Hundreds of Haitians, growing increasingly agitated by the minute, prepared to swarm the site of the former United Nations base camp at Goniaves, salvaging the garbage that the UN could not use or dispose of. The Pakistani company, the last UN occupants, stood by equipped with helmets, batons and shields, prepared to restore order if conflicts over their leftovers sparked violence.

No UN commander in Port-au-Prince or New York wanted CNN to feature a death in a dispute over refuse. So a Canadian tactical psyops team, talking to the crowd, convinced the mob that a semblance of order would ensure all managed to retrieve something from the garbage heap. No TV coverage emanated from Goniaves that night.

On the Isle de Gonave at Anse-a-Galet in October 1996, the Canadian psyops team defused a crowd attempting to lynch six members of the Haitian National Police (HNP) for shooting one of the town’s residents, allegedly without reason, through dialogue and the promise, subsequently kept, to take the six policemen into custody and return them to the mainland while investigating the allegations. The dialogue negated the need to deploy the UN’s Quick Reaction Force, which could not have been accomplished in one helicopter lift.

In fact, helicopter flights in an environment in which only the UN and the American Embassy operated such airframes, were such a novelty that psyops team intervention was needed to clear the landing zones of curious children. The noise of the helicopters was sufficient to draw enough of a crowd that at places such as Jacmel, landings had to be aborted until dialogue took place.

And when crowds blocked the main supply route from Haiti’s capital to the UN base camp at Cap Haitien over Haitian government inaction that had allowed the village school to collapse, Canadian Engineers, acting on information from their psyops colleagues, built a new structure in a few days, ending the villagers’ road blocks and ceasing the need for deployment of UN torops.

These are some of the success stories reported by the 24-man Canadian Military Information Support Team (MIST), which deployed as part of Canada’s contribution to the United Nations Mission in Haiti, then called a support mission. These incidents are a remarkable demonstration of the employment of psyops at the tactical level.

Although the Americans deployed strategic, operational and tactical psyops elements in support of UN forces, when they withdrew in March 1996, so did most of their psyops elements, leaving a capability gap.

General Alain Forand, then Chief of Staff (COS) J3 at NDHQ, and Colonel Fulton, then COS of the UNMIH military force, were responsible for formation of a Canadian tactical psyops element to take over some functions from the US teams.

The Canadian MIST had the capability to deploy six Tactical Dissemination Teams. Each TDT consisted of a driver, a linguist and a detachment commander. One TDT was earmarked to deploy with the Quick Reaction Force. Two were deployed to Cap Haitien until the UN force there withdrew. The remainder was deployed as needed in Haiti’s capital. There was a headquarters element and thus provision for some rotation among the TDT.

Though the initial team was all francophone, it included 14 Creole speakers, most of Haitian origin. This was a significant advantage among Haiti’s rural, oral culture – speaking French and the ability to write identifies one as a member of the rich elite or someone who has returned from aboard.

Initial training was a problem; hence, the need for a small American detachment to remain until a Canadian psyops capability was developed. Four Canadians went to Fort Bragg for two weeks. Subsequently, an American team came to Valcartier to provide two more weeks of training for the whole Canadian MIST.

The team, under command of a logistics officer, Lieutenant James Landé, arrived in Haiti on April 18. Procurement of proper equipment was much slower. For example, five months later, the LSS-40B loudspeakers had still not arrived. Ironically these same speakers languished in storage in Montreal long after the first commitment in Haiti closed out in the 1990s.

Unlike the Americans, the Canadian team did not prepare and distribute written material. Their success was based on dialogue. Over three months the previous summer, the American psyops effort had resulted in production of 46 radio messages, 14 television commercials and 18 specific loudspeaker messages, all complimented by 1.2 million handbills and 325,000 posters. All, of course, was coordinated through the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General. Neither radio broadcasts nor leaflets, however, permit dialogue or lend themselves readily to feedback in illiterate areas with few communications such as telephones.

The performance of Lieutenant Landé’s unit was regarded by an American psyops officer who remained in Haiti as an “inspirational one of textbook proficiency.” Landé’s successor, Captain Steve Plourde, garnered similar accolades. In one short year, Canada’s pysops team demonstrated the quality of individual Canadian soldiers, from junior officer to private driver. Their adaptability amazed not only other professional soldiers but also civilian experts.

It also showed the benefits to be derived from our diasporas: Creole speakers succeeded where French speakers could not. For the UNMIH and UNSMIH contingents, dialogue seems to have saved the CF from scenes of crowd confrontation that might have dismayed Canadian TV audiences.

However, the caveat that a lesson is not always learned was illustrated by the fact that although in 1997 the NDHQ OP Standard Lessons Learned noted that “the CF must continue to develop its PYSOPs capability at all levels,” the equipment and expertise acquired in Haiti was either forgotten or overlooked for years. The Army Lessons Learned Centre published a bulletin on the MIST in 1998.

Today, on another mission, on another continent, other Canadian psyops teams are now being utilized in support of mission goals. I suspect dialogue will remain a key tool for tactical psyops. Certainly, in my own travels, unarmed, in tribal terrain in 1989 Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province, dialogue, albeit through an interpreter, seemed to be the harbinger of some measure of security as well as an opportunity for exposing the ‘flip side of the coin’ to those who had not yet seen it.

Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA (RMC), a retired Canadian Armour officer, is a recipient of Canada’s Meritorious Service Cross.