The Propaganda System in Canada

A review of Yves Engler's latest book, A Propaganda System: How Canada’s Government, Corporations, Media and Academia Sell War

Propaganda is only as good as the processes through which it is concealed. Traditional examples of propaganda — the cult of personality, the political commissar, and the threat of the work camp (or worse) — were blunt and easy. They reflected a political climate where the threat of violent repression allowed for a less sophisticated regime of mass persuasion.

In current Neoliberal Democracies, propaganda needs to be sophisticated and ingrained. Propaganda, in any nation state, is the “acceptable” narrative of the historical past and the political future. Narratives constructed long ago are reformed and rechurned in an effort to justify policy and to obfuscate state discretions.

51ys4m2tvhlYves Engler’s new book, A Propaganda System: How Canada’s Government, Corporations, Media and Academia Sell War, chronicles the nexus of media, academia, the military, and government in promulgating these narratives to the Canadian public, and beyond.

Engler’s ninth book encompasses many of his previous research interests. The end product is a who’s-who catalogue, outlining the largest players in constructing a benevolent canon of Canadian foreign policy. Disseminating disinformation is not only a lucrative business for many of those involved, but it is necessary to ensure a stable status quo for the future of the business class, the peddlers of (in)security, the exploiters of the ecosystem, and the elites who transmit these messages through corporate media.

Indeed, Engler illustrates his own difficulties in accessing Canadian media institutions as a recognized author and researcher, who chooses not to colour within the lines of acceptable journalism. Engler writes in the foreword: “Since 2004 I’ve submitted dozens of op-eds critical of Canadian foreign policy and have only had four published in daily papers … I rarely waste time shaping … my message in the hopes of publishing in a corporate daily.” This is the price to pay when not shadowing the temperament of Peter Mansbridge, or other untouchable news personalities on the Canadian media landscape.

Engler’s willingness to write and publish from the sidelines indicates that A Propaganda System will be a powerful resource to understand and deflect state disinformation. Counterweights to propaganda canvassed by government and media elites is foundational to any fully functioning democracy.

Aptly described in the book as Canada’s “largest PR machine,” the extent of the Canadian Forces’ (CF) idea-generation and subsequent dissemination is meticulously dissected. Engler outlines the military’s obsession with public outreach and how such messaging finds the soapboxes of like-minded journalists (who are then likely to visit hunting lodges with CF top brass). Further, he concludes that “During fiscal year 2012-13 DND monitored a whopping 29,519 newspaper articles,” allowing the CF’s hundreds of Public Affairs Officers to determine which members of the media were trickling the proper message; in 2015, “Chief of Defence Staff Jon Vance proposed to leak ‘good news’ stories to ‘friendly’ journalists hoping they would portray the military in a positive light.” For Canadian journalists — or what’s left of them, rather — the ability to build insider relationships and hold direct lines of communication can be the crux  of maintaining a fruitful career.

The rolodex of propagandists presented in A Propaganda System is exhaustive. Peter Munk of Barrick Gold fame is a recurring character in the text, who shelled out $6.4 million to emblazon his name across the University of Toronto’s International Studies Department, now known as the Munk School of Global Affairs. The money came, unsurprisingly, with a contractual linchpin stipulating direct influence over the centre’s activities through Barrick’s international advisory board (sporting such players as former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and regime change aficionado George H. W. Bush). Even if we choose to ignore Munk’s personal ties, Barrick Gold’s abysmal indifference towards human rights truly cracks the philanthropist’s glass mask. The highly-praised academics of the school attract the best and brightest future members of the foreign policy establishment. Munk’s carrot-and-stick guidance over the administration and faculty ensures pro-mining programming with little room for detractors, thus strongly influencing the future policy of Global Affairs Canada.

While Engler’s latest work is a thick and sometimes meandering read, the final section, “Case Studies — Propaganda During War,” allows for an illuminating gaze upon propaganda’s direct praxis.

During wartime for Canada, a period which has now attained near-perpetuity, propaganda becomes an intensified state weapon. This weapon is directed at voters who are skeptical toward violent conflict and interventionism. A Propaganda System profiles many of Canada’s biggest conflicts, and the hand-in-hand sacrifice of truth they apparently warranted. Beginning with the Boer War and moving into WWI, propaganda was, very similar to the totalitarian societies mentioned earlier, easy and blunt. Abject censorship was the norm, with the “Censor’s Office bann[ing] 253 news sources” during the Great War alone. This number — not including individual books, films and records — was largely targeting Socialist outlets, pacifist papers, and texts penned in the “enemy’s language.” The government targeted journalists and writers who were sceptical of the conflict, and even intimidated those audacious enough to discuss the prospect of a peace agreement. This was all under the auspices of the War Measures Act, which allowed “censorship and control and suppression of publications, writings, maps, plans, photographs, communication and means of communication.” [emphasis added]

Modern day examples of propaganda during conflict represent an all-encompassing approach to stonewalling the means of communication.

Engler discusses the CF’s military contributions to Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya, and the current operations in Iraq/Syria. Tight-lipped spokespeople are quick to justify a lack of substantive coverage of modern conflicts, which are largely fought from the air with little presence of front line objective observers. Engler points out the repeated insistence on the part of the Department of National Defence that too much information on current operations can lead to domestic retribution — a phenomenon DND has lied about even conducting studies into previously. These revelations give concrete insights into the evolution of wartime information control. During the infancy of Canadian propaganda, government spooks simply snuffed out the curious individual leaking the message. Today’s spooks simply ensure there is little access to the message in the first place.

A Propaganda System is most substantial when viewing its impressive collection of facts collectively. Engler’s attention to detail is striking, a characteristic his followers will recognize from his previous works. Rather than becoming bogged down in the sometimes exhausting pool of facts, readers should focus on the sweeping and undeniable case they build as a whole.

Kelsey Gallagher is a freelance researcher, activist, and musician, based out of Hamilton, Ontario. His primary interests involve the Canadian security apparatus. He can be reached at Read other articles by Kelsey.