Cover Story

The armed forces: in from the cold

Roy MacGregor November 6 1978
Cover Story

The armed forces: in from the cold

Roy MacGregor November 6 1978

The armed forces: in from the cold

Cover Story

Roy MacGregor

Traditional Canadian complacency, the open society, and a feeling generated by its geography that “it cannot happen here, ”help to create the troubled waters in which the revolutionary fish can swim and propagate.—British Institute for the Study of Conflict, September, 1978.

Swallows scatter down across the October quilt of the Petawawa plain and on toward the river and Quebec, where the far hills ghost into rain cloud. In air as close as cobwebs the soldiers of the Canadian Special Service Force in the reanimated Armed Forces wait for the beginning of what they call “erection time”—a solid, stunning minute that turns the land punch-drunk with explosion. When it is over a major’s voice rises eagerly from the loudspeaker, quieter but no less disturbing: “Would you be dead? Would you be critically injured? Would you have the guts to stand up and fight like a man as our

infantry came over to kill youT' Only then is there silence, as the questions rise and are lost in the bruised clouds.

This sky will clear in the days to come, but a cloud of suspicion continues to linger over the 3,500-member Special Service Force. Its duties may be as simple as a girl guide’s—Be Prepared— but the calling remains somewhat more sinister than hustling cookies. Formed

last year by combining a number of crack Petawawa units with the elite Canadian Airborne Regiment, which was transferred under much controversy from Edmonton, the SSF’s lack of any specific task has led to continuing rumors concerning the military and the possible separation of Quebec. Though the force was planned for more than a decade, its inopportune announcement-just two weeks after the 1976

Parti Québécois victory—and opportune location directly across the river from Quebec have given rise to questions that are also without answers. And it is this lack of a “defined role” more than anything else that has Defence Minister Barney Danson announcing a specific SSF task this week, which insiders hint may be a detailed NATO commitment to the defence of Norway.

But that will hardly stop the rumors. There will still be those who wonder why the force has 2,500 pairs of handcuffs and 17,800 gas masks despite the fact that no Canadian soldier has come under gas attack since 1918. And further questions will arise next month when the first of some 50 special armored vehicles arrives on the Petawawa base—vehicles that are nearly identical to those used by the West German police and others for riot control. Such items are dismissed as basic equipment by the defence department, but Conservative defence critic Allan McKinnon has said they “fit better into the needs of unstable banana republics” than those of Canada. It would have been worse had the previous chief of defence staff, General Jacques Dextraze, had his way and located the 250 French-speaking SSF commandos in Ottawa. Fortunately, Danson fought that decision and won —“I don’t want to turn the place into an armed camp,” he says—otherwise the capital city, which still discourages military uniforms on Friday, shopping day, would have been shackled with camouflaged jungle jackets, calf-high jumping boots and maroon berets—the trademark of the toughest soldiers in the Armed Forces.

The most startling SSF story, however, has remained a secret since the early hours of July 5, 1978, when a plane loaded with British commandos—estimates vary widely between 30 and 190stole out of Petawawa. Fully two months earlier, also in the dead of night, the same commandos had come into the country. And their secret presence here might never have become known but for the one part of the soldiers’ equipment that was out of action over those eight weeks. On July 3, the commandos took over a cottage on Petawawa Point where they invited several women they had met at the isolated Hotel Pontiac. Alcohol and high hopes naturally led to bragging, and the soldiers thoughtlessly let it slip that they were members of the mysterious British SAS—a fact confirmed to Maclean's last week by the department of national defence.

There are a number of small similarities between the British Special Air Service and the Canadian SSF: their undefined roles, jaunty berets, symbol (a winged dagger) and even motto—the Canadian “Let us dare” and the British

“Who Dares, Wins.” But the Canadians are, as one officer put it, merely “lethal boy scouts” when compared to the cream of the British army. So secretive is the SAS that it is not even kiiown how many members there are, though estimates average out to around 700. Photographing them is forbidden even for the official military magazines and the British ministry of defence attitude toward them is simply, “We don’t mention them—ever.”

However, the SAS is known to operate extensively in Northern Ireland where they parachute in at night in small groups and work undercover to disrupt the Irish Republican Army. How they actually operate is guesswork—one exSAS told Maclean's London bureau that being a member is “automatically a licence to kill”—but their effectiveness is evident. Since their arrival in Ulster deaths and bombings are down from 170 in the first six months of 1976 to 49 in the first six months of 1978.

Obviously, this clear tie with civil war adds further intrigue to the SAS visit to Canada. The only comparable force to the SAS, the United States Rangers, was also quietly here this year in January when some 175 of them trained with the Special Service Force, and more Rangers apparently are due back next January and February.

For those who feed off such information, there is a virtual banquet of paranoia around. The September report from London’s Institute for the Study of Conflict was prepared by Major-General Rowland Mans, who happened to spend three years with the National Defence College in Kingston, Ontario, and it warns with utter clarity of the risks inherent in a disunited Canada. “Just how long the United States would be prepared to stand idly by if the situation worsened would be a matter of nice judgment,” Mans says. Closer to home, the former director-general of the RCMP Security Service, John Starnes, wrote in a 1977 issue of the British magazine, Survival, that “Canada’s internal situation is such that, for the first time since NATO was formed, there is now a potential threat to the security of the North American heartland.” There have also been two puzzling federal appointments this fall: Marcel Cadieux, the former Canadian ambassador to the United States, to advise the RCMP on domestic and international security; and Eldon Black, who has spent the past three years seconded to the department of national defence, to the newly created post of deputy undersecretary of state for security and intelligence in the department of external affairs, which some claim is the beginnings of a new supraRCMP security force.

Such concern with the internal workings of the country may pre-date both

the Parti Québécois victory and the 1970 October Crisis. Ten years ago this week, in response to a Queen’s University student’s question on NATO, newly elected Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said: “I happen to believe that in a very real sense civilization and culture in North America are more menaced ... by internal disorders than by external pressure.” Trudeau emphasized he did not believe the turmoil would be caused by separatists, but he did envisage a North America with “large rebellions and large disturbances of civil order.”

No one has dared suggest the military has actual plans for the invasion of Quebec, but what has been questioned is the real purpose of the Special Service Force, which hardly sets up and breaks down a full, transportable command post on manoeuvres an average of once

a day because nies get inside their tents. Defence Minister Danson argues that placing the SSF next door to Quebec “was not a consideration—but I know people are going to read things into it.” The commander of the SSF, burly Brigadier-General Andrew Christie, is even more adamant. ‘Tm a simple, honorable soldier,” Christie says. “And I haven’t got any ulterior motive. We are not SAS. People think something nefarious is going on and we’re involved in clandestine operations. We haven’t got any cards under the table.”

But there is still the issue of secrecy. Christie, who used his influence to kill a Pembroke Observer story on British troops being seen on the nearby base, says no mention was made of the SAS simply because the British requested nothing be said. Barney Danson far more candidly says: “In Canada, where response time is so important, you don’t want to start tipping your hand. We don’t broadcast things.” Retorts Tory McKinnon: “Our government seems suspicious of its own people. It’s as if they can’t be trusted

to know what’s going on.” Concerning the actual activities of the British SAS in Canada, BrigadierGeneral Christie says, “We had very little to do with them.” One senior officer who was there, however, argues that relationships were “very friendly indeed. We were training with them and training them, too.” Very little concrete information is offered concerning the

SAS stay here—and numerous Maclean’s calls to a specific SAS soldier, who left his number with a Pembroke woman, failed—but it is believed the British commandos were testing a Bombardiermanufactured cross-country motorcycle, climbing in Alberta, underwater testing near Point Pelee in Southwestern Ontario and parachuting in both Edmonton and in an isolated area of

Ontario. Bill Beacham, who leases the out-of-the-way, 652-acre Bonnechère Airport near Killaloe from the federal ministry of transport, received a call this spring that the military would be making some use of his facilities. “We never saw them,” says Beacham, who was seldom around the airport for the most part, but an officer in the Canadian SSF claims the SAS were involved in free-fall jumping.

Though the Canadian SSF is described as an “airportable, airdroppable” force, it is wrong to say the Canadian SSF was modelled on the British SAS. When General Dextraze created the Special Service Force in Petawawa—virtually his final act as chief of defence staff—he was reviving a memory that went back to the last World War when the first Special Service Force, a joint U.S.-Canadian force known as The Devil’s Brigade, performed so well in Europe. There was never any stated intention that the force would concern itself with internal security, but there were clear hints in the government’s 1971 white paper, Defence in the '70s, that Canada was becoming less concerned with NATO and far more introspective. The white paper spoke of “the threat to society posed by violent revolutionaries” and “the necessity of being able to cope effectively with any future resort to disruption, intimidation and violence as weapons of political action.”

The key to the force, Dextraze believed, would be in moving the Canadian Airborne Regiment from Edmonton to Petawawa, and then adding a third commando unit to the Airborne by bringing the Third Mechanized Commando back from Europe. Defence headquarters was able, amid great protest, to pull the Airborne out of Edmonton but it was unable, thanks to Danson, to put an armed commando in Ottawa. As for the Third Mechanized Commando, it did leave Europe but it has never arrived, having been quietly absorbed into other regiments that needed men. It was this loss of a full commando, sources claim, that bothered Colonel Jacques Painchaud, commander of the Airborne, the most. His outburst in July that Danson should resign for suggesting there was no room for elite troops in the forces was merely the last straw.

The removal of Painchaud which followed was merely one more black mark against the Airborne. Not only was it impossible for the huge Hercules aircraft, which generally carry troops such as the Airborne, to land at Petawawa, but the regiment found there were no jump facilities at the base. When they did parachute, they had to travel by bus to Trenton (three hours away), and then later had to send their parachutes all the way back to Edmonton for repack-

ing. Dextraze himself later admitted the Airborne, as a proper airborne, would be “less effective” in Petawawa. There were also a number of more localized problems: fights in Pembroke; a soldier dead from wood alcohol poisoning; a frozen lake dynamited, now under investigation by provincial authorities.

Today, all that has settled down. With Painchaud gone to headquarters in Ottawa, a minor point of controversy concerns his successor, Colonel Kent Foster, who—as commander of the offi-

cially bilingual unit in the Special Service Force—is not classified as bilingual. Brigadier-General Christie, who is bilingual, dismisses this by saying, “He can communicate with his soldiers and they can with him—that’s bilingualism.” Still, the francophone half of the volunteer Airborne is some 90 men short of its full complement of 250. And though Christie has worked hard to attract more French-speaking soldiers to Petawaw'a—including spending

$120,000 a year on a French school — they are slow in coming.

Still, if morale is down in that one area, it is significantly up in the Armed Forces as a whole, thanks to the current $4-billion spending spree. As Admiral Robert Falls, the new chief of defence staff, has put it, the forces cannot attract recruits with “broomsticks instead of rifles,” and the department of national defence—presumably under pressure from the European Economic Community, who will buy Canadian goods in exchange for a larger Canadian commitment to NATO—is making sure the broomsticks are replaced.

A revivified military in such troubled times, however, presents worry to a number of people. In a defence committee meeting on March 10, 1977, General Dextraze—the man who created the SSF—was being quizzed by Edmonton Member of Parliament Steve Paproski on the Airborne’s move to Petawawa. “Does the general include the possibility of a separatist Quebec as one of the challenges to our sovereignty?” Paproski asked. General Dextraze, somewhat miffed at the question, somewhat obtusely replied: “Inasmuch as the military is concerned ... one should not ask any questions as to their loyalty at all...

I have their loyalty . ..”

There was a moment during the SSF’s recent two-day Exercise Mobile Warrior that was every bit as stunning as the mad minute of “erection time.” At lunch on the first day, one of the visiting officers, Brigadier-General Christopher (Killer) Kirby from the Royal Military College in Kingston, was handed a machete, and a live chicken was produced from a cook’s pot. Then, to the cheers of 230 Canadian military college students, Kirby lopped off the head with a single swipe, leaving the body to stagger pathetically in the spray of its own blood until it fell. The kill was traditional, supposedly to remind the officers that they must be prepared to find their own food during extensive manoeuvres, but the “entertainment” aspect of the act—meat and potatoes were cooking barely 20 yards away—was as unnecessary this year as it had been the year before, when a woman killed a rabbit. Chilling incidents that easily excite the apprehension of the non-military mind.