Under the cover of the pandemic, the Canadian military has practiced forms of domestic surveillance and psychological manipulation typically reserved for wartime occupations. The Canadian military has honed the techniques it used to monitor political activists and spread disinformation during the thirteen years it spent assisting the US-led intervention in Afghanistan.
In a series of reports by David Pugliese for the Ottawa Citizen, the author has revealed that Canadian forces have attempted to establish a special department for operations targeting its own citizens. This initiative is not the first of its kind. Six years ago, the military planned to use fake social media accounts to propagandize on behalf of the Canadian state. Chief of the Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance referred to this proposal, which the army abandoned before implementing it, as the “weaponization of public affairs.”
A Cambridge Analytica–linked firm has trained the military staff leading Canada’s most recent domestic surveillance operation. From this training, staff have learned to monitor the social media feeds of the public and spy on Black Lives Matter activists. Bizarrely, military personal have even forged letters from the Nova Scotian government claiming that wolves were on the loose.
Chickens Come Home to Roost
Most alarmingly, recent investigations have revealed that the federal government did not authorize these psychological operations (PSYOPs), or “information operations,” as they are euphemistically called. In contrast with its interventions in the Global South, the Canadian military has to receive federal sanction to engage in such activities on the home front.
A document signed last month by acting chief of the Defence Staff Lieutenant-General Wayne Eyre and deputy minister Jody Thomas stated that “errors conducted during domestic operations and training . . . have eroded public confidence.” Vance called for the clandestine department to be shut down in spring 2020, but some of its operations continued through the summer and into the fall. This contradicts Defence minister Harjit Sajjan’s claim last year that these operations were shut down almost immediately after they had begun.
In July 2020, the Citizen obtained documents detailing a Canadian Forces campaign to “shape” and “exploit” information in order to increase public trust in official institutions dating back to the early days of the pandemic. Explicit goals of the campaign included deterring Canadians “from participating in civil disobedience” and ensuring that “public compliance with suppression measures is reinforced.”
The plan, outlined by the Canadian Joint Operations Command, was to use traditional public relations techniques, as well as methods brought home from Afghanistan, to achieve these goals. The proposal recommended the use of forms of psychological manipulation deployed in Afghanistan to convince locals to support the established government rather than the Taliban. These included the use of military vehicles with loudspeakers to transmit information, as well as the use of portable radios in more remote areas.
News outlets published revelations about the operations around the same time that Canadian troops began assisting overworked, underpaid staff in long-term elder care facilities in Ontario and Quebec. On July 21, 2020, the Citizen reported that military intelligence had, through its Precision Information Team, collected and analyzed information from the social media accounts of patients and visitors at care facilities in Ontario. Officials claimed that they had searched for specific words and phrases to assist soldiers who were working in long-term care at the time.
Some of the data contained basic information about the long-term care homes, but the intelligence team also collected comments critical of Doug Ford’s Conservatives. Members of the military then passed on these comments to personnel in the Ontario government. Joint Task Force Central commander Brigadier-General Conrad Mialkowski defended these actions, arguing that all the information was already available publicly.
The Cambridge Analytica Connection
To carry out this campaign, the Canadian Armed Forces contracted British firm Emic Consulting to train forty civilian and military personnel in behavioral modification techniques. The contracts cost the Canadian Forces more than $1 million.
Emic director Gaby van den Berg previously worked for the defunct SCL Group, which is the parent company of Cambridge Analytica. The British political consultancy firm is infamous for its mining of the data of 30 million Facebook users to assist the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
SCL, which had offices in the United States, the UK, Brazil, Malaysia, and India before it shut down in 2018, boasted of having “conducted behavioral change programs in over 60 countries.” It also claimed to have assisted with information warfare on behalf of NATO in Afghanistan.
The Department of National Defence insisted they intended to use Emic Consulting training merely to help officials “better identify and understand key audiences.” The consultation ostensibly aided in “audience research” and helped Defence staff to create communications campaigns tailor-made for target populations.
Wolves at the Door
One of the most unusual practical applications of these behavior modification techniques was an incident that took place last year in Nova Scotia. A forged document, leaked to the public in the fall of 2020, purportedly from Nova Scotia’s Department of Lands and Forestry, warned Nova Scotians about a pack of wolves on the loose in the province’s Annapolis Valley.
When the provincial government announced that the letter was fake, they were unaware that the Canadian Armed Forces were the ones who fabricated it. Meanwhile, the military was running “training missions” that featured loudspeakers blaring fake wolf noises. Bard College professor Emma Briant, an expert in military propaganda, remarked to the Citizen that “it’s a very dangerous path when you start targeting your own public with false information and [are] trying to manipulate them.”
The Canadian Armed Forces have yet to explain why military personnel faked the document. Briant believes that it was clearly an effort by the military to test its disinformation capabilities: “You start a rumor about wolves on the loose and then you see how the public reacts.”
SCL engaged in similar activities in Afghanistan. To preemptively halt the radicalization of locals, villagers were told not to attend madrasas. The reason given to prospective students was that cadres of pedophiles allegedly run these schools.
Spying on Protestors
Intelligence officials did not, however, limit their activities to collecting data on Ontarians with relatives in long-term care. They also collected social media data on Canada’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. The data gathered included the profiles of BLM chapters in Toronto and Waterloo and a timeline of twenty-five demonstrations across the province.
An intelligence report on BLM included an almost entirely redacted section titled “Hostile Foreign Actors.” BLM Toronto cofounder Sandy Hudson told the Citizen that the surveillance of a social justice movement speaks volumes about the mentality of state security apparatuses: “This says something about how [Canada] views Black people advocating on behalf of their community; that this is something that is suspicious and something to be tracked by the military.”
BLM is not the only activist group that the Canadian surveillance state has targeted. Between 2012 and 2013, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Canada’s equivalent to the FBI, spied and collected data on environmentalists protesting the ill-fated Northern Gateway Pipelines in Prince Rupert, British Columbia.
While the revelations about the scale of military surveillance have shamed the Canadian Armed Forces into abandoning this round of surveillance and PSYOPs, we only know about what has come to light through the efforts of journalists and whistleblowers. These military scandals are as sinister as they are farcical, and we have to wonder about what else might be happening away from public scrutiny.