Santa's sleigh outside a military jet. Photo: NORAD Tracks Santa

A few days before Christmas in 1988, I was dressed as Kris Kringle, sitting in the back of a police squad car, my hands tightly cuffed behind my back, my glasses fogged up, and my beard itching like crazy. Outside, I could hear people asking over and over again: why have they arrested Santa Claus?

A few moments earlier, I had been inside a major Toronto toy store resisting the militarization of children, along with five other Santas and two elves, all of whom would also be arrested in a major police takedown that made the holiday-adorned shopping centre look more like a scene out of CSI. We were removing war toys from the store’s shelves and placing them in garbage bags. Toy machine guns, missiles, grenades, sniper rifles, and tanks were among the various “fun” things being promoted as the perfect gift during the season of peace and good will to all.

The criminalization of Santa came in response to our concerns that war and militarism were being promoted as an inevitable but nonetheless harmless game, the first rung of recruitment into a militarized culture where young people would either be active participants as little GI Joes and Janes, or bystanders desensitized to the real thing when they saw it on the news.

The connections between playing at war and war itself were made painfully obvious in those days by none other than the always befuddled President Ronald Reagan (the slightly more refined Trump of another generation). In a speech at Disneyland, Reagan famously declared that:

“I recently learned something quite interesting about video games. Many young people have developed incredible hand, eye, and brain coordination in playing these games. The Air Force believes these kids will be outstanding pilots should they fly our jets. The computerized radar screen in the cockpit is not unlike the computerized video screen. Watch a 12-year-old take evasive action and score multiple hits while playing ‘Space Invaders,’ and you will appreciate the skills of tomorrow’s pilot.”

Militarizing the holidays

Every December, the state-sanctioned holiday season is always infused with an unhealthy dose of militarism, from the military jet flyovers of sports events and the mini arsenal that’s always available in aisle four of your local toy store to the hijacking of Santa Claus by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which “tracks” Santa and “accompanies” him with fighter bombers. It’s an insidious propaganda game that inculcates children into an acceptance of the heavily acronym-ized world of militarism that includes NATO and similarly violent institutions. Indeed, children are encouraged every December to call NORAD, which has operators standing by to answer Santa-related questions. The people answering those calls are normally engaged with systems integrated into nuclear war fighting schemes.

As Eric Schlosser writes in his frightening book, Command and Control, it has often been false alarms from NORAD that have led the world to the precipice of nuclear Armageddon. But Santa-tracking is a brilliant piece of deflection and distraction that normalizes NORAD as a friendly, protective umbrella shielding us from the dangers “out there.”

Indeed, the Santa-tracking website that hosts children’s games tells tiny tots that:

“NORAD makes a point of checking the radar closely for indications of Santa Claus leaving the North Pole every holiday season. The moment our radar tells us that Santa has lifted off, we begin to use the same satellites that we use in providing air warning of possible missile launches aimed at North America….Rudolph’s nose gives off an infrared signature similar to a missile launch. The satellites detect Rudolph’s bright red nose with no problem.”

While Rudolph is not quoted — nor is Santa or Mrs. Claus (who many believe has long been a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom) — NORAD continues with its insidiously packaged bedtime story, claiming Santa is accompanied by Canadian C-18s and U.S. F-15s, F-16s, and F-22 fighter planes, all of which have been employed to drop bombs on the children of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, the former Yugoslavia, and other parts of the globe. “When the jets intercept Santa, they tip their wings to say, ‘Hello Santa! — NORAD is tracking you again this year!'” the story continues. “Santa always waves. He loves to see the pilots!”

And in a last bit of colonialism, NORAD reminds children that Santa “will visit everyone (i.e. Afghanistan, Israel, non-Christian countries)… Santa visits all homes where children believe in him.” No data is provided to document how many Santa-believing children have been murdered by the bombing runs of these warplanes.

Agents of peace selling weapons systems

Meanwhile, Canada’s emcee and leading bedtime storyteller, Justin Trudeau, spent a very busy year playing Santa Claus both to recipients of corporate welfare, as well as some of the globe’s worst human rights violators. Supplying presents that explode, obliterate, lacerate, behead, burn and disable women, children and men, the Liberals have wrapped up their role as the Canadian weapons industry’s global pimp in lots of pretty paper. As Trudeau said with no trace of irony at the Vancouver “peacekeeping” summit last month, Canada will be “agents of peace in a world that sorely needs it…. we’ll protect the world’s children, empower women and girls, and build a more peaceful and a more prosperous world.”

To underscore that message of hope and peace, just before Parliament shut down for winter break, Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland gushed with joy at the announced opening of weapons sales to the brutal regime in Ukraine. Meanwhile, as part of a year-end Middle East tour, War Minister Harjit Sajjan inked a “defence cooperation agreement” on December 18 with the torture-stained regime of the United Arab Emirates, which detained and tortured Canadian citizen Salim Alaradi for two years. The agreement promises new training opportunities and “defence engagement,” code words for weapons sales.

The day before, Sajjan promised more support for the Jordanian regime, which according to Amnesty International’s latest report, continues to:

“[r]estrict the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, and detained and prosecuted critics and opponents under criminal defamation, blasphemy and anti-terrorism laws. Torture and other ill-treatment continued in detention centres. Trials before the State Security Court were unfair. Women faced discrimination in law and in practice and were inadequately protected against sexual and other violence. Migrant domestic workers were exploited and abused.”

But Sajjan focused on other issues, including Canadian support to build a road that will make it easier for Jordan’s armed forces to repress any outbreaks of homegrown democracy. “I am pleased to be in Jordan to announce further support for one of our most trusted partners in the Middle East region, and in turn help to build a more secure and stable world,” Sajjan declared. “Jordan has shown that it is always ready to do its part and Canada is happy to reciprocate by supporting the needs of the Jordanian Armed Forces.” 

Part of the cooperation appears to have been the Jordanian torture of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, one of the longest-held detainees in the war of terror, who in his book, Guantanamo Diary, recounts that most of his troubles appear to have arisen because of unfounded Canadian state security allegations cooked up while he was living in Montreal.

While it is too soon to tell when Syria’s brutal regime will once again become one of Canada’s “trusted partners” and weapons buyers (Syrian dictator Assad’s regime played a significant role in torturing Canadian citizens at the behest of this country’s state security agencies, the RCMP and CSIS), Sajjan’s tour will continue this week as part of the federal government’s ongoing efforts to maintain its pride of place as the region’s second-biggest weapons dealer.

Massive military investment

It was Christmas in July for Canadian weapons-makers last summer when Freeland and Sajjan delivered a series of one-two “hard power” punch lines, informing the world that Canada would invest over $100 billion in new warfare spending while using military force to back up its global objectives.

In a “major policy” speech last June, Freeland smugly asked, “Is Canada an essential country, at this time in the life of our planet? Most of us here would agree that it is.” Freeland continued, “Why do we spend billions on defence, if we are not immediately threatened?” She then proceeded to discuss how Canada’s “interests” on the world stage must be backed by “the principled use of force” and, in a phrase that illustrates the psycho-sexual undertones of most forms of militarism, “the backing of hard power.”

These policy pronouncements were part of an ambitious year of similar instances in which the Liberals committed themselves to a massive theft of the poor that would make even Scrooge blush. At a time when they should be investing in everything from massive reparations and land transfers to Indigenous communities, to a universal daycare program, as well as pharmacare, environmental cleanup, affordable housing, proper pensions and supports for veterans, women’s shelters and sexual assault survivor programs, and countless other desperately needed socially useful programs, Trudeau’s team then announced a huge war spending spree.

In their advertisement for this massive investment in militarism, “Strong, Secure, Engaged,” the War Department not only had the standard introductory page from its own minister, Sajjan, but also a similar note from Freeland, who praised the celebration of mass murder as a key part of her government’s “progressive, feminist foreign policy.” Freeland’s appearance in the document also signaled a confirmation that Canada — which has historically used its military for imperial adventures that back its corporate clients — is no longer shy about the role that its diplomatic corps is playing to promote the use of armed force as a preferred policy option.

Indeed, as Thomas Friedman wrote two decades ago in The New York Times, “the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist [the military].” With the Freeland/Sajjan policies as described in “Strong, Secure, Engaged,” the role of the Canadian Forces continues to be what it always has been, despite being prettied up with lots of pictures of women and children to promote “inclusivity” while extolling the exciting military opportunities for “Indigenous Canadians.” That role is to intercede on behalf of Canadian capital, whether abroad or here at home, where Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr promised last year to call in the military to quash anti-pipeline resistance.  

A ‘feminist’ foreign policy

To support this supposedly “progressive, feminist foreign policy,” the plan is for a $62.3-billion boost to war spending (Canada currently spends well over $20 billion annually on war), over $60 billion for new warships, $19 billion for fighter jets, and over $1 billion for armed drones. To sell this bill of goods, the Liberals rely both on Canadians’ fears of Trump (how will we defend ourselves against the madman in the White House?) and the long-standing mythology of Canadian benevolence (because we are, as Freeland concludes, an “essential nation.”) Would Canadian drone operators really launch hellfire missiles against a village in Afghanistan from some NORAD bunker in North Bay if the Liberals get their wish to purchase these deadly aerial vehicles? Surely not our boys!

The war spending spree has been criticized by some as empty rhetoric because much of the funds are slated for after the next federal election. While true, it misses the far more important point: such announcements normalize the robbery of the treasury to benefit a global conglomerate of war profiteers. Because such spending is couched in the state security narrative, it becomes a bottomless pit that has no match in any social program. No other federal department is so frequently the focus of “underfunding” whining, even though last year, Canada was ranked the 15th-highest war spender by Jane’s Defence Weekly. Indeed, the War Department has always enjoyed the largest use of discretionary funding in the federal budget, and the outlay of well over half a trillion dollars in war spending over the past 30 years has done nothing to guarantee anyone’s security.

Just after the announcement of the new war spending spree, the Liberals quickly extended their Iraq military mission for another two years. Instead of a proper national debate about the dangerously under-reported role of Canadian soldiers in that conflict, Trudeau instead chose the final week of June to celebrate the murder of an unnamed human being who, we were told reassuringly, was one of the “enemy,” killed as part of  what the government continues to insist is Canada’s “non-combat” role.

“What happened there is, first of all, something to be celebrated for the excellence of the Canadian Forces in their training, in the performance of their duties,” Trudeau said of the Canadian soldier who killed someone from 3,540 metres away. Little discussed is the role that Canadian troops are playing in that region to help pave the way for what Canada’s ambassador to Jordan foresees as a $1-trillion opportunity for Canadian companies interested in rebuilding the infrastructure that other Canadian companies helped to destroy.

If all this weren’t maddening enough, Trudeau’s self-regarding Prince of Peace imagery is also being branded by Canadian bureaucrats to pitch the idea of “peacekeeping.” Trudeau expounded on how he represents the “goodness” of Canadians when he declared:

“What I’m seeing around the world is that Canada is looked at as a place where people are smart and get it and have good values. So that uplifting of Canadians and what it is that we do well, diversity being a strength, being part of it, is, I think, where the brand is making the biggest impact on the world stage.”

Testing Brand Trudeau

While that brand is currently being tested via litigation in the Court of Appeal opposing the sale of $15 billion in killer vehicles to the Saudi regime, it’s also being tackled at the International Criminal Court, where former MP Craig Scott has asked prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to consider including Canadian complicity in torture as part of a wider investigation into war crimes committed by occupying forces in Afghanistan. The “progressive, feminist” Trudeau brand was also undermined when a number of former Canadian “peacekeepers” recently escaped accountability for their alleged role in sexual misconduct in Haiti.

Meanwhile, as veterans continue fighting the government for proper pensions and health care to deal with the scars of past battles, the government is confident that a new generation of recruits looking down the barrel of decades of student debt will sign on to the military via the “poverty draft.”

Towards that end, the armed forces have been busy trying to encourage women, LGBTQ2, and Indigenous people to join an institution rooted in misogyny, homophobia and racism. The military also relies on the mythologized Canadian soldier as a benevolent world force to infiltrate events like last summer’s Ottawa Pride Day, where some 100 uniformed military personnel joined federal Liberals who last year approved the sale of $15 billion in weapons to the homophobic regime of Saudi Arabia. The same parade’s organizers had rightfully asked Ottawa police not to wear uniforms because many participants did not feel safe having symbols of the city’s occupying army in the event. That concern did not extend to solidarity with those in other countries for whom the occupying Canadian military uniform is representative of complicity in torture (Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq) and bombing runs (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Libya). Nor does it extend to Indigenous people who have had their lands occupied by the Canadian military (such as Kanehsatà:ke, site of the 1990 “Oka crisis,” and numerous other sites where unceded Indigenous lands were seized by the War Department for training purposes and bases.)

 As 2017 came to an end, and homeless people were freezing to death on the streets of Canada, the Liberals also discovered they had an extra $500 million lying around to purchase 18 used Australian fighter jets that were supposed to replace on an interim basis CF-18 fighter jets. Even though the Australian jets are the same age as the Canadian ones, we were asked to forgive the nonsensical purchase in the name of a non-existent “capability gap” reminiscent of the mythic “missile gap” that propelled John F. Kennedy to the White House and accelerated the Cold War nuclear weapons race in the 1960s.

The purchase of the Australian jets was meant to bypass an ongoing dispute involving war manufacturers Bombardier and Boeing, and also to defend against those who, Trudeau said, would “harm” Canada’s economy. But nowhere in the military funding discussion has there been a proper analysis of how military spending in and of itself is always harmful to economies. Indeed, for decades, studies about conversion from a war economy to a peace economy have shown that monies traditionally poured into war industries like Lockheed Martin and L-3 Wescam would, if directed to human needs, create more long-lasting jobs, and result in far more wholesome contributions like affordable housing, child care, improved access to health care, and environmental cleanup.

What to do?

While there are countless opportunities for resisting militarism and globalized violence, there are some very specific things we can all do to say no to the war that is being funded in our name. First and foremost, don’t pay war taxes, and instead divert that portion of your taxes that would go to the War Department to a peace tax fund. Learn more at Conscience Canada.

In addition, one can demand that the Canada Pension Plan, which is riddled with war investments, divest itself from the business of killing. One can also demand that Global Affairs Canada stop playing the role of weapons industry pimp (and their Ottawa lobby offers very spacious facilities for those considering a sit-in).

Almost every community in Canada has industries that profit from war, including London, Ontario’s production of killer vehicles for the Saudi regime at General Dynamics, Kitchener’s Colt Canada (sniper rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers), Lockheed Martin in Halifax, and drone warfare specialist L-3 in Burlington. Canada’s war industry association has a very helpful map documenting the 800 war profiteers that occupy every province and territory. You can also do some basic internet research to find out how many millions in your tax dollars are pumped into your local war industry and ask how that money could be better spent on education, clean water for Indigenous communities, health care, child care, and support services for victims of male violence.

In addition, all of those war industries gather for a massive arms bazaar every year in Ottawa, CANSEC, which hosts some of the world’s most horrific human rights violators. Taking place at the end of May, CANSEC is one of those rare opportunities in Canada that provides perfect blockade weather.

Perhaps most importantly, it is critical to stop buying the mythology that Canada’s military and war industry are any different from those of the U.S., U.K., Israel, or any other regime willing to employ the tools of terror to achieve their objectives. As former general Rick Hillier famously and accurately declared: “We are the Canadian Forces and our job is to be able to kill people.”

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. ‘national security’ profiling for many years.

Photo: NORAD Tracks Santa

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Photo of Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate.