Manufacturing consent

How the media helped put Canada’s role in Haiti down the memory hole

Public deserves real accounting of military’s role abroad as Trudeau boasts of renewed focus on peacekeeping
Haiti's National Palace crumbled in the 2010 earthquake. Photo supplied by Erin Seatter.

As Justin Trudeau courts the United Nations General Assembly today in a bid to secure a seat on the Security Council, don’t expect him or the media to talk about Canada’s role in Haiti.

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Corporate media bias on foreign policy is more pronounced than most critics even imagine. As part of a recent fact check for my book A Propaganda System: How Canada’s Government, Corporations, Media and Academia Sell War and Exploitation, I discovered my own misplaced trust searching for information about Canada’s response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

I searched Canadian Newsstand to confirm no media outlet commented on or investigated a 2011 Canadian Press report demonstrating Ottawa militarized its response to control the population. According to an internal file uncovered through an access to information request, Canadian officials worried that “political fragility has increased the risks of a popular uprising, and has fed the rumour that ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, currently in exile in South Africa, wants to organize a return to power.” The government documents also explain the importance of strengthening the Haitian authorities’ ability “to contain the risks of a popular uprising.”

The suppression of critical information regarding Canada’s role in Haiti over the past decade and a half is particularly stark.

To police Haiti’s traumatized and suffering population, 2,000 Canadian troops were deployed (alongside 10,000 U.S. soldiers). At the same time the half-dozen Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Teams in cities across the country were readied but never sent because, reported the Toronto Sun, five days after the earthquake, foreign affairs “opted to send Canadian Armed Forces instead.”

I assumed the Canadian Press article had been picked up by various media outlets but its revelations ignored in subsequent reporting. But the suppression was far more significant than I remembered or imagined. Canadian Newsstand shows only the Kamloops Daily News ran the initial Canadian Press report in its paper. A recent Google search found three outlets put it on their website. In a remarkable example of bias, news editors across the country, who mostly have access to Canadian Press and often rely on the wire service for a significant share of their copy, considered this explosive information un-newsworthy.

Sorry, we only accept ‘mainstream’ sources

While A Propaganda System details media bias on topics ranging from Palestine to East Timor, investment agreements to the mining industry, the suppression of critical information regarding Canada’s role in Haiti over the past decade and a half is particularly stark.

On two occasions last year Huffington Post blocked my reference to Canadian officials citing the Responsibility to Protect doctrine to justify destabilizing and overthrowing the elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. In an article linking newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to past Liberal governments’ foreign policy, I wrote the following:

Canadian officials also cited R2P to justify cutting off assistance to Haiti’s elected government and then intervening militarily in the country in February 2004. In discussing the January 2003 Ottawa Initiative on Haiti, where high level US, Canadian and French officials discussed overthrowing elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Liberal Secretary of State for Latin America and Minister for La Francophonie Denis Paradis explained that “there was one thematic that went under the whole meeting... The responsibility to protect.” Similarly, in a highly censored February 11, 2004 cable from the embassy in Port-au-Prince to Foreign Affairs, Canadian ambassador Kenneth Cook explained that “President Aristide is clearly a serious aggravating factor in the current crisis” and that there is a need to “consider the options including whether a case can be made for the duty [responsibility] to protect.”

I supplied the Huffington Post with a link to the interview between independent journalist Anthony Fenton and Denis Paradis and another to the documents Fenton uncovered through access to information.

“We need mainstream sources to verify the facts in your blog and unfortunately the facts below are only in the publications cited (or printed elsewhere by the same authors),” the editor told me by email.

I replied, “Huffington Post cannot publish something if it has not been in the corporate media. This seems like a fairly major flaw/admission and I’m very curious to know if it is official policy?”

Rather than answer my question, the editor published the piece but removed the paragraph on Haiti, taking the position that since the corporate media had ignored the destabilization of Haiti’s elected government during the previous decade they should too.

Indie media crucial to Haitian story

A stark contrast exists between how Canadian policy in Haiti has been portrayed in the dominant media versus left media outlets.

However, it’s not quite true that mainstream media totally neglected the issue. In fact, as I’ve noted before, all of this was reported — in a government trial balloon designed to gauge the public’s response — a year before the coup actually took place. In a March 15, 2003, article titled “Haiti put under U.N. Tutelage?” in L’Actualité (Quebec’s equivalent to Maclean’s), responsibility to protect was mentioned in the context of the Ottawa Initiative on Haiti meeting where Canadian, French, and U.S. officials discussed ousting elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, putting Haiti under UN trusteeship, and re-creating the disbanded Haitian army.

But the dominant media has largely ignored the Ottawa Initiative meeting since the L’Actualité report, even though information about it is easily accessible online and solidarity activists across the country have referenced it repeatedly.

A recent Canadian Newsstand search found not one single English-language report about the meeting (except for mentions of it by me and two other Haiti solidarity activists in opinion pieces).

A stark contrast exists between how Canadian policy in Haiti has been portrayed in the dominant media versus left media outlets. Dozens of articles, reports, theses, documentaries and books have detailed various aspects of Canada’s violent, anti-democratic policy in that country over the past decade and a half. But only tidbits of the story have been reported in the corporate media.

Canadian policy towards the hemisphere’s most impoverished country is a shameful episode in this country’s recent history. It also demonstrates the importance of reading, contributing to and funding left and independent media.

Yves Engler’s latest book is Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation. To organize an event as part of the tour for his forthcoming book, email Yves Engler [at]

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