The $11-million brand: Amid budget cuts, the RCMP splurge on propaganda

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Canada has long held the unique status of being a nation that puts its secret police on postcards, T-shirts and tacky tourist trinkets. During the 1990s, that same police force also entered a five-year licensing agreement with the creators of Mickey Mouse and Daffy Duck at Walt Disney, "in response to the popularity of unlicensed products and concerns that these products were having a detrimental effect on the RCMP's reputation."

And in a tradition no doubt envied by the likes of the KGB, the RCMP never stopped hearing the applause of audiences watching their fabled musical horsemen participate in sunset ceremonies while its Security Service was burning barns, stealing membership lists for registered political parties, infiltrating labour unions, spying on cabinet ministers, labelling the Raging Grannies national security threats, and inciting political violence.

Similarly, when two separate judicial inquiries found the Mounties were complicit in the torture of Canadian citizens, they remained on guest lists as ceremonial red carpet figures at the Juno Awards and Toronto International Film Festival, among other events where liberal artists appearing in films such as Rendition just didn't get the cruel irony.

Canada's Dudley-Do-Rights had a bit of a rough patch when their serial criminality was exposed to the world in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but they managed to pull through thanks to a stunning absence of accountability mechanisms as well as that annoying Canadian tradition of celebrating "venerable" institutions of dubious value.

And while the Mounties continue to wallow in a sea of corruption and violence (tasering people to death, complicity in torture, rampant sexism, etc.), they nonetheless benefit from a multi-million-dollar propaganda campaign promoting the mythic men in red as saviours to failing states and stranded motorists alike. That campaign includes gift shops, an online boutique store that acts as their "official retailer," and star-studded events like Toronto's "Golden Spur Gala" (corporate tables at $5,000 apiece with MC Rick Campanelli of ET Canada).

While Ottawa engages in deep budget slashing (including the elimination of the office of the Inspector General of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, a savings of $1 million), the feds are annually investing $11.3 million in promoting the Mounties' "brand," which is currently subject to 89 licensing agreements and memoranda of understanding as well as 22 national and international "strategic partnership agreements entered into to promote the RCMP's image."

In a 2011/12 planning and priorities report the Mounties tabled in Parliament, we learn 100 full-time employees work diligently at "leveraging the RCMP's brand to promote governmental and departmental initiatives domestically and abroad." Ultimately, they claim, "International recognition of the RCMP facilitates positive interactions between Canadians and foreign citizens at all levels of society, from Canadian citizens abroad on vacation to Canadian diplomatic missions, by communicating messages that associate positive values and experiences with a highly recognized Canadian symbol."

The RCMP needs "a strong and relevant brand" to offer what it calls "world-class police services," but their report neglects to mention any of the dirty laundry that continues to generate headlines; rather, it's all a win-win opportunity of "showcasing Canada's proud heritage and culture." Those with memories longer than the life-span of a mosquito may recall that in 2008 the Harper government cut a $4.7-million program to promote Canadian heritage and arts abroad, targeting such undesirable organizations as the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and thereby opening the door wide for the Mounties to be the nation's marquee cultural ambassador.

"It is essential that the RCMP's icons be promoted as symbols of Canada internationally," the report continues, with particular focus on the need for "protecting the RCMP image against uses that do not reflect Canadian values."

One is left to surmise whether the Mounties' exercise in branding has made it any easier for them to engage in harassment of, and rendering to torture, people they racially profile. In a little-discussed section of the Iacobucci Inquiry's final report into the role of Canadian officials in the torture of Canadian citizens Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin, the former Supreme Court judge who chaired the secretive commission found that the Mounties plotted to illegally kidnap and render Almalki to torture while he was visiting Malaysia with his wife and children.

"The RCMP also had discussions with [a] foreign agency about a possible plan to arrest Mr. Almalki (apparently without the participation or concurrence of Malaysia) prior to his return to Canada (on December 25)," the report states. At a December 10, 2001 meeting that included senior Mounties like Michel Cabana (since promoted), "the foreign agency advised that it would try to locate and apprehend or intercept Mr. Almalki before December 25."

Almalki, whom the Mounties had falsely described as an "imminent threat" and an "Arab running around" in an October 2001 report, was detained and tortured for 22 months in Syria, during which time the Mounties okayed the forwarding of questions to Syria, knowing this would result in further torture of Mr. Almalki.

While the United Nations Committee Against Torture released a report earlier this month calling for the Canadian government to accept responsibility for its role in Almalki's torture, agencies such as the RCMP have refused to apologize.

It is unclear what owners of the Sesame Street Elmo Mountie, the RCMP "Justice Keychain," the cuddly "Sergeant Snowflake," the Mountie valour blankets, "vivacious ladies' watch," and stainless steel RCMP travel mugs are to make of the fact that their everyday household items promote a brand associated with torture. Nor is it clear if the RCMP recognizes that some of the products carried by the Mountie Shop (an online paradise for lovers of all things RCMP) share names eerily similar to torture practices (including the "RCMP Kickin Kid [that] will bring plenty of joy to your little one because of his floppy legs," the "Forced to Wake Up" coffee mug (the tactic of sleep deprivation), and an Xmas-themed "Mountie Nutcracker" (the Mounties' partners in torture commonly engage in unspeakable genital horrors).

Meanwhile, as the Mounties, CSIS and Canada's other "national security agencies" engage in PR stunts to convince taxpayers and politicians of their relevance, the Harper government announced in early June a new million-dollar program to promote fear and, in a circular fashion, the continued high funding of fear-fighting spies. The so-called Kanishka Project (allegedly named in honour of the Air India bombing victims) is a boon to the country's growing terrorist-academic-industrial complex.

Half a million will go to the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and the University of Waterloo to create a new generation of Mountie and CSIS yes-men (or "network of scholars") who will be the media's go-to spokespieces for "explaining" the need for the ill-advised and often illegal behaviour of Canada's spies (though their official job will be to conduct "literature reviews on terrorism-related topics, stage workshops on terrorism and security, [and] develop an internship program for grad students.").

Meantime, Carleton University gets $60,000 to produce scary reports about the "organizational structure of terrorist groups that have used or attempted to use or acquire chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons." It's doubtful they will produce penetrating analysis biting the hand that feeds them (exploring, for example, Canada's chemical weapons testing at CFB Suffield or uranium exports violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty).

Instead, watch for these groups to produce reports that the Mounties, CSIS, and "Public Safety" spokespersons can point to in justifying their "war on terror" malfeasance.

Over $115,000 will be given to the Association of Canadian Studies (ACP) as additional insurance to create headline-generating polls about terrorism. Polls are often a neat trick by which non-issues become issues: conduct a dozen of them over a period of time by introducing a question few people worry about, repeat the results often enough (Canadians Seriously Unaware of Martian Meteorite Threat, Polls Show), and suddenly an issue has traction.

Even though poll after poll has shown that Canadians name poverty and hunger as far more serious concerns than terrorism (a term, needless to say, that's never defined), the ACP appears up for a task that perhaps can help create an increased sense of urgency.

This is the same ACP whose studies sometimes risk re-enforcing preexisting prejudices. They produced a poll asking certain Canadians whether they "strongly" or "somewhat" agree or disagree with the statement, "Muslims share our values." Apart from the fact that Muslims are not a monolithic group and over 650,000 already are Canadians, such a question introduces the idea that perhaps something is amiss, else why would the question be asked? A poll produced earlier this year by ACP also found that 52 per cent of Canadians "mistrust" Muslims, another headline grabber that, while a wakeup call for those concerned about discrimination, perhaps might have re-enforced the reassuring feeling that those who hold such views are not alone.

As Canadians increasingly protest undemocratic Harper government abuses and growing inequality gaps, watch for new "national security" distractions created by people who just as easily project positive images of soap bars and shampoo as they do police and spy agencies complicit in torture.

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.

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