In the fall of 1994, readers of the New York Times woke to the following headline: “Torture by Army Peacekeepers in Somalia Shocks Canada.” The photographs of the incident, released in Canada that November and published in America by the Washington Post, show Canadian soldiers kneeling beside Shidane Arone, a bleeding Somali teenager who, before dying, shouted “Canada” three times. Two Canadian soldiers—Kyle Brown and Clayton Matchee—were eventually charged in Arone’s torture and murder. Their home unit, the Canadian Airborne Regiment, awash with the iconography of white supremacy, was disbanded. In January 1995, the Washington Post reported on the use of “Confederate paraphernalia” alongside hazing rituals for Black soldiers and the frequent and open use of the n-word among soldiers at home and abroad. Progressive was not a label associated with Canada’s military.
In the decades since what became known as the Somalia affair, other controversial incidents involving the Canadian military have made the news. In 2008, during the war in Afghanistan, two years after I returned from a six-month tour in Kandahar province, captain Robert Semrau executed a severely wounded and unarmed Taliban soldier in what was characterized by some as a mercy killing. And, in 2017, a group of self-professed Proud Boys who were serving members of the Canadian military confronted chief Grizzly Mama during a protest ceremony in Halifax. Wearing matching polo shirts and carrying the Canadian Red Ensign flag, the five men claimed the ceremony was disrespecting a statue of General Cornwallis, a man whose policies included a scalp bounty on the Mi’kmaw population in Nova Scotia. They received only slight disciplinary punishment. More recently, the FBI arrested suspected white supremacist Patrik Mathews, a former Canadian soldier, master corporal, and combat engineer, as he allegedly recruited members for The Base, a cross-border hate group advocating for race-based war and a white ethnostate.
But times may be changing for the Canadian Armed Forces and its reputation abroad. With the end of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan behind us, and with the Somalia affair a distant memory, some Canadians are attempting to reclaim what prime minister Justin Trudeau called “a compassionate and constructive voice in the world.” Since June 2018, captain Kirk Sullivan, a thirty-nine-year-old Canadian public affairs officer originally from Newfoundland and stationed in Washington, DC, has helmed the @CAFinUS Twitter account, from which he shares a new and surprisingly intersectional vision of Canadian military life. Sullivan writes and posts poetry about consent—“do not / assault / do not / abuse / do not / rape”—and retweets paintings from Indigenous artists. The fresh-air photos and videos of Canadian nature—fallen leaves, bright water, fir trees—evoke a Pinterest inspiration board for landscape painters. A curated racial awareness—“do / not / think it’s someone else’s problem / Racism is our problem / They are US”—and support for the LGBTQ community—“They were silent / They were shunned / They weren’t always welcome”—reside alongside a comfortable Canadiana breeziness, a charm belonging to the maple syrup and Mountie genus of joke. The account’s tagline says as much: “Nice people. Maple Syrup.” Sullivan is a prolific tweeter. And, on October 4, 2020, he tweeted a now viral photo of two men from the Royal Canadian Navy kissing, captioned #ProudBoys, subverting Donald Trump’s shirk from condemning the white supremacist group during the first presidential debate into a witty reflection of inclusiveness in the Canadian military.
The magnetism of the Twitter account Sullivan oversees is accentuated by its proximity to current political and social conflagrations in the United States. Canadians can watch painful presidential debates and Trump-adjacent riots from a distance while simultaneously priding themselves on not being American, militarily or otherwise. Sullivan’s tweets are a subtle reminder of this perceived otherness. At the dinner table of the Americas, Canadians see themselves, perhaps, as the folksy and charming auntie—definitely not the racist, homophobic, gun-toting uncle.
Yet the Twitter account also serves as a reminder that Canadians and Americans share a border and are part of the same military family and ecosystem. It links to the government of Canada’s National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces website, specifically the section on the Canada–US defence relationship. On last year’s American Thanksgiving, Sullivan tweeted a love poem for Canada’s neighbour: “Y’all / Allies / Amigos / Friends / Partners / Comrades / Neighbors … ,” characterizing the two nations as “Sisters / Brothers / Family.”
For all the new publicity of an inclusive and diverse Canadian Armed Forces, recent conversations around war and remembrance in Canada continue to suggest a more complicated reality. Last fall, for example, when Don Cherry was fired from Sportsnet over comments concerning immigrants and the wearing of Remembrance Day poppies (what Sullivan calls Canada’s “fuzzy red flower”), the outcry from a certain segment of Canada was fierce. Many pointed to Cherry’s support of veterans and police officers as sufficient cause for forgiveness and leniency. Others, including members of the military, took no offence to Cherry’s words in the first place. Canada’s military remains whiter than its population: less than 10 percent of Canadian military members identify as a visible minority compared with over 20 percent of Canada’s civilian population. And Canadian citizens remain, contrary to our reputation, quite militaristic. In his book Living with War, Ryerson University professor Robert Teigrob notes that “Canadians consistently rival Americans—and outdistance their NATO allies—in their levels of support for the use of force to resolve international dilemmas and in their ‘hypothetical casualty tolerance’ in foreign military operations,” with over 70 percent of Canadians in agreement, according to PEW Global surveying. Considered alongside the military’s long history of racial violence and white supremacist activity, it is not readily apparent that a transformed military is what most military members or civilians actually want.
Moreover, when a military-run Twitter account like @CAFinUS tweets in support of Black Lives Matter (“It’s Wednesday. Black Lives Matter”) and LGBTQ equality (“Saturday wants you to be proud of you. The very way you are. #Pride #LoveIsLove”), observers are right to interrogate the performativity of institutional progress. In 2019, according to reporting from the Ottawa Citizen, the Department of National Defence was, in fact, working on a PR campaign to address the perception of a problem with racism and hate groups in its military. British military leadership has likewise been setting up a “Diversity and Inclusion Directorate.” That same year, the Canadian Standing Committee on National Defence released a long list of recommendations with the stated aim of “Improving Diversity and Inclusion in the Canadian Armed Forces.” These included the allocation of “additional funding to allow the Canadian Armed Forces to send recruiters to First Nation, rural, and remote communities to support the Armed Forces goal of increasing the number of Canadian Armed Forces members in both the Regular and Reserve forces from Indigenous communities” and making “unconscious bias training available to all members of the Canadian Armed Forces.” Such recommendations may be seen as a positive sign of change for some, while others may view them through the lens of what Black activist Desmond Cole calls “the pablum of diversity”—that is, in an environment like the military, a way of appearing progressive and inclusive without actually making systemic changes or addressing white supremacy.
Still, Sullivan’s vision of military life is certainly softer and more thoughtful than the general population may be accustomed to seeing. Perhaps the sought-after influence of diverse populations will change the culture of the military from within. Or maybe the military, and a concomitant exposure to violence, changes people—regardless of class, gender, sexuality, or race. As Dora Apel writes, women, members of the LGBTQ community, and people of colour serve “in the contradictory position of being both discriminated against and complicit with the institution of the military.”
Take the tragedy of Clayton Matchee, a Cree man and one of two Canadian soldiers charged in Shidane Arone’s death. He is reported to have told a fellow soldier that “the white man fears the Indian and so will the Black man.” As someone whose military service resulted in pacifism and the desire for demilitarization, I found myself asking: Does it matter who is holding the gun if one of the expressed aims of the Canadian Armed Forces remains to close with and destroy the enemy? The military, like the police, is an institution whose very existence is predicated on both the threat and enforcement of state-sanctioned violence. And certain people—heterosexual men, often white—seem drawn to the power these institutions represent. Addressing this reality is a monumental task: no amount of good publicity or digital rebranding seems likely to change this dynamic on its own. In Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, Judith Butler asks her readers to consider “what forms of social and state power are ‘embedded’ in the frame, including state and military regulatory regimes.” When we look at what Sullivan shares on Twitter, like with anything online, we must interrogate the reality beyond the frame. Photos shared on social media are snapshots of life, but what exists beyond the tweet?
As a Canadian Infantry soldier, I worked closely with American soldiers in Afghanistan, followed American Hummers on long, dusty convoys, and first experienced combat alongside Americans. In my experience, Canadian soldiers are not particularly different from their American counterparts. They read the same magazines, watch the same porn, stream the same shows, fight some of the same wars, and are susceptible to the same social forces, including white supremacy. As the @CAFinUS account suggests, the Canadian and American militaries are not identical, but they draw water from the same wells and watersheds.
A couple of years ago, I was invited to the United States Air Force Academy to participate in a literary conference. I was unsure about going. I was close with several members of the military stationed in the US at the time. If I was too critical of militarism or the war in Afghanistan, would they be the ones getting in trouble? I decided to attend with the qualification that I would speak openly and accept the consequences.
The campus was a military base, and I saw soldier after soldier in uniform. As I listened to critiques of imperial warfare, I found myself surprised that the American military was allowing an event like this to occur. The discourse, at times, seemed surprisingly progressive. This was, of course, Donald Trump’s America. Were we truly free to speak? To say whatever we wanted?
On the flight home, I still could not decide how the conference fit into a broader structure of Canadian or American militarism. One partial conclusion I reached was that it was the equivalent of parents letting their teenagers and their friends get drunk in the family basement: a policy of harm reduction, yes, but also a politics of oversight; an escape valve that allows for a certain amount of steam to be released while still upholding the dominant structure—in the case of the Air Force Academy conference, the military. Our critiques of endless warfare did not end the endless war. The war continued, oblivious to the soldiers who spoke. Perhaps the Twitter account Sullivan manages functions in a similar space: a way to reduce the harm of white supremacy while still maintaining structures of oversight and control. A friendlier panopticon, but a panopticon nevertheless.
Whenever I see institutional support for queer folks and people of colour, a large part of me is hopeful. It is certainly not my place to tell a woman or a person of colour or a member of the LGBTQ community where they should feel called to work or welcome or safe. But, in the same way that Black Lives Matter organizations in both Canada and the US have challenged the allyship of police, Canadians should continue to question and criticize institutional structures like the military. Celebrate a photo of two men expressing love, certainly, but remain committed to change beyond Twitter and liberation beyond militarized structures.