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Canadian Military Deployed Pandemic Psyop Program on Civilians to ‘Head Off Civil Disobedience’: Report

Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: September 27, 2021
Canadian soldiers participating in a United Nation mission in Mali Minusma, on August 4, 2018. The Canadian Joint Operations Command sought to deploy a psyops campaign targeting civilians when the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out last year.
Canadian soldiers participating in a United Nation mission in Mali Minusma, on August 4, 2018. The Canadian Joint Operations Command sought to deploy a psyops campaign targeting civilians when the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out last year. (Image: SEYLLOU/AFP via Getty Images)

The Canadian military deployed an Afghanistan-style propaganda campaign against its own citizens in April of 2020 with the goal of “shaping” and “exploiting” information, shortly after the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic began, according to a new report. 

The news was broken by the Ottawa Citizen, a node of Canada’s Postmedia conglomerate, after receiving a copy of a December of 2020 internal investigation launched by former Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jon Vance in responses to Access for Information requests.

The Citizen says the initiative was planned by the Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC) without the knowledge or approval of the federal government or Parliament.

While the Citizen does not provide copies of the documents obtained, they paraphrase the campaign in the following way, “The information operations scheme was needed to head off civil disobedience by Canadians during the coronavirus pandemic and to bolster government messages about the pandemic.”

Gen. Vance is said to have shut down the operation “after a number of his advisers questioned the legality and ethics behind the plan,” and brought in retired Maj. Gen. Daniel Gosselin to conduct an investigation.

The article notes CJOC issued the order to conduct the plan on April 8, yet Vance’s order to close the project did not come into effect until nearly a month later on May 2. 

The article, which focuses on the Gosselin inquiry, continues, “Gosselin’s investigation discovered the plan wasn’t simply the idea of ‘passionate’ military propaganda specialists, but support for the use of such information operations was ‘clearly a mindset that permeated the thinking at many levels of CJOC’.”

“Those in the command saw the pandemic as a ‘unique opportunity’ to test out such techniques on Canadians.”

Gosselin’s report quoted then-CJOC Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Brian Santarpia as saying, “This is really a learning opportunity for all of us and a chance to start getting information operations into our (CAF-DND) [Canadian Armed Forces/Department of National Defense] routine.”

Gosselin determined in his report that military leaders regarded the initiative “as an opportunity to monitor and collect public information in order to enhance awareness for better command decision making.”

The investigator also remarked that CJOC’s staff had a “palpable dismissive attitude” towards dissenting views on the project posed by other military leaders. 

The article claims that a second surveillance initiative was conducted by Canadian Forces intelligence officers targeting Black Lives Matter rallies and leaders. The Citizen paraphrased military leaders as saying that “information was needed to ensure the success of Operation Laser.”

Operation Laser is defined on the Government of Canada’s website as the CAF’s “response to a worldwide pandemic situation,” which is spearheaded by CJOC. The site notes the Operation has primarily been deployed to Canada’s First Nations communities, but has also been mobilized to assist with Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) testing in Nova Scotia, as well as frontline pandemic assistance in Ontario and Manitoba. 

The news is not actually new, however. Ottawa Citizen first broke the story in August of 2020, in a copy that provided more alarming details of how the plan was to work, stating “military vehicles with loudspeakers would have been used,” and that the military was intending to deploy portable radio stations for internal communications in areas where “infrastructure was lacking.”

The Citizen said that, “‘Village assessments’ would be conducted throughout the country and meetings would be set up with Canadian religious leaders and non-governmental organizations, the information operations plan noted.”

The article paraphrased Vance as saying at the time, “As long as he was in charge, information operations tactics wouldn’t be used in a domestic situation, except in the case where an enemy had invaded the country.”

But just a few months later in July of 2020, Vance announced his retirement, saying he would continue to serve in his role until a replacement was chosen. In December, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Vice Admiral Art McDonald to take his place as of January of 2021. 

In February, Vance was caught in a scandal alleging he engaged in sexual misconduct with female subordinates while in command. One woman alleged she had a secret relationship with Vance for 20 years and that he fathered two of her eight children.

A few months later in July, Vance was formally charged in the civilian legal system with Obstruction of Justice after allegedly told the woman to lie to investigators.

In July of 2020, Ottawa Citizen also went into more details on the intelligence community initiative that they now claim targeted Black Lives Matter, revealing the military’s intelligence unit set up a five man team dubbed the Precision Information Team to sift through Canadian Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and Instagram accounts for what the outlet described as “comments made by the public about the provincial government’s failure in taking care of the elderly,” and “basic information about the long-term care facilities.”

The information was turned over to the Province of Ontario “with a warning from the team that it represented a ‘negative’ reaction from the public.”

In October of 2020, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) revealed that the Canadian Armed Forces had spent over $1 million employing the services of Emic Consulting Limited, a company linked to Cambridge Analytica, a firm that allegedly manipulated Facebook users to vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. 

OCCRP said the Canadian military confirmed via email that Emic was hired to train soldiers to “better identify and understand key audiences, thus resulting in communications campaigns that are more customised and effective.”

The Project said Emic Consulting was formed by Strategic Communication Laboratories’ (SCL) Director of Operations, Gaby van den Berg in 2018, just a few days before the entire organization declared bankruptcy. SCL was the parent company of Cambridge Analytica. 

OCCRP describes Emic’s products as “training courses based on those developed by SCL,” going into further details of what the firm sells to the military as “a direct descendent of SCL’s branded ‘Behavioural Dynamics Methodology’.”

“It promises to help its military clients analyze and profile groups to find the best strategy to effectively influence a target audience’s behavior.”

The Project says SCL was accused of using the Methodology to “unethically manipulate election campaigns in countries including St. Kitts.” 

“SCL set up a sting operation in the Caribbean nation to offer the opposition leader a $1M bribe. He was covertly filmed accepting the money, and SCL then broadcast this footage at a rally,” reads the article. 

In another case referencing a sales pitch to Kenya’s politicians in 2010, the article says SCL wrote in official materials that, “Occasionally the solution is not communication but intervention — for example, the ‘discovery’ of an opponent’s corruption.”

“SCL will develop and implement whatever combination is needed to achieve the result.”