Sober second thought: A half-hearted defence of Don Cherry, Stephen Harper and Julian Fantino in military drag

Stephen Harper in his cool green Canadian Forces flight jacket. With him, Alberta Premier Alison Redford and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, during last June’s flooding, both looking as if they wish they had cool military togs too. Below: Don Cherry in a tailored camo suit and Julian Fantino with a chest full of medals and a nice military blazer. All shots grabbed from the Internet.

A reader writes in response to my commentary on the politicization by so-called conservatives of Remembrance Day: “What combat unit did Don Cherry, Stephen Harper, Julian Fantino and the other chicken hawks ever serve in?”

Good question. A more complicated and serious one, though, it is said here, than it would appear on its face.

As far as I can tell from their online biographies, none of the three worthies mentioned above, all of whom seem to enjoy dressing up in various kinds of armed forces drag, has ever served in the military.

Indeed, Mr. Harper, the prime minister, has never held a real job of any kind. He merely graduated from young Liberalism to tiny Toryism to various ancillary and auxiliary political jobs before rising to elected office, higher and higher, where he has remained ever since.

Mr. Cherry, the former professional hockey player and coach, and current taxpayer-subsidized megaphone for uninformed political and social commentary, dropped out of high school and went directly into the sporting life, or so the Wikipedia tells us.

Mr. Fantino, it should be noted, did work as a mall security officer before joining the police force. So at least he has seen extensive paramilitary service. But I am at a loss to explain the chest full of medals he is shown wearing in his role as minister of veterans affairs on his taxpayer-financed website. Perhaps someone from his office could drop us a line to explain.

“Chicken hawks” in the context meant by my interlocutor is an American slang term for politicians who have never served in the military (or like former President George W. Bush, managed to serve in conveniently safe units like the Texas Air National Guard) yet who adopt a bellicose manner as they send young men and women in the armed services off to their deaths.

Former vice-president Dick Cheney springs to mind, a man who was certainly combative enough when it came to other families’ children, but who himself avoided service in the Vietnam war with five draft deferments, once famously observing, “I had other priorities in the Sixties than military service.”

So, no doubt, did a lot of young men of the same generation who were nevertheless drafted to serve and die in Vietnam.

Mr. Cheney, interestingly, has recently been the recipient of a transplanted heart. But the new one, presumably, is as hard and cold as the one it replaced.

Regardless, Canada is not the United States, and the differences between our countries remain important, even if Mr. Harper doesn’t think they ought to be.

The United States during the Vietnam era had a national male military draft – which, indeed, was one of the reasons for the rising tide of opposition to the war in Southeast Asia. Canada has not had a draft since the Second World War – and even then its enforcement required nuance and subtlety in the context of our national compromise, which predates Confederation in 1867.

So while the idea of chicken-hawk politicians who avoided military service in the 1960s has some validity for U.S. politicians who came of age in that era, it seems to me that considering military service a valid criterion for holding public office in Canada is a far less worthy notion.

Leastways, it’s said here it wouldn’t be a very good idea in a democracy to exclude from higher office anyone who had not done military service, especially in a country where for important and valid historical reasons, universal compulsory military service has not been part of our national experience.

Moreover, there are bound to be times when senior federal officials – ex officio – must make decisions about the use of military force. Again, in a democracy in which the people chose their leaders, this job cannot and should not be restricted to military veterans.

Nor is it necessarily a bad thing that in Canada and the United States today there is no national consensus requiring military service if one is to hold any responsible job, let alone high political office, as is the case in such democracies as Finland and Switzerland with recent traditions of armed neutrality.

None of this is to say politicians unschooled in the art of war should glory in violence – indeed, if they listen to their soldiers, the soldiers will often set them straight about the limitations of military action.

Nor is it to deny there’s not something quite unseemly about politicians who have not done military service dressing up in military drag – although in fairness to all of them, sometimes the military insists that’s how you have to dress if they’re going to invite you along for a ride on a tank, a destroyer escort or a helicopter. But I think we are wiser to emphasize the comedic aspects of this practice than to seek moral outrage in it.

After all, isn’t the Americanization of our Canadian political debate, like the politicization of Remembrance Day, a sign of the success Mr. Harper and his so-called Conservative Party have had in debasing public discourse in Canada to their own neoliberal ends?

There’s nothing wrong, I guess, with what a lefty friend of mine on the West Coast used to call “good ol’ Navy common sense.” But let’s not decide that combat experience is a necessary prerequisite for holding political office – or, in its absence, vociferous chicken hawk bellicosity from any perspective.

Indeed, that idea deserves a little good ol’ Canadian sober second thought.

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This just in: Canada puts all its nuts in one basket!

While Rob Ford’s apparent sanity continues to crumble in public like the proverbial slow-motion train wreck, Sun News Network’s TV arm has moved to extract some profit from the public deterioration of the Toronto Mayor’s mental state.

Treating psychosis as entertainment may be distasteful, but it’s entirely in character for the little network that remains mired at a number higher than 600 on your TV dial, a fact that lends deeper significance than is normally conveyed by the term “remote.”

Sun TV announced yesterday it “has landed the hottest man on the airwaves.” That is to say, the obscure far-right cable station went on to explain, “the Rob and Doug Ford Show is coming to Sun News Network.”

You may have thought Rob and Doug Ford were two men, but I suppose one explanation for the phenomenon we have been witnessing these past few days is that they are in fact one man with two bodies.

Regardless, other Sun TV on-air “personalities” such as Ezra Levant and Michael Coren should be concerned, I suppose, about what this development might mean for their own prospects for promotion, in either sense of the word.

Elevation of the prime minister’s favourite fishin’ buddy to TV stardom can also be argued to mean Canada is now putting all of its far-right nuts in one basket, justifying the common perception of the PM’s favourite TV station as a right-wing basket case.

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8 Comments on "Sober second thought: A half-hearted defence of Don Cherry, Stephen Harper and Julian Fantino in military drag"

  1. anonymous says:

    I am an ‘air force brat’, so I find it insulting that Mr. Harper wears a flight jacket sporting wings. In my younger days, my brother, sister and I (like other brats) would wear our father’s old military issue. My brother and I old flight and bomber jackets, my sister great coats. However, we had to remove all insignia before we were allowed to use them.

    In fact, in the air force community it was considered a serious offence to wear any patches that had not been earned, even (and especially) on ‘hand-me-downs’.

    If Harper, Fantino and Cherry want to play ‘Mr. Dressup’ might I suggest clown costumes.

  2. Tom in Ontario says:

    Thank you, David, for enlightening readers as to the military background of the three luminaries. Only speculation of course, but there may be an explanation for the sporty outfits they so proudly display.

    Perhaps Minister Fantino received a medal for each mall shoplifter he corralled while on duty. As for hockey man Cherry, he might have been warming up for a night of Halloween hijinks and decided to dress up as a special forces trooper. Mr, Harper could have been strolling through Calgary’s fine army surplus store and grabbed an attractive jacket with small lapel wings off the clearance rack.

    Regardless of their individual motives, all three look resplendent in military raiment. Luckily for them, barring invasion by socialistic hordes, their battlefield skills will likely never be tested.

  3. Filostrato says:

    In the Don Cherry episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?”, (I have no idea why I watched that particular episode, but I did), Cherry finds that his grandfather, who fought at Vimy Ridge according to family legend, was actually taken sick while he was there and taken off active duty. I remember Cherry was visibly upset that this had been the case. I don’t think he ever considered, even for a second, that his own existence may have depended on this circumstance. I’ll leave it to others to consider whether this was a good thing or not.

    I had many, many uncles who fought in the Second World War. Five of my mother’s brothers (two army, two navy, one air force) went. One, torpedoed while patrolling the freezing waters of the Atlantic one late November night, never came back. He was nineteen years old. There was also one of my father’s brothers (army) and two uncles-in-law (married to my mother’s sisters). That’s a lot of ex-serviceman relatives. None of them ever spoke about it much except to say where they had been. Somehow, they just got on with things after they got back. The loss of her youngest brother would bring tears to my mother’s eyes all her life.

    My cousin and his wife are both in the army. He has been to Afghanistan twice. His father was wounded, badly burned and taken prisoner at Dieppe.

    So, when I see the “chicken hawks” glorifying war, especially when someone else is at the pointy end of it, it makes me extremely angry. What makes me even madder is when they try to shuck off all responsibility for the returning soldiers, some sick and broken, as if it was rather an annoying burden. NATO is spending a billion bucks (or something) on their new headquarters – some of which, I presume, is our money – yet they shut down veterans affairs offices and tell them “to go on the web”, or don’t pay out the grants for funerals.

    Remembrance Day shouldn’t be political and it shouldn’t glorify war. It should remind us how horrible it all was and warn us never to get into something like that again for frivolous reasons.

    As for the Gilbert and Sullivan soldiers, the Harpers, Cherrys and Fantinos of this world, I’d better not say anything in case I shock the children and scare the horses.

  4. jerrymacgp says:

    The last Canadian Prime Minister to have seen action in wartime was Lester Pearson, who was a First World War veteran. According to Wikipedia, however, the last PM to have served in the military was, surprisingly, Pierre Trudeau, who was conscripted while in university during WW II, and entered the Canadian Officers’ Training Corps. However, like most of the “zombies” (as conscripts were known at the time), he did not see overseas service, and he was later expelled from the service for “lack of discipline”.

    It is important, however, to note that the Westminster parliamentary tradition does not particularly call upon Prime Ministers to have military backgrounds; for example, few UK PMs have seen military service either. The last British PM to have served in the military was James Callaghan (Labour, 1976-79), who served in the Royal Navy during WW II.

    Remember, too, that the President of the United States is also Commander in Chief of the US armed forces; however, in the UK, that role is held by the sovereign, and in Canada by the Governor-General.

    • All “zombies” were conscripts, but not all conscripts were zombies. To keep the country together, the Government of Canada decreed that conscripts would not be shipped overseas to fight unless they agreed. Those who wouldn’t go were the zombies. The government’s fears were justified. When a rumour circulated the government would break the deal to break their promise and ship unwilling conscripts to fight Japan, they were met with an armed uprising.

  5. maggie says:

    This past week, a two part biography of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy on PBS informed us that after he was declared medically unfit to enlist in the army he bulked up and used his father’s political influence to enlist in the navy. But that was a different time.
    In his inaugural speech, he did not say “Ask not what the economy can do for you but what you can do for the economy”.

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