Hudson on the Hill

The Age of Nitwitter
HUDSON ON THE HILL  |  Oct 4, 2018

Like a few hundred million others, I have a Twitter “handle.” Mine was, unfortunately, assigned to me. I say “unfortunately” not only because I rarely use it but because, to me, it’s arguably one of the most unpleasant and usually unproductive forums for discussion ever conceived. Witness its (ab)use by politicians and officials, many in the highest positions. “Nitwitter” would be a more appropriate moniker.

That may be a bit harsh because there are well-informed and legitimate exchanges on Twitter, which was created by four young Americans some 12 years ago and rapidly became a popular social medium for anyone who could communicate in 140 characters or less. That cap was doubled in 2017, sparking an epidemic of logorrhea, much of it ill-formed and unsubstantiated.

Occasionally, tweets are informative, though often inflammatory, such as in June, when then-Colonel (now Brigadier-General) Jay Janzen used his personal Twitter account to call out the banal questions being asked by politicians and the news media about the United Nations mission in Mali.

The questions focused primarily on whether it would be a combat mission or not – a query most members of the CAF consider to be quite absurd since that’s exactly what they train for – combat missions. (Egad, put Canadian Armed Forces personnel in harm’s way? Define “combat”? Does that mean they might have to shoot back if fired upon?) Let’s be realistic for a moment, if there is no risk of violence, the Govern­ment could just send employees of Global Affairs Canada to fulfill the UN obligation, but is sending combat-trained members of the Canadian Armed Forces.

To be clear, Janzen, Director General Military Strategic Communications at the Department of National Defence, didn’t specifically target the parliamentary Opposition ranks, but they certainly seemed to take it that way (possibly one more manifestation of a society-wide willingness to be offended).

At the time, there were few details about the Mali mission and not much was being said – or could be said – by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan in those early days, and so both media and Opposition members returned to what has become their stand-by question of “is it combat or not?”

Janzen turned to Twitter to suggest that “Canada can do better than the nonsensical ‘combat/not combat’ debate.” He went on to do their work for them, offering examples of more meaningful questions. “What are Canada’s objectives? Can we achieve them? How long will it take? Risks&Costs? Appropriate resources?”

Almost immediately, Manitoba Con­ser­vative MP James Bezan responded, asking whether Janzen had “a problem with transparency, civilian oversight or both?” Moreover, he tweeted, “it is arrogant and insulting to diminish […] legitimate questions” because “we have the right to know.” Of course, that kind of missed the whole point of Janzen’s suggestions.

His caucus colleague, Ontario MP Erin O’Toole, a former Royal Canadian Air Force navigator and erstwhile Minister of Veterans Affairs, jumped into the online exchange, tweeting that Janzen’s suggestion was “very inappropriate” and “actually unbelievable.” Again, that twitter retort also flatly ignored the substance and intent of the original tweet that triggered the exchange to begin with.

Then along came summer and the House of Commons adjourned, effectively robbing Opposition MPs of the opportunity continue pressing the government.

Several weeks later, Operation Presence kicked into gear, deploying some 250 personnel and eight helicopters (three Boeing CH-147F Chinook transports and five Bell CH-146 Griffon armed escorts) in support of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali.

Feedback to date has generally been positive, however, not long after the House resumed sitting in mid-September, Bezan resurrected his complaint in one of those “adjournment” debates that close out a day in the Commons (and which tend to be poorly attended and seldom reported).

“For months, we called for a fulsome debate here in the House on the mission to Mali before we deployed our troops,” Bezan said, accusing the government of continuing to “stonewall the official opposition and Canadians about […] the mission.”

Still calling him “Colonel”, Bezan repeated his description of Janzen’s comments as insulting and disrespectful. Janzen’s job, he insisted, is “to help explain what the Canadian Armed Forces is up to, whether it is the mission in Mali, whether it is training here at home, whether it is recruiting or whether it is deploying to other missions around the world.”

Then, once more opting to misinterpret Janzen’s initial tweet, he accused him, somewhat ironically, of starting a “Twitter war” and, while ostensibly accepting Janzen’s explanation, went on to say that “the discourse between the armed forces and us as parliamentarians needs to be respectful and ensure that information is being shared and that nobody feels diminished in asking those hard questions.”

I’m not sure what “hard questions” he is referring to, but how the heck was Janzen diminishing anyone’s feelings? If anything, he was giving all the critics on the Hill a chance to up their game – which wouldn’t have been much of a challenge.

It fell to New Brunswick MP Serge Cormier, Sajjan’s parliamentary secretary, to counter that DND’s communications personnel “work diligently to inform the public about what our defence team is doing in Canada and abroad. Every day, they provide communication services and advice to support our government's defence priorities, which we outlined for Canadians in our defence policy. […] Their support is part of what makes it possible to hold technical briefings to keep journalists and parliamentarians abreast of our defence team’s ongoing efforts to protect Canada, keep North America safe, and pursue our engagement in the world.”

There had been, Cormier pointed out, information sessions on the deployment. He also noted that the process which yielded the government’s defence policy entitled “Strong, Secure, Engaged” in April 2017 had elicited more than 20,000 documents and ideas through the public consultation portal. As well, more than 4,700 participants provided feedback and voted through the online discussion forum. More than 100 experts had participated in nine roundtables, and more than 50 Members of Parliament organized constituency-level activities during the policy review period.

So there was plenty of opportunity for input from all Canadians, including those who occupy the Opposition benches in the House. Would a debate have yielded much more, if anything? Not likely.

Not quite done, Bezan then said it was “inappropriate and inexcusable” that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had “weaponized” the CAF public affairs division. “It should not be used to attack journalists and Members of Parliament who raise legitimate questions.” He went on to say Trudeau had used the CAF “as a political pawn for partisan gain” as part of a re-election campaign.

To which Cormier responded by taking off his gloves, noting that when Bezan had been the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, the Conservatives had cut billions of dollars from the CAF budget.

When I reached out to Janzen simply for “clarification” of the Twitter exchange, he declined further comment except to say he has “the utmost respect for our elected leaders including Mr. Bezan.” He could hardly say otherwise.

Hudson on the Hill