Canada loses top officer to ghosts of Somali past

Second chief of staff forced to resign as scandal rumbles on
It was more than three years ago that trigger-happy members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment, based in northern Somalia as part of a UN peace- keeping mission, shot and killed one Somali looter and tortured another to death. But the reverberations of those shots are still shaking up the government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien, claiming the head of the Canadian Armed Forces chief of staff this week.

General Jean Boyle, formerly an air force fighter pilot, was relieved of his command on Tuesday, the second chief of staff whose military career has been terminated by the Somalia scandal.

There is much more at stake than pinning the blame for actions on a small rogue element within the now- disbanded Canadian Airborne Regiment, during an unsavoury assignment. The Canadian forces' experience in Belet Huen has become the thread that is unravelling one of the sources of Canadian national pride and a cornerstone of Canadian foreign policy - its widely-respected participation in UN peace-keeping. A former Canadian prime minister, the late Lester Pearson, won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in establishing the first UN-sponsored peace-keeping force, following the 1956 invasion of the Suez Canal zone.

Canadian soldiers, airmen and naval officers have been sought out for their reputed impartiality and technical competence, often providing the communications and logistical support for UN missions throughout the Middle East, Africa and now Haiti. So much so that the UN blue beret is now an important Canadian symbol.

Six soldiers, including two officers have been charged and convicted for their varying degrees of responsibility for the torture and death of a Somali teenager while in custody, but the inquiries prompted by that murder and the other shootings has revealed widespread mal-aise within the Canadian army.

It was subsequently revealed that senior officers knew the Airborne regiment had serious discipline problems before it was sent to Somalia and that there were several instances of racist behaviour. Some members had boasted that they were going to Somalia "to shoot niggers". The chief of staff in charge at the time of the Somalia deployment was forced out and General John de Chastelain, who had retired and been made Canadian ambassador to Washington, was called back to resume the position of chief of staff with a mandate to clean the house. But he retired again last January and was replaced by General Boyle, who apparently had no connection with the Somalia affair.

That turned out not to be the case, as the Somalia inquiries probed deeper. It turned out that General Boyle, who was in National Defence Headquarters at the time of the Somalia incidents and responsible for communications policy, had been part of an effort to prevent the media from obtaining information about the incidents.

Documents that ought to have been made accessible to the public were shredded or altered. Although he came under heavy criticism, General Boyle clung to his job because David Collinette, who had been the Minister of National Defence since the Liberals took power in 1993, consistently supported him.

Mr Collinette was forced to resign from the government last Friday on an unrelated matter. He had signed a letter to the Immigration and Refugee Board, a quasi-judicial body, on behalf of a constituent, which is contrary to the ethical guidelines that apply to ministers of the Crown.

Without a protector, General Boyle's own fate was thus sealed, especially since the new Defence minister, Douglas Young, subsequently refused to give him a vote of confidence following a long meeting on Monday.

The next day, General Boyle delivered his ceremonial sword and letter of resignation to Mr Chretien's office and they were accepted.