now, Justin Trudeau’s promise to “fix” the “problematic aspects” of Bill C-51 once his party formed government has been the source of considerable uncertainty. Just what exactly does he mean by “problematic”? Which parts will he keep, and which will he amend, and which will he discard? Neither the Prime Minister nor his Public Safety Minister, Ralph Goodale, have been particularly detailed in their public statements on the matter, although careful parsing of their interviews do glean some insights, at least about some things they intend to change.

The government’s focus so far has been on increased oversight of intelligence and security agencies, both by existing bodies and by a new committee of parliamentarians. (Although their major cuts to the budget of SIRC, the body which provides oversight to CSIS, raises serious questions about their commitment to robust oversight.) They’ve made vaguely reassuring noises about protecting “civil” protest and have promised to tidy up the bureaucratic Gordian Knot commonly known as the no-fly list.

But they’ve been silent about privacy concerns, and documents recently released in response to a Freedom of Information request begrudgingly acknowledged that Canadians’ private information has been shared by at least four agencies, one of which had its name completely redacted from the release. Given the responsiveness of CSE to Defence Minister Sarjit Hajjan’s demand that the signals intelligence agency stop sharing information with its foreign counterparts during the metadata scandal which erupted earlier this year, we have to presume that this inter-agency C51-approved info-sharing is happening with the Trudeau government’s blessing.

The government has been equally circumspect as to their plans for the controversially expansive new powers granted to spy agencies like CSIS. In fact, they’ve been frustratingly tight-lipped on the subject of how they have been using these new powers since they formed government last year, and are keeping their predecessors’ instructions to CSIS on how to use these powers top secret. This silence, as I’ve suggested, always seemed to indicate that they intended to leave these issues unaddressed.

And with the arrest of Kevin Omar Mohamed by the RCMP last week, the Liberal government has finally and conclusively tipped their hand – the security agencies’ new powers look to be here to say. Continue Reading

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