October 25th, Robert Westbrook, a freelance photographer, came across what is believed to be a CANSOFCOM training evolution in an old call centre in Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia. The old call centre is 2 blocks away from his house, and as he saw activity he went to investigate. After a few minutes, he was asked if he was patriotic or even part of an anti-government movement. All that because he was taking pictures in a public place.
Westbrook was an American who married a Canadian woman and became a citizen last August.
Since it was a CANSOFCOM training evolution, nothing was said to the population of Port Hawkesbury. Recently, it is believed that they are doing a lot more “secret” training in civilians sectors.
The question is simple here: should the people living around those “secret” emplacements be warned about future trainings and asked politely not to come loitering? Well, the answer is pretty obvious. Of course they should be warned, but a large security perimeter should also be established to prevent accessibility! By doing so, situations like the one Westbrook went through could be avoided. The RCMP was aware of the training as well, they could have had someone there to deal with the civilians. It is the duty of the police to deal with them, if you ask me. That way, there would be no direct contact between the soldiers and the civilians.
Even if this is an isolated situation, Westbrook has been trying to get his 15 minutes of fame on different media about the whole situation. He also published a video on Youtube about it. This is not the type of attention CANSOFCOM needs, especially with the Defence budget cuts.
The real problem here is with the attitude of both Westbrook and a soldier named “Adam.” Westbrook was using the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to defend his rights to take pictures, and Adam was asking if he was patriotic or from an anti-government movement. Where does taking pictures mean you are not patriotic? Even if he was a part of an anti-government movement, why was is that easy to walk right to the training site?
By using civilians sectors, CANSOFCOM will clearly need to deal with these types of situations in the future. There could always be a public affairs officer present to answer the questions or, like I said earlier, let the population know about the possible usage of abandoned buildings by the Canadian military and politely ask them not to come on-site by having a good security perimeter around the training area. There is no need to specify what unit and what type of training, only that the Canadian military will be conducting training. That could also help with the OPSEC / PERSEC issues.
One good point was given to Westbrook about both the personal and operational security of the soldiers doing the evolutions. Having people around those evolutions could possibly be an OPSEC and PERSEC problem, but is it really the civilians’ fault? It is hard to draw a line between preserving the soldier’s personal security and letting the civilians know about the training, especially if it’s not on base or somewhere really remote. It is really the responsibility of CANSOFCOM’s commanders to figure out a way to coexist with the civilians, especially with their recent usage of civilian properties.
Even on base it can become problematic. A friend of mine, who is an armoured reconnaissance reservist, came across a chopper that was landing in a very tight spot here in CFB Valcartier during one of his unit trainings. They moved forward to go and see what it was all about, when one of the guys who got out of the chopper ran towards them yelling to get the f… out of there ASAP. The guys were not using conventional uniforms and were quick to dissipate anyone around.
Is that the type of professionalism we’re expecting from Canada’s elite soldiers? Not really, especially with other soldiers. I understand how the training they do needs to be as secret as possible, but we are talking about soldiers here, not civilians. It is quite unfortunate that events like these occur, as I personally know some operators who are so humble that you could talk to them in the street and never know what they do.
Don’t get me wrong here, CANSOFCOM is among the best in the world, and the general attitude of their soldiers is very professional. I have the utmost respect for what they’ve been doing since it was created, even more with their success in Afghanistan. But once in a while, one of theirs will become cocky and arrogant with anyone around who isn’t supposed to be there. We all know that a reputation takes a long time to be forged, but it can be destroyed rapidly and that type of attitude will contribute to this destruction.
Being humble is one of the greatest qualities any SOF soldier can have and we can all agree that it could prevent any situations like Westbrook’s case in the future. If a soldier demonstrate a firm but fair attitude, the civilians will tend to listen to them instead of arguing. This is also good for the civilians who clearly needs to stop trying to defend themselves with public laws, and understand that the Canadian military works days and nights to keep them free.