After MPs narrowly voted last week to extend our military mission in Afghanistan for another two years, most Canadians are still wondering how we morphed from UN-supporting peacekeepers into counter-insurgency killers of "scumbags" to borrow General Rick Hillier's delicate phrase.
Just before the debate and vote in the House, we learned, sadly, of the death of Captain Nichola Goddard. Watching the news, I was jarred by a small biographical detail: she had joined the army right out of high school. That made me think of the large military recruitment poster I'd seen recently in the guidance office at my son's high school.
It bothered me, that poster. It seemed so terribly out of sync with the confusion Canadians are experiencing over this sudden redefinition of our mission in the world. Do we really all agree that the Toronto District School Board should be allowing the military to freshen its far from robust ranks by infiltrating our places of learning?
But it isn't just a few posters on guidance office walls. In a drive to expand the forces to fulfill its new, and unexplained, mandate, the Canadian military has partnered with the board to offer a military co-op program.
In both Toronto's public and Catho-lic boards, the plan pays kids to join the reserves, gives them four high school credits and trains them in, among other soldiering arts, machine gun shooting and grenade throwing. For bored and impressionable teenagers, how cool is that? For the 18 kids in the Toronto program, I came to realize dishearteningly, the answer is very cool.
Whether a military career is like any other is certainly open for debate. The problem is that there hasn't been one and some trustees want to know why.
The atmosphere in the classroom at Moss Park Armoury, which, on the day I attend features a review of the C6 General Purpose Machine gun, is certainly not what you'd find walking into your local high school. Sitting erect in army fatigues and polished boots, each student/soldier has a beret neatly folded at the top left corner of their desk and a water canteen at the top right. All eyes are on the similarly clad and erect instructor at the front. There is a focus in the room a high school math teacher could only dream of. As I watch from the back, I find I'm sitting up straighter myself and writing my notes neater.
After the class goes through a long list of what to check for if your C6 malfunctions on the battlefield, the real guns are toted in and eagerly set up on the floor. This is complex equipment. I've never been this close to a machine gun, never seen how one comes apart, where the bullets go, and I realize my heart is pounding. This is exciting stuff.
Four students at a time lie belly down at their guns while four others time them on specific load, shoot and unload drills using dummy shells as ammunition. "Careful," yells the instructor as one kid gets up on his hands and knees to fix a jammed gun. "You do that on the battlefield and you're dead." There are a few chuckles. After all, the gleaming floor they're lying on is pretty far from a firefight with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"I'd recommend this in a heartbeat," Private Daniel McLean tells me at lunch break. I can understand why. Instead of wasting away in a tedious classroom learning how to chart graphs, these kids are actually doing physically and mentally challenging grown-up work.
The camaraderie for which military culture is famous is also on display. McLean is a grade 12 student at Mon-arch Park Collegiate, and while he talks to me, others hold two of the heavy C6s aloft at once, posing Rambo-style while their buddies snap photos with their cellphone cameras.
"This program is the most challenging thing I've ever done in my life, both emotionally and physically," he says. "I was going to go through the carpentry co-op program, but my co-op teacher at school suggested I check this out. I didn't join up for the money."
But the money isn't insignificant for a high school student: $77 a day for four days a week from mid-February to mid-June. A dental and health plan is also thrown in, and if the students decide to stay on at the end of the course they can sign on for a paid summer training program that starts conveniently soon after the co-op ends.
The military will also kick in up to 2 grand a year for post-secondary education. This beats part-time at Burger King. While both Toronto school boards have a few other paid co-op programs, the military co-op offers the best inducements.
"There is a lot of competition in To-ronto, so we have fewer kids in the program here than in other jurisdictions," says Sergeant Matthew Charlesworth, reserve recruiter for the 32 Brigade Battle School, the unit that runs the Toronto co-op program. "Military co-op is really good for us, since it adds another entry program."
The military says Canadian reservists cannot be ordered into battle zones, as the U.S. is doing with its reservists in Iraq, but Private Jose Perez, a student at St. Patrick's Catholic Secondary School, is itching to go. "When I turn 18 I want to do a tour of Afghanistan," he says. "This is a really good career opportunity, and I plan to join the regular army."
The school board seems to think it's not a bad plan either. "We look at this program from the perspective of giving students the information they need to make informed decisions about their future. And for some this is an excellent future," says TDSB co-op program coordinator Jackie Drew.
But many trustees don't even know about the program, and when they are informed they express great surprise. That's the case with Toronto-Danforth trustee Rick Telfer. "I don't think there should be a military presence of any kind in our schools," he tells me. "It isn't only this co-op program. I am hearing anecdotally that there's a stepped-up presence by the military generally in schools, and I think this is alarming."
Catholic board trustee Angela Kennedy from East York was equally in the dark. "There was nothing ever mentioned that I know about," she says.
TDSB brass say a mention of the military co-op was tucked into a report about at-risk youth presented to the trustees last June. By then, the decision to go forward with the program had already been made by staff. Telfer has served a motion to the TDSB requesting that staff provide a report on the nature of the program so trustees have a chance to scrutinize it.
This would certainly be a good start. The crisp military brochures most guidance offices make available to students talk up the career aspects of the military while conveniently ignoring the elephant in the room: the fact that a soldier is trained to kill and die on command. Do we really want a merging of public education and military objectives when it appears we have no national consensus on our new U.S.-inspired war aims.
"What are recruiters telling students?" asks Michael Byers, international politics prof at the University of British Columbia, who remembers teaching at Duke University in the U.S. in the 90s when no military presence was allowed on campus.
"Are they being sold a benevolent Captain Canada only to find that they are being shot at and shooting people? Is our military for humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping or is it an adjunct force to the [U.S.] 82nd Airborne?" he asks.
Non-violence trainer and writer Len Desroches says all the talk about school boards merely offering career options just doesn't wash, because young people aren't being allowed to make fully informed choices.
Schools, he points out, don't teach the history and practice of non-violence and don't partner with organizations dedicated to non-military solutions.
"By presenting kids with other options, like Peaceforce Canada, Peace Brigades International or Christian Peacemaker Teams, educators would move us toward a healthier learning system."
While the military presence in Toronto high schools flies under the radar, teachers, parents and trustees in Windsor have pushed for a debate on the issue. Students and teachers at Robert F. Hall Catholic Secondary School in Caledon are waging a campaign to rid their school of its military presence altogether.
"The military operates through secrecy, power and domination, and students are asking why we've got them recruiting in a Catholic high school," says religion teacher Gary Connolly. "The military isn't the solution, yet we try to pawn it off on youth who are susceptible and economically vulnerable. Besides, the kids are too young. Let them be 19 or 20 before you start going after them."