If you were to listen to the foreign policy rhetoric emanating from Ottawa these days you’d think that Canada, under the reign of Justin Trudeau, rarely engages in any nefarious foreign interventions or contributes to the global military industrial complex.
“Many of you have worried that Canada has lost its compassionate and constructive voice in the world over the past 10 years” said Trudeau in 2015 to a crowd in Ottawa before delivering the real kicker.
“Well, I have a simple message for you: on behalf of 35 million Canadians, we’re back.”
It was Trudeau casting serious shade on his predecessor Stephen Harper’s Conservative regime for what his Liberal party considers a backwards foreign policy based on neoconservative values. But the reality is, Canada’s foreign and military policy hasn’t really changed that much under Trudeau.
It just continues doing what it always has: piggybacking on many of the same weapons deals and war trades the public seems to think is either the sole undertaking of Conservatives or the US government.
While reporting in places like Pakistan or Ukraine, rife with their own internal struggles and in some ways two of the frontlines of western military policy, people there tell me that Canada is a “nice guy” country unlike its American neighbour.
But the fact of the matter is Canada, under the Liberal government, is simply continuing historical trends.
Take for example our recent VICE News investigation into major payments to Academi—the latest iteration of Blackwater, widely known as a mercenary company originally fronted by the infamous Erik Prince (the company has since been sold off to private investors and maintains it has zero connections to Blackwater). Under Trudeau, payments to Academi have doubled to the tune of millions.
In other words, a defence contractor whose previous iteration has a history of war crimes and allegations of an assassination program with the CIA got a bump in payments from the new Liberal government. For the record, though, it was the Harper Conservatives that originally started the relationship with the company, when it was still known as Blackwater.
My military sources have often told me about the recruitment of ex-Canadian soldiers into defence contracting companies to provide security for high profile executives or government officials in foreign countries. And who can blame them? In the boom of the War On Terror years, NATO soldiers could suddenly make big bank guarding some oil man in Kurdistan or provide embassy security in Kabul for twice their army wages. And some really have taken those contracts to be armed guards with a serious military skillset or expound their knowledge as trainers. In fact, as I outlined in our Academi investigation, that company advertises former Canadian special forces operators among its instructors.
And these aren’t the only Canadians going abroad as security contractors: There’s an industry leader originating from Canada.
Any discussion of a private global security force and Canada has to include the lucrative GardaWorld, a multimillion dollar company based in Montreal and boasting thousands of security contractors globally protecting everything from embassies to businesses in hostile areas and peaceful nations alike. Although most national security hawks would easily agree it isn’t even in the same league as Blackwater, GardaWorld has had its share of controversies.
In 2012, two of its contractors were accused of smuggling AKs by the Afghan government, while the company hired disgraced former Canadian general Daniel Ménard as the head of its Afghanistan operations (Ménard was fired for an inappropriate relationship with his subordinate). Not soon after, he too was jailed by the Afghan government with accusations of unregistered firearms. To be fair, the Afghan government levelled those types of charges at other security companies at the time, but the point is this: Canada has controversial security contractors, too.
That doesn’t mean these types of companies are all bad, because sometimes private security is a must. We can’t expect our militaries to play bodyguard to all Canadian or foreign institutions around the world and they can train our troops with resources the government claims it doesn’t possess. The problem is when western governments, Canada included, allow these types of firms to run wild with their contracting schemes, as was and is the case in Afghanistan for years, or employ companies with a history of human rights violations. And the government oversight of these companies isn’t strenuous enough.
“I don’t necessarily believe that the employment of private contractors is a problem, we are talking about the employment of private contractors with sketchy or terrible humanitarian background or track records,” Dr. David Borys told me in an interview. Borys studied the private military contracting world for Canadian Armed Forces in a 2016 report. Writing in an official Army journal, he outlines Canada’s broad use of “Private Military and Security Contractors.”
And that includes companies like Academi.
“I don’t believe that Canadians are at all aware of the widespread use of PMSCs by the Canadian government, and in most cases, not aware of the questionable track records of some of the companies that we hire, and specifically Academi as an extension of the old Blackwater,” he said. “I think that is an area where most Canadians, are frankly naive.”
The same goes for a laundry list of weapons deals the country has made over the years: such as the Harper-era deal with the Saudis for Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) seen in that country’s military operations in Yemen (considered a genocide to many), which the Liberals haven’t cancelled; and a Trudeau sanctioned deal for helicopters to the Duterte regime in the Philippines, now undertaking an extermination campaign against various groups that president considers undesirable. The Filipino purchase was just cancelled by Duterte, but even allowing it to be done in the first place raises serious alarms.
Even when it comes to cybersecurity or surveillance companies, Canada has made deals with the “Darth Vader of cyberwar” and has in the past paid TigerSwan—a company the Intercept exposed for its surveillance and suppression of the Standing Rock protests.
Now I’m not saying that Canada is exactly Nicolas Cage in Lord of War, but if the weapons deals with dictatorships coupled with all this mercenary business is evidence alone, this country certainly isn’t opposed to turning a blind eye and promoting the military industrial complex around the globe.
That’s what makes Trudeau’s commitment to his election campaign rhetoric about Canada being a peacekeeping nation questionable: Before this Mali mission ever saw the light of day, the Canadian military had already engaged in an on-the-ground special forces war against ISIS and deployed troops across Eastern Europe to counter Russian aggression. All under Trudeau.
I’m not saying those missions weren’t warranted, but the notion that “we’re back” means no more shady arms deals, global security conglomerates or interventions, guess again: when it comes to military policy and arms sales, Trudeau is just Harper in a better suit.
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