BTL Glasbeek leaderboard

The NHL and the new Canadian militarism

National game, international shame


There was a time when the idea of military pomp at a Canadian sporting event would have seemed absurdly out of place — that was an American thing. Oh, how the times have changed.

These days, when you settle in to watch the Jets beat the Leafs on Saturday night, you do so understanding that there will almost inevitably be some kind of military spectacle on display. Maybe soldiers will rappel from the rafters to thunderous applause. Maybe there will be a moment of silence for our fallen heroes. Maybe Don Cherry will take us on an unscheduled trip to Kandahar in a jocular salute to the boys who are maintaining their team loyalties even while they keep us safe over there.

But wait — over where? Keeping us safe from whom? Doesn’t it matter?

Not according to the NHL, the CBC, or the countless franchises, broadcasters, sponsors and pundits who have made themselves a crucial component of the new Canadian militarism. Ours is not to talk about actual details of Canada’s military engagements, it is simply to “support the troops.” Those who question this mantra are told that while one may or may not agree with the particular deployments of the Canadian Armed Forces, we all have a responsibility to support the men and women who put their bodies on the line for us.

But the logic does not hold. Uncritically supporting the troops is a tacit support of their deployments especially since, in the first place, that support is premised on the notion that they are protecting us. That is, it requires that we believe that the troops’ particular deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Haiti, Mali and elsewhere are making us safer — a claim that is not at all self-evident. Moreover, the military celebrations at NHL games themselves make no effort to separate the troops from their missions, and it needs to be added that there are plenty of other Canadians — aid workers, doctors, nurses, activists — who also put their bodies on the line doing work that doesn’t involve killing, injuring or torturing anyone. They receive no similar tributes at hockey games.

Bravery and cowardice

Canadian sportswriters and radio hosts have called me a “fool,” an “idiot” and most often a “coward” for daring to criticize the military that bravely protects my very right to be critical. But bravery alone cannot be the basis for our support; after all, there are plenty of acts that require courage but do not necessarily deserve admiration, from bungee jumping to big game hunting to drug trafficking.

And what of the notion that the troops are courageously protecting our right to be critical? This is pure ideology, utterly divorced from real historical experience. Basic liberal democratic rights — the freedom to organize, to assemble, to speak freely — were not gifts from the armed forces, but were won by activists, by social movements often standing up against the military and police that were called in to break their movements, as in the famous Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.

Indeed, it is an absurdity to suggest that our occupation of Afghanistan has anything to do with protecting our freedom. The notion that some sort of Afghan invasion could take over Canada and impose a dictatorship over us is farcical; frankly, if anyone poses a threat to Canadians’ freedom it is the Canadian state and armed forces itself. In 2007, police_agents provocateurs were exposed in Montebello trying to incite violence among demonstrators to justify a crackdown. In Toronto in 2010, peaceful protestors were arrested by the thousands based on secret — later acknowledged to be fake — laws. This year, in Montréal, students were arrested for simply planning to demonstrate, with the police openly declaring that Canadians “do not have the right to protest.”

All of this raises serious doubts about the assertions of Canadian icons like Don Cherry and Ron MacLean that the troops are protecting our freedom. Perhaps, then, what we should really be asking ourselves is why, suddenly, Canadians find themselves with a military engaged in aggression around the globe and a cultural realm, around sports in particular, that increasingly disciplines us to support it. To do that, we must develop a more rigorous history of Canadian foreign policy.

A peacekeeper no more

The mythology of Canada’s history as an international peacebroker is more rhetoric than reality, but it was a manifestation of a particular moment in Canadian history, when Canada benefited from the umbrella of uS Cold War aggression without having to sustain a significant military budget. But today the Canadian state has begun asserting itself as a contributing member of the imperial oligarchy, in order to secure access to its rewards. In the 1990s, Canadians were involved in torture in Somalia and bombing in Yugoslavia and Iraq. After 9/11, Canada placed itself near the forefront of the dubious uSled “war on terror” and, since then, has systematically increased the size of its military and the scope of its operations.

Canada’s 12-year occupation of Afghanistan has left that country devastated, thousands of civilians killed and some 70 percent of surviving Afghans living in poverty, under NATO’s puppet dictatorship that has reintroduced the most reactionary social policies including laws that allow husbands to rape their wives. Not surprisingly, the extreme violence of the occupation has actually filled the ranks of the Taliban and other armed resistance groups who, quite reasonably, do not consider the foreign presence benevolent; Canada is directly implicated in the torture of civilian detainees who are stripped, beaten, frozen, electrocuted, deprived of sleep, sexually assaulted and humiliated, attacked with dogs and often ultimately killed. In the ubiquitous moments of silence, held at NHL games, for Canadians killed in Afghanistan, never once has there been any reflection on the Afghan lives lost or broken.

And Afghanistan is just the beginning. In 2004, the Canadian military participated in the abduction and overthrow of the democratically-elected president of Haiti, and has remained there ever since, training and supervising the Haitian police in the killing of thousands of the former president’s supporters and overseeing highly-profitable Canadian enterprises as they extract wealth from one of the poorest countries in the world. In 2009, Canada threw its full political support behind a military coup in Honduras that has violently crushed a social movement struggling against poverty imposed in part by Canadian mining and sweatshop companies. In 2011, Canada intervened with a major bombing campaign in Libya, where the profits of Canadian energy giant Suncor were being interrupted, killing hundreds of civilians with some 700 bombs. This year, Canada participated in French-led attacks in Mali. These are not peacekeeping missions; Canada today contributes less than 0.01 percent of the UN’s peacekeeping force, and former Canadian General Rick Hillier liked to remind people that the purpose of the military was “to kill people.”

Follow the money

To wit, military spending has skyrocketed in the past decade. The official military budget is now higher than it was during the Second World War, reaching $18 billion in 2009, and the armed forces now retains over 100,000 soldiers and occupies an increasingly central role in the state apparatus. Civilian departments like foreign affairs (DFAIT) and international development (CIDA) have been marginalized and subsumed under the military (DND), which is increasingly secretive and centralized around the Prime Minister’s Office. Minor controversy was sparked in 2012 when it was revealed that the Harper government had blown $25 billion on a new fleet of F-35 fighter jets.

But beefed-up military spending has taken place alongside a concerted imposition of austerity on working Canadians, as jobs are slashed, wages hammered down, and strikes broken. Banks and major corporations continue to enjoy tax breaks, while user fees and taxes are raised for everyone else, ranging from transit systems to privatized health services and rising tuition fees. Federally funded organizations that provide valuable services to communities are being scuttled or starved of resources; Indigenous, environmental, queer and women’s organizations have been particularly targeted, from Sisters in Spirit to the Canadian Child Care Federation. Direct support for people is diminishing, as reflected in decreases in social housing and assistance; for instance, after significant structural changes, less than half of unemployed Canadians today even qualify for EI.

In sum, working poverty and precarity are becoming more and more common — more than ten per cent of Canadians are now living below the poverty line and almost half of the country work precariously — even as there is less and less support for those of us who are struggling. In fact, even while the NHL is being used to justify the expensive war machine, amateur hockey is becoming more and more difficult for working people; equipment and registration is expensive and parents are working longer and less predictable hours, making it harder to get their kids to practice or find time to go see them play.

It’s no leap to think that a family struggling to get by, taking on multiple jobs at restaurants or call centres in order to pay the rising costs of rent, child care and commuting to work, would have a few other suggestions for how Stephen Harper could spend $25 billion. Selling Canadians on the importance of a growing military presence in the world, then, has to be a major preoccupation for the Canadian ruling class.

Turning our game against us

What better place to sell that military presence than Canada’s national game? Already a space that is dominated by a kind of militaristic, violent, patriarchal culture, hockey provides fertile ground and a captive audience for reinforcing the discipline of the new militarism. Randy Rose, a senior product manager for the NHL, gushed last year that the league’s “fan demographics fit perfectly into this strategy,” referring to military recruitment efforts.

Recruitment is certainly part of the goal, but there is little doubt that the NHL is at the centre of an effort to rebrand the Canadian military and build consensus around the “support the troops” mantra. Military appreciation nights are now annual events in every Canadian NHL city, though they were largely unheard of a decade ago. The Toronto Maple Leafs, for instance, began these promotions in 2006 and shortly thereafter launched “Luke’s Troops,” in which defenseman Luke Schenn donated a fraction of his salary to buy tickets for soldiers’ families. The promotion gave a regular opportunity to make an announcement about the courage of the armed forces, to encourage the audience to clap for the soldiers’ families and to reinforce the idea that the troops were doing noble work, without actually talking about what they are doing.

In Winnipeg, amidst the euphoria of the return of the Winnipeg Jets, a new logo was unveiled that had been designed in collaboration with the air force, as the new ownership was intent on directly connecting the team to the military. The announcement was made at an air force base and it was revealed some months later that the franchise actually had a legal obligation to give good representation to the military. When I published an article criticizing the logo, I had my face slapped in the Winnipeg Sun with the title “dishonourable mention” for having dared to speak ill of the armed forces.

Indeed, Canadian hockey fans are now inundated with military propaganda; teams periodically don camouflage jerseys or produce promotional videos for and with soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. The CBC’s weekly Hockey Night in Canada programming has become a central piece of the military marketing; a decade ago, Ron MacLean and Don Cherry debated the merits of the war in Iraq during their weekly segment. MacLean may not have been a very convincing advocate for peace in 2003, but today, he is as loud a cheerleader as his counterpart, and the CBC telecasts create the appearance of a country united behind the brave men and women serving overseas.

But this requires a dramatic deception: some 80 per cent of Canadians are opposed to the war in Afghanistan. The overwhelming majority of Afghans are against the occupation, as manifest both in opinion polls and in the growing — not diminishing — armed resistance to the Canadian presence. Canadian aggression elsewhere in the world is sometimes less visible but equally nefarious and has generated a growing resentment of Canada as just another imperial bully; social movements across the world name Canada directly as the adversary in their struggles for freedom and justice.

Meanwhile, an entire nexus of ruling-class power — the team owners, the league, the Canadian state, the media — has zeroed in on the NHL as a perfect site to promote the new militarism to Canadians who might otherwise insist that we drop fewer bombs and use that money to rebuild homeless shelters and mental health institutions and support our librarians, our teachers and our nurses. Our national game has become a vehicle for military propaganda and a collective response is surely long overdue.

Tyler A. Shipley is professor of culture, society and commerce at the Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning and author of Canada in the World: Settler Capitalism and the Colonial Imagination. The book is available to pre-order now. Learn more about the book on Twitter and Instagram.

This article appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Canadian Dimension (Sports: Views from Left Field).


PSAC leaderboard

Browse the Archive