Alberta’s dramatic political transformation is energizing the campaign to rid Canada of Stephen Harper’s reign. The imperative to defeat the Harper government in the October federal election requires that we pragmatically identify, illuminate and deconstruct the PM’s core campaign strategy.
Harper is presenting himself to the electorate as a wartime prime minister seeking re-election in a time of national emergency. Modelling his campaign on former US President George W. Bush’s successful re-election bid in 2004, Harper is running as a Commander in Chief leading the assault on a trumped-up enemy.
A close focus on Harper’s recent photo op at Canada’s new military bases in Iraq and Kuwait helps clarify what we can expect from his campaign team. The core propaganda venue in the prime minister’s arsenal of psychological warfare is a tax-payer-funded promotional website called 24/Seven.
In early May, 24/Seven’s webmasters hosted and then took down videos showing Harper conferring in the battle zone of Iraq and Kuwait with members of Canada’s Joint Task Force 2. JTF-2 is a special forces unit assigned to carry out some of the Army’s most secretive missions. JTF-2 took over some of the functions formerly performed by the Airborne Regiment. The Airborne disbanded in 1995 under a cloud of infamy generated by a number of converging scandals, including the military’s cover-up of its soldiers’ murder and torture of a Somali civilian.
Military consultant David Hyde has described the PMO’s public posting of these military videos in early May as “an egregious security breech.” Certainly, the publication of the faces of Canada’s special forces operatives violated the very explicit prohibitions outlined to the photographers that accompanied Harper and his entourage to the Middle East.
Mainstream media and the opposition parties showered attention on the PMO’s own security breech prompting 24/Seven’s webmasters to remove the offending videos from the Internet. This emphasis on exposing the supposedly secret identity of JTF-2 members, however, points away from a much more substantial political issue, namely the very existence of Canadian military bases in the Middle East. The photo op took place in and around Camp Patrice Vincent. The base was given this name last November at the same time the Harper government christened Patrol Base Nathan Cirillo in Iraq.
Camp Vincent and Patrol Base Cirillo entered Canada’s military lexicon just days after their namesakes’ lives had been taken, we were told, by zealous Muslim jihadists bent on destroying Canada’s freedoms. Conveniently for Harper, the “recent Muslim converts” said to have killed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Corporal Nathan Cirillo are not around to tell their side of the story. The rushing into place of the two new military bases to fight the non-state entity dubbed the “Islamic State” was part of a flurry of activity to prepare the ground for Prime Minister Harper’s re-election campaign of 2015. The passage of Bill C-51 forms another facet of Harper’s re-election bid.
Unfortunately, Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals succumbed to Harper’s Canadian variation on Bush’s post-9/11 ultimatum: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” Will Harper succeed in making his version of this cynical ploy the federal ballot box question of 2015? Will voters take the bait of a false dichotomy as the PM implicitly declares, ‘Either you’re with the Harper Conservatives or you’re with the jihadist killers of Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent.’
So far, the primary money shot of the photo op is the image of Stephen Harper addressing an assembly of soldiers in front of a large Canadian flag and two CF-18s. We will probably be seeing more of the images captured in early May, likely with the soldiers’ faces blurred out, as the election approaches.
NDP Deputy Leader Megan Leslie seemed pointed in the right direction when she declared in Parliament, “It’s starting to look more and more like the prime minister’s entire trip is more about his election brochure and his election videos than it is about the soldiers.”
The importance of the event is signalled by the fact that Defence Minister Jason Kenney and Chief of the Defence Staff, General Thomas Lawson, were also part of the photo op. The other side of the Top Brass’ attentiveness to Harper’s war in the Middle East is its concurrent disregard for the substance of a new report on the plague of predatory interaction within the military to the tune of about five sexual assaults per day. This narrative of rampant sexual violence within Canada’s military – one that invokes memories of 2010 and the serial killings and rapes committed by Col. William Russell – is definitely discordant with Harper’s dominant campaign platform.
The National Post ran a caption beneath the campaign photo quoting Harper’s Camp Vincent speech. He told the overwhelmingly male group, “You stand on guard between the civilization we enjoy and the savagery that seeks to come to our shores.” We can expect to hear and see more variations of this campaign phrase as the election draws nearer.
The reference to civilization’s imperative to ascent over savagery is a very old justification for Indian wars and other episodes of imperial conquest aimed at grabbing land and resources from Indigenous peoples. The phrase appears prominently in Harper’s video published by the PMO’s publicly-funded propaganda venue, 24/Seven.
The three-minute video, entitled Canada Stands Strong and Free, is by far the most radical war propaganda film made in Canada since 1945. It highlights images of Harper juxtaposed with those of the domestic and international operations of the Canadian Armed Forces around the world. A provocation to inflamed Islamophobia, the video essentially brands the War Cenotaph in Ottawa as an election symbol for the Conservative Party of Canada.
The voiceover soundtrack has Harper referring to the Islamic “jihadists” whose “terrorist organizations” hope to bring “their savagery to our shores.” Flash forward to the PM’s more recent speech at Camp Patrice Vincent. In it, Harper essentially vows not to deviate from his mission to defeat in the battlefield or at the ballot box those who would “despoil our home and native land.”
This particular choice of words is very perilous for a Prime Minister whose opposition to Idle No More could already hold the seed of Harper No More.
Anthony Hall is professor of Globalization Studies at the University of Lethbridge. He has written for the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Canadian Dimension and many other periodicals. His most recent books are Earth Into Property: Colonization, Decolonization and Capitalism and The American Empire and the Fourth World.
photomontage by Tom Voydh