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Building Heroes

Issue: 69 Section: Canadian News Geography: Canada Montreal, Regina Topics: veterans, military, university, tuition fees

May 31, 2010

Building Heroes

Professors protest Project Hero as military PR ploy

by Cameron Fenton

Project Hero’s tag-line is “Gifting education to the children of our fallen soldiers,” but critics see the program as a tool to drum up support for military presence in Canadian universities, politics and culture. Photo: Caitlin Crawshaw

Montreal—Project Hero, a military-supported, private sector scholarship program with the mission to “provide undergraduate scholarships to children of fallen soldiers,” has become the target of growing criticism across Canadian campuses. Since professors at the University of Regina spoke out against the program in March, 661 people have signed a growing petition which calls on people to “stand against Project Hero.”

Over the past year, former Canadian Forces chief of staff, Retired General Rick Hillier, and Kevin Reed, the head of the Grey Horse Corporation, have spread Project Hero to 26 campuses across Canada. The program’s tag-line is “Gifting education to the children of our fallen soldiers,” but many critics see the program as both a dangerous encroachment of the military into universities and a tool to drum up support for an increasing military presence in Canadian politics and culture.

“So let's be clear about this: Project Hero is not about these children's education,” explained Martin Hebert, associate professor in the department of anthropology at the Universite Laval and member of Anthropologists for Justice and Peace (AJP), who have been active in opposing Project Hero. “The real beneficiary of all the hype that this project has created for itself are the Canadian Forces, not the soldiers' families.”

Public resistance to the program began last March, when 16 professors at the University of Regina sent an open letter to the president of their university to express dissatisfaction and opposition to the university joining Project Hero.

“A few of us didn’t want our university to participate in [Project Hero], so we put together a letter outlining our objections and asking what we would like to see happen in place of it,” Garson Hunter, associate professor of social work at the University of Regina and signatory of the letter, explained. “It has to do with the encroachment of the military into the university structure...what we objected to here was the idea of signing onto what is basically a propaganda campaign.”

The open letter called on the University of Regina to take three actions: withdraw from Project Hero, push for government funding for universal access to post-secondary education and hold a public forum on the war in Afghanistan and Canadian imperialism.

“We’re absolutely fine with our faculty and staff disagreeing with some of the things that happen at the university,” said Barb Pollock, spokesperson for the University of Regina. “A university is absolutely the place where diverse opinions and debate happen all the time, the fact that 15 or 16 of our faculty, out of about 400 disagree with something is fine.”

Despite this belief, the university is moving ahead with Project Hero, with no plans to hold the public forum called for in the letter.

While university administration has made neutrality the party line, media and local Conservative politicians—including Regina MPs Tom Lukiwski and Andrew Scheer—attempted to turn the 16 into pariahs. Scheer called for the professors to withdraw their letter and write a public apology, calling their actions “disgusting.” The signatories received messages such as, "If you can't get behind our troops, get in front," and, "You deserve to be taken to Afghanistan and strapped to a roadside IED."

Hunter considers the belligerent Conservative reaction to have been an attempt to deflect oncoming criticisms from the Afghan detainee commission, which he points out could implicate General Hillier. The retired army chief of staff also sits as the chancellor of Memorial University in Newfoundland, the first school to sign onto Project Hero.

Interview requests to both Hillier and Memorial University were not returned.

Project Hero is what Hunter calls an “unfunded scholarship,” in that it exists without any external financial backing and asks universities to waive the fees for these students. This is augmented at a number of schools by a bursary to offset the cost of books and living expenses for the children of fallen soldiers.

The University of Regina is one of the schools that offers extra funding for living expenses of these students. Barb Pollock explained that the money for this extra bursary would come from the university’s scholarship and awards fund, which funds around 3,000 awards each year. Critics are asking whether this funding could be better spent, pointing out that tuition fees are climbing across the country, making university education increasingly difficult to afford and raising the potential debt load of prospective graduates.

“With Project Hero, they are asking universities to cover [tuition and fees],” Hunter explained. “Project Hero doesn’t actually contribute ten cents...students here are facing rising tuition, for example our students are facing a five per cent tuition increase this September.”

Beyond questioning the origin of funding for the program, only a handful of students have actually been funded through Project Hero raising questions about the motivations behind the program,

“In fact, the University of Regina may never see one [such] student,” Hunter said. “It’s silly, you would have to be 15 years old right now to benefit from Project Hero...and I don’t know why you would, you would actually receive more from Veterans Affairs.”

Another major critique which has been levelled against Project Hero is the effective redundancy of the program to reach its stated goal of “gifting education.”

Act C-28, the Children of Deceased Veterans Education Assistance Act, has existed since 1985 as “a program to help children carry on with their education past high school if they have a CF parent who dies as a result of military service.” The program, funded through Veterans Affairs Canada, provides up to $6,700 per year to pay for post secondary education and the associated living expenses of the children of deceased veterans. Project Hero thus exists to fulfill a role that the Canadian government has been filling for over 20 years.

“If the only preoccupation of the Canadian Forces in this matter were to see that deceased soldiers' children get a university education, the matter could easily have been addressed by simple, private, and dignified measures, such as an increase of the soldiers' insurance policy,” said Hebert.

Politicians and the mainstream press took the 16 professors' opposition to the program as symbolizing their complete opposition to any aid going to the children of deceased soldiers. Dr. Maximillian Forte, associate professor of anthropology at Concordia University, described his colleagues' treatment as a “shocking degree of bullying” by the mainstream media, politicians, and extreme right-wing bloggers.

“Like the 16 University of Regina professors...AJP does not argue that students who have suffered the financial impact of a parent lost in war should be banned from getting scholarships,” explained Forte, who also works on the steering committee of AJP. “Instead, we argue that all students in dire financial straits should receive similar opportunities, including those who have lost a parent for whatever reason; universities should not be in the business of sanctifying one death as more heroic than another.”

Concordia was the first university in Quebec to sign onto Project Hero in 2009, followed shortly by McGill. In a press release, Judith Woodward, president of Concordia University, called the program “a fitting way to honour the memory of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice through military service.”

Project Hero is also an example of how, off-campus, the links between corporations and the military are increasing as well, says Hunter. Kevin Reed, executive director of the program, was made an honorary lieutenant colonel of the 31 Service Brigade of the Canadian Forces in December of 2008, part of an expanding program which ascribes honorary military titles to corporate leaders in exchange for their support of the military.

“We’re getting this really close connection between the military and the corporate interest who benefit from these budgets,” Hunter said. “You don’t get the Canadian public sympathetic by showing them the body parts of children killed in Afghanistan, you get support by having a Highway of Heroes and with programs like Project Hero.”

Reed is also a member of Canada Company, a registered charity founded in 2006 with the self-professed aim of providing “outreach between Canada’s Armed Forces and the corporate world.” Members of Canada Company are required to donate a minimum of $1,250 to join the ranks, receiving a pin with the group’s motto “Many Ways to Serve.” Canada Company also provides a scholarship for the children of deceased soldiers, which it has given out since 2007.

Calls to Reed were not returned.

The roll-out of Project Hero comes as Canada’s annual military budget, according to a 2008 study by the Centre for Canadian Policy Alternatives, is at its highest point since World War II—and rising. Canada has pledged to pull combat troops out of Afghanistan by next year, but as military spending increases, it poses questions about the increasing cultural presence of the Canadian Forces.

“These programs are actually embarrassing the Canadian Forces, making it look to the public that they don’t support the dependent children,” Hunter said. “We don’t call it Hero Day on November 11, we call it Remembrance Day, the name itself is jingoistic...this is a not-too-well-hidden propaganda campaign.”

Cameron Fenton is Membership Co-ordinator at The Dominion and an anthropology student at Concordia University in Montreal.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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