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The Somalia Affair was a military scandal, magnified by a highly politicized and publicised inquiry, that greatly damaged the reputation amongst Canadians of their military in the mid-1990s.
The original spark for the affair were events that occurred during Operation Deliverance, part of the American-initiated Operation Restore Hope supported by the United Nations. In March, 1993, the operation was to come under UN command and was renamed UNOSOM II. Its goal was to deliver humanitarian aid and restore order to the African nation of Somalia which was suffering from a severe famine, general anarchy, and domination by warlords following the collapse of Siad Barre's Marxist government. Most of the UN-delivered food aid (80%) was stolen by the warlords and bartered for weapons, the famine becoming more severe as a result. Intermittent civil war had been a fact of life since 1977 and the country was lawless and without government. When the UN withdrew on March 3, 1995, it had suffered significant casualties and order had still not been restored.
The Canadian military leadership, under Brian Mulroney's conservative governement selected the Canadian Airborne Regiment, as Canada's contribution to this peace-restoration operation. This unit had recently been reduced to battalion size and was still in the throes of reorganization. It consisted of distinct sub-units provided by each of Canada's regular infantry regiments. It had a parachutist role and, although the notion of an "elite" does not exist in a professional army such as Canada's, the physical demands on its soldiers were amongst the highest and it was well trained in the light infantry role. Desmond Morton, amongst others has, however, commented on its closeness to the US airborne community that had an inevitable impact on its ethos. Moreover, its commander at the time of its subsequent disbandment, Lieut.-Col. Kenward, suggested that the line regiments had dumped some of their "bad apples" into the Airborne.
Indeed, the unit was beset by some problems of cohesiveness and discipline. One of its sub-units, since tagged as the "rogue commando", was identified before deployment as being the source of vandalism, acts of indiscipline, and racist attitudes including participation by some of its members in white supremacist groups, one of the symptoms being the adoption of the US Confederate rebel flag as the commando's barracks-room decoration. The commanding officer of the Airborne, Lt.-Col. Paul Morneault , declared this "rogue commando" unfit for service abroad and sought to leave it behind in Canada when he deployed. Instead, he was relieved of his command and replaced by Lt.-Col. Carol Mathieu an officer renowned for his rough-and-ready toughness. The regiment with all its commandos was deployed to Somalia in January 1993, setting up its tented patrol-base outside the town of Belet Huen . This area was far from the originally planned mission-area. The soldiers lived on hard rations, with limited water, but patrolled actively while also establishing effective relations with the local tribal leaders. The Canadian Airborne Regiment stood out as having rapidly brought a modicum of order to its assigned territory.
Death of Shidane Arone
The first event of the Somalia Affair occurred on March 13, 1993 when two members of the "rogue commando", Master Corporal Clayton Matchee and Trooper (Private) Kyle Brown , caused the death of a Somali teenage infiltrator Shidane Arone who had been caught trying to sneak into the Canadian camp. In the absence of any Somali law or enforcement mechanism, he had been detained in the custody of the "rogue commando", where overnight he was tortured and died at the hands of his two assigned guards.
Matchee and Brown were quickly arrested by the Airborne, charged with the murder and National Defence HQ so advised. Trophy-type photos of a bloodied Arone with a grinning Matchee had been taken by a reluctant Brown and were subsequently broadcast widely in the Canadian media. The Canadian public was shocked. Master-Corporal Matchee later attempted suicide, making him unfit to stand trial; Brown was found guilty of manslaughter.
However, tne political situation in Canada at the time was sensitive, with the Minister of National Defence, Kim Campbell, in the midst of a leadership campaign to replace Brian Mulroney as head of the government party (Conservative), and with a federal election in the near future. The PR management of the incident was immediately taken over by the Department of National Defence military and civilian officials in far-off Ottawa. There was a "feeding frenzy" of media attention, inspired in large part by the political campaign and the resultant change in party leadership and, later, of government. The officials of Canada's Department of National Defence were subsequently accused by the media of having "covered up" the incident in order to protect the minister's leadership bid. However their efforts had merely exacerbated the situation, failing to convince the public that the incident was the result of a few "bad apples" and giving credence to exaggerated suggestions of military misconduct throughout the Forces.
Charges suggested that sixteen people had passed through the area where Arone was detained and that, during the night, his screams could be heard in the surrounding area. The commander of the "rogue commando", and a number of his subordinate supervisors were court-martialed and found guilty of negligent performance of duty. The Commanding Officer of the Airborne, Lieut.-Col Mathieu, was tried twice by court martial, and acquited of any wrong doing both times.
Other events in that unit were also given intense media coverage. The use of lethal force against infiltrators was in compliance with the orders laid out by the Lt.-Col. Mathieu and indeed was the modus operendi of all forces in Somalia.
Days earlier, a patrol from the Reconnaissance Platoon had shot and killed a young Somali night-time infiltrator and seriously injured another. Accusations of a "hunting expedition" were made. A temporarly attached Air Force flight surgeon, Maj. Barry Armstrong, described in letters home, subsequently leaked to the press, what he judged, after seeing the body, to be the "execution" of one of the wounded Somalis. He subsequently made charges of the destruction of photographic evidence. However, these accusations were not proved. The "Recce" platoon commander was tried and acquitted.
Home-video footage of another "rogue commando" trooper, Corporal Matt McKay , was found in which he stated that "we ain't killed enough niggers yet."
The political leadership campaign of Minister Kim Campbell, and the pending election, inspired intense efforts by the media and political opponents to link her minister's role to these events in Somalia. Allegations were made that an attempt to cover-up the events had stretched high into the defence staff. Rejected proposed drafts by low-level staffers of media "response to querry" were sought by the media through "Access to Information" mechanisms and could not be found, leading to accusations that "important records and documents" had been ordered destroyed. Criticism also focused on the fact that it took five weeks to order a high-level investigation of the events in Somalia.
Soon the wave of criticism turned to the Forces as a whole. Stories of sexual harassment against women were aired. Lapses in discipline, brutal traditions, and a failure in command in other units were highlighted.
The public outcry began in earnest in 1994. The new government of Jean Chrétien's Liberals , confident that the events in question took place under the previous Tory government and its defeated leader, former Minister of Defence Kim Campbell, initiated a highly visible Somalia Inquiry in 1994 under Federal Court Judge Gilles Létourneau. It's hearings were broadcast daily in both languages, nationally,
As the inquiry unfolded, other home movies, shot in Canada, of the initiation rites, in its French-speaking commando, found their way into the media. These were as distasteful as, but comparable to, initiation parties in similarly "macho" groups in Québec ranging from some pre-wedding stags, through to even medical student initiations. However the English-speaking public, followed by the Minister and Prime Minister, found these images aired as an exposé on CBC to be disgusting, demeaning and racist. The protests of the alleged "victims" that it was all fun were not heeded nor was the report, by the Ontario Area commander, supported by his superiors, that it was inoffensive.
With the continued accumulation of such politically damaging visibility, Minister David Collenette ordered the Airborne Regiment disbanded (1995).
Before he could be put on trial Matchee attempted suicide by hanging, he survived but suffered severe brain damage and was ruled unfit for trial. Private Brown was sentenced to five years for his participation in the death. Several supervisors in the "rogue commando" were convicted of negligent performance of duty. Lieut.-Col. Mathieu, although acquited at two trials, left the military.
The respected Chief of the Defence Staff General John de Chastelain, who had not supported the the minister's disbandment order of the Airborne, left under a cloud. His Liberal-appointed successor, Air Force General Jean Boyle was forced to resign only a few months after accepting the role when, in a gesture uncharacteristic of military tradition, he blamed his subordinates for previous wrong doing under his command. The Minister of National Defence David Collenette was also forced to resign, partially due to the affair.
The inquiry ran until 1997 when it was cut short by the Liberal government in the months before the 1997 election. The government was critical of the direction of the inquiry, noting that it was far exceeding its mandate, as it continued to focus on political and administrative aspects of Armed Forces overall management. Indeed, the conduct of the new Liberal government after the Somalia affair, and the search for documents, now absorbed much of the inquiry's attention, as reflected in its report. The inquiry had run long over its allotted time frame and budget. The decision to end the inquiry received visible media attention and may have contributed to the defeat of the new Defence Minister Doug Young in the 1997 election.
The final report of the inquiry was a striking attack on the procedures, support and leadership of the Canadian Forces and the Ministry of Defence. Nevertheless it failed to address the suggestion (see Brig.-Gen Loomis at link below) that the Airborne Regiment and senior military officers in Ottawa had had the sins of their political masters and senior bureaucrats laid on them. The Airborne had been rushed into a war zone, with inadequate preparation and legal support. Loomis notes that the operation had changed, in December 1992, "from a peacekeeping operation, where arms are used only in self-defence, to one where arms could be used proactively to achieve politico-military objectives...In short the Canadian Forces were being put on active service and sent to war (as defined by Chapter 7 of the UN Charter)." Its deployment into "war" had never been debated in parliament and indeed the Canadian public had been led to believe by its government that the Airborne was on a "peacekeeping" mission. (see Brig.-Gen Danny Loomis link below)". The Inquiry never did get around to examining this top-level government decision-making nor, at the other end, did it actually examine the alleged events in Somalia.
Effect of the Affair on the Canadian Forces
The affair had a number of long lasting effects. It severely damaged the morale of the Canadian Forces and the DND. Recruitment became more difficult. The public revulsion led to the sharp cuts to military spending introduced by the Liberal government to be little criticized.
Many of the report's comments, along with the sustained media criticism of the military, led to the hasty imposition of drastic and unprecedented damage-limiting constraints on military leadership, training, operations, personnel policies and legal processes. In 1997, a former member of the British Parachute Regiment, Falklands war hero, and future commander of UN forces in Bosnia, Lieutenant-General Sir Hew Pike created a controversy among some Canadians when (apparently set-off by, amongst others, new Canadian policies favouring homosexuals and women in combat units) he said bluntly that "politically correct policies , none aimed at enhancing operational effectiveness, had badly eroded (the Canadian) forces' combat capability. He said 'The Canadians have surrendered any claim to be a war fighting force' ". (See: Edited Hansard • Number 094 Monday, October 15, 2001). Many of these practices, such as the micro-management of training, operations and disciplinary processes at the most senior levels in Ottawa, and the resultant restrictions on the leadership and initiative of commanding officers, continue to shackle Canada's operational units and bloat the size of its bureaucracy. The significant overhead and the expensive facilities for Canadian soldiers in ex-Yugoslavia and Kabul (Afghanistan) that are undeniably the most comfortable field conditions in the world, are a reaction to criticism of the rudimentary conditions of the Airborne in Somalia.
Media reports have suggested that the behavior of Canadian soldiers in Somalia may have been at least partly due to side-effects from the anti-malarial drug mefloquine, which the soldiers were required to take.  The drug is said to cause hallucinations, paranoia and suicidal impulses.
Canada was not the only country to face problems in Somalia. There were severe casualties on all sides in the warlord-dominated chaos. The Battle of Mogadishu, resulted in 500-1000 Somalian millitia and civilian deaths, as well as eighteen American and 2 Pakistani troops being killed. Indeed the US decided to leave the country after the losses at Mogadishu. As well some countries faced charges of miscoduct. Italian troops were photographed appearing to be raping a Somali woman and Belgian soldiers took photographs of themselves urinating on and burning Somalis.
- David Bercuson Significant Incident: Canada's Army, the Airborne, & the Murder in Somalia 1997
- Peter Desbrats Somalia Cover-Up; A Commissioner's Journal 1997
- Sherene Razack. Dark Threats and White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping and the New Imperialism. 2004
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