Thursday, November 10, 2022

A Very Memorable Vimy Gala

Last night, I was very fortunate to have been invited by one of the diplomatic missions to join their table at the Vimy Gala.  The Gala is run by the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, which is a research and advocacy organization tied to the various veterans associations of Canada.  CDAI is a partner of the CDSN, and they present an excellent conference every February or March that brings together much of the defence community of Canada and has speakers from around the world presenting important and interesting takes on various defence issues.  It was not my first time at this event.

The gala itself is a very big bash--600 guests this year--so large that they outgrew their traditional location of the War Museum and had to be in the Canadian Museum of History and Heritage.  This meant that the dinner was in the main hall with the world's largest collection of totem poles--just a stunning location for such an event.  The guests were mostly retired and active military folks, defence contractors, civil servants, random academics, journalists, and diplomats.  I also got to hang with some of my colleagues.

The reception was super loud, which was a problem for aging Steve, but I greatly enjoyed it anyway.  I got to meet with a number of former students who are now professors, civil servants, students elsewhere, and more.  I bumped into some diplomats who had been at an event we had held the previous day at Carleton--a talk by the Norwegian State Secretary for External Affairs.  They discussed how important it is for academics to be able to speak freely when so many others, such as themselves, can't. 

Which leads to the rest of this post--I feel like a crappy guest to criticize the speaker at this event, but speaking plainly about stuff that happens in the Canadian defence community is part of my job and my identity.   Lt. General (retired) Michel Maisonneuve was honored for a lifetime in service as he was given the Vimy Award.  Vimy, of course, is the site of a key battle in World War I that has become a key part of not just the Canadian military's identity but a key aspect in Canadian nationalism. When I think of World War I, I think of a key lesson learned along the way that the French President of the time, Georges Clemenceau said--that war was too important to be left the generals--eventually leading to higher expectations for the role of civilians in controlling the armed forces.  Alas, this speech did not meet my expectations for good civil-military relations.

His speech reminded me of debates that American civil-military analysts often have about the role of retired senior military officers--that their words matter since they are freer to speak than those still serving, and they are often seen as speaking for the active military folks.  Canada tends not to have the same debate as there are far fewer analysts of civil-military relations up here, and they are focused on other things, and so I am not sure what the norms here are of retired senior officers and their speeches.

What I do understand quite well is that the speech was really problematic in its content.  It was an array of complaints about the state of Canada these days--that the kids are too entitled and not interested in service, that the journalists are too woke, that the civilian leadership is weak, that the effort to make the military more inclusive by reducing the restrictions on what members can wear is wrong, that we ought not to apologize for the past (not a good look in front of all those totem poles, after a performance by Indigenous dance group, and after a year of reconciliation efforts in the aftermath of the discovery of mass graves at the residential schools where the Indigenous kids
were taken away from their families), and on and on.  

Maisonneuve is allowed to speak, despite his frustration at cancel culture, but I am also allowed to criticize his opinions.  After nearly two years of scandals involving members of the Canadian armed forces at the very highest levels--two chiefs of defence staff, two chiefs of personnel, several other 2-3 star officers, and so on, one might think that the retired senior officers who helped foster a culture of entitlement and abuse of power might develop a bit of humility.  I guess this is why the CAF has a culture crisis--that there was not much of a learning curve after repeated scandals and reports about sexual misconduct and abuse of power.  

Hanging with the intrepid
Leah and Steph
Again, it feels awkward to complain about this speech, as I was a guest of diplomats and the organization that ran the event has been most helpful to me in efforts to understand the Canadian defence scene.  I had a great time at the event.  On my way out, I bumped into a journalist who did so much to break the sexual misconduct story, Mercedes Stephenson, as well as some other sharp senior women in the defence and security community.  It was an excellent tonic after the speaker crapped on pretty much all of Canadian society and the political system.  

As I left the building, an older person shared with me her concerns about the next generation of Canadians based on what Maissoneuve had to say.  I tried to assure that the next generation is pretty terrific and that we will be in good hands. 


Theo said...

I have been teaching the Joint Command and Staff Programme at CFC since 2016; three years as Directing Staff on the residential programme, and now in my fourth year as a contract instructor for the distance learning version. I have encountered, literally, hundreds of the next generation. I go to sleep every night confident in the fact that the military, and society, are in excellent hands.

When we talk about culture and change, I like to ask my students to think about what it was like when the first RMC cadet played rock and roll on a record player in the halls, or when the punk craze hit (my time at RRMC).

Plus ca change...

Peter J. Hillier, CD, CISSP said...

Although I retired in 2001 and have spent the bulk of the following 21 years in the private sector, I engaged through NETE and have been working within ADM(MAT) on a sort of big warship program for the past 6 years. I can attest, with certainty, that today's military is getting it right. The culture is changing and it's my humble opinion that significant effort has to go into the bases and stations where the bulk of the CAF resides. My Son-in-Law, a CSOR Op in Pet, attests daily to the complaints, with current members, that you write about from the dinosaur (I served while he did) that won the Vimy Award. Change is slow, but some will have to have it forced.

Anonymous said...

As someone who worked in defence & now, in my retirement, works with youth your criticism of this speech is spot on. His speech sounds absolutely tone deaf to the world today (gestured vaguely at everything). With so many threats to our country (climate, war, fascism, etc) and he's concerned about young people being (checks notes) more understanding of each other and showing kindness. Does he fear that with all the kindness and acceptance in the world that the military won't be valued enough?
For example, people are worried about transgender kids because of their own fear of being seen as the other gender. But today's youth are stronger because they see that not being seen as "feminine" or "masculine" is OK and nothing to fear. As Sun Tzu said "know yourself and you will win all battles". These youth know themselves better than any previous generation whether it's sexual attraction, gender, neurodevelopmental disorders, mental health etc. If the senior military doesn't also understand today's generation of new soldiers then they are going to become the problem.

The youth I work with today are awesome, strong, accepting, and *aware* kids - they're not fragile like previous generations because they're more willing to talk about their challenges and resolve them than hide them and not talk about them. They read materials and view media with a critical eye instead of hearing second hand accounts and believing them blindly. While polarization within the general population is a problem, such "freedom convoy" type views are a huge problem in the army and military. Old soldiers have always been dismissive of the new generation but never has this been more of a problem than in today's society.

Anonymous said...

The speech was great.

Ryan said...

I've been wondering what happens to all the work that has taken place in recent years if/when we welcome a new federal government that will align 100% with the nonsense spouted by people like the retired general.

Anonymous said...

The retired general embarrassed himself by giving a speech that could have been a job application for Pierre Poillievre's speech writer. It was entirely inappropriate for a retired officer of his rank. An incredibly sad end to an otherwise enjoyable evening. I wonder what the other former prize winners thought about how he diminished them by his cringeworthy performance. And I wonder how the organizing committee feels the day after the devaluation of their event and award.

After 4 years of Trump you would think that no sane retired general with half a working brain cell would venture into a "Make Canada Great Again" themed speech. Why would a former leader of a defence organization claim without nuance that "Canada is broken" and that he knows how to fix it? It is scary to think that this person was in charge of the academic program at a military college.

I felt embarrassed for Walt Natynczyk, sitting at one of the head tables, when this retired colleague crapped on his hard work to make veteran care better. Rather than claiming that we are not doing enough for veterans, roll up your sleeves and contribute to making it better. After all, wasn't President Kennedy's phrase of "ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country" the mantra that we all should aspire to?

But what was the most shocking were the nods of approval during the speech and the enthusiastic comments afterwards by a significant part of the audience. Perhaps I should not be surprised. On the tables were little booklets with an overview of the winners of the prize in the last 30 years. Famous names. But how many women out of the 30? Just one. Maybe I should not have been surprised.

Anonymous said...

What is more sad is that MM is far from being alone in what he spewed!

Anonymous said...

There were two women out of 30, Christine Whitecross and Adrienne Clarkson, and absolutely no people of colour. Your assessment, along with this blog, was spot on. I was shocked and repulsed by what the LGen said… and I knew it was going to go downhill quickly when he used the make Canada great again phrase. He’s entitled to his opinion, but on that stage in those surroundings, saying those things, he just seemed …entitled.

Anonymous said...

It was totally inappropriate to give MM the Vimy Award and a platform to spew his ill-considered comments. What has he done to put him on equal footings with the likes of Joe Clark, John Deschastelaine, Lew Mackenzue, Romeo Dallaire, Brisn Dikson, Chris Whitecross, et al? And to think that someone put him in charge as Academic Director of CMR St Jean! Sad. What a horrible example he sets.

Anonymous said...

Another mortal in the continuum of time and change who gave us the opportunity to see inside his beliefs. Instead of speaking of his accomplishments that garnered his award he expressed how his era was better than the next. The gift of our freedom is that the podium under the grand totem poles existed, and that he was allowed to be heard. The standing ovation was for that.

Peter J. Hillier, CD, CISSP said...

Steve, I'd be curious as to what the NP left out here:

Steve Saideman said...

I am not sure what was edited out besides the song itself.