The Historical Editing of the Toronto Star’s Deputy Editor

Martin Cohn, deputy editor of the Toronto Star, recently urged Canadians not to let "battle fatigue and donor fatigue" make them lose patience with "nation building"

("Canada’s world before Afghanistan", March 31, 2009

Cohn marveled that some countries can’t seem to develop despite all the "blood and treasure" that Canadians and others have invested on their behalf:

"When Somalia imploded, we and the Americans walked out and it remains a mess. We sent Canadian troops to East Timor in 1999 but all these years later, despite intensive aid from the UN, the East Timorese remain at each other’s throats. Equally in Haiti we have made a massive commitment of aid and manpower over the years, yet the country remains stunted."

Undaunted by challenge of reforming others, Cohn advised that "we cannot weaken our commitment, because the problems will not go away."

However, the truth about Canada’s involvement in these countries is radically different from what Cohn describes. Yves Engler’s forthcoming book, The Blackbook of Canadian Foreign Policy, will make it much easier to debunk widespread myths about Canada’s role in the world. I sent the following email to Martin Cohn on April 6. The facts I cited can be found in Engler’s book:

Mr. Cohn:

You ask people to remember Canada’s interventions in Haiti, Somalia, East Timor but you appear not to have investigated them at all. You even seem to believe that Canada’s latest intervention in Haiti came before the war in Afghanistan when, in fact, it came after.

Have you read the study published in the Lancet medical journal in 2006 by Athena Kolbe and Royce Hudson? It found that Canada’s allies in Haiti were responsible for 4000 political murders while the dictatorship of Gerard Latortue (2004-2006) was in power. Have you read the human rights report by Thomas Griffin of the University of Miami Center for the Study of Human Rights? It reveals that Canada was basically overseeing the Haitian judiciary while it was filling the jails with political prisoners. I’ve recently reviewed how Canadian newspapers, in particular the Toronto Star, have misinformed readers about Haiti over the past 5 years. I hope you to look it over.[1]

You don’t seem any better informed about Canada’s role in East Timor. Canada approved about 300 million dollars in arms sales to Indonesia after its 1975 invasion. By the time Indonesia finally withdrew it had killed 200,000 people. Canada abstained on UN resolutions condemning Indonesia and, in 1980, stooped even lower by voting no.[2] In 1997, just before General Suharto visited Canada, Lloyd Axworthy sent a letter to the dictator making it clear that Canadian authorities would do their utmost to block protesters from embarrassing him.[3] After Indonesian troops were finally ordered out of East Timor, international forces moved in. If there was an investment of "blood and treasure" (as you wrote) it certainly wasn’t made with Canadian blood for the benefit of East Timor.

In Somalia, Canadians caught a glimpse of the racism and disregard for human life thatcharacterizes our foreign policy. The scandal led to a public inquiry into the mission which found that Serge Labbé "failed as a commander".[4] Nevertheless, one of last things General Rick Hillier did was last to promote Labbé to brigadier general, which was backdated to top up his salary for seven years.[5]

You article perpetuates very destructive myths about Canada. Please look more closely and skeptically at what is done in our name.

Martin Cohn replied three days later as follows:

Thanks for taking the time to read the column, and for writing in. I appreciate the feedback.

I’ll let you and Paul Knox and others carry on your debate on Haiti without me.

On East Timor, I may be burdened by having actually reported from the place several times — under Indonesian rule, when Australian troops landed, and then again Canadian troops landed. Your history lesson is interesting but not new to me. It doesn’t change my view that Canadian troops risked their lives to help East Timorese, and made a difference. But we may disagree


Martin Regg Cohn

The lack of interest in Haiti was striking given that Cohn had ended his article with a plea for Canadians to "remember Haiti". However, his boast about having reported from East Timor while it was under Indonesian rule was interesting. I wondered if any of his reports from East Timor mentioned Canadian or US support for Indonesia’s aggression. I did some research and wrote back to him on April 10:

Mr. Cohn:
I used LexisNexis to look up all the articles I could find by you that mentioned East Timor – 35 articles going back to February 11, 1999, These articles total 33000 words often going into significant detail about East Timor. As you note, you were there.

Nowhere is there any mention of Canada’s diplomatic, military and economic support for Indonesia’s invasion and occupation.

Nowhere is there any mention of crucial US support for Indonesia’s slaughter of 200,000 people. Daniel P Moynihan boasted in his memoirs about successfully preventing any effective action by the UN against Indonesia’s invasion.

In one article (October 4, 1999, Bloodshed in East Timor Strains Neighborly Ties) you mention in passing that " After decades of indulging Indonesia’s excesses in East Timor for political and business reasons, Australia’s politicians have decided to heed domestic public opinion, which is running about 70 per cent in support of the peacekeeping operation."

In 33000 words that exhausts your discussion of Western complicity.

In one article (Where are the moderates? Nov 4, 2001) you cite Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor as an example of the violence that Islamic extremists have inflicted on Catholics – a crime that Islamic people must address. The article laments the "denial" and "inaction" of intellectuals in Pakistan. Unlike those intellectuals, you are not living in a dictatorship. You could speak out very strongly against the crimes that your country has been involved with and Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor is one of many. You have consistently chosen not to.

Martin Cohn replied on April 14:

Good of you to scan all 33,000 words. But in less than 100 words below my email makes this point: "Canadian troops risked their lives to help East Timorese, and made a difference." In my observation, the East Timorese gratefully acknowledged the Canadian contribution, something (if I may borrow from your debating style) that "you have consistently chosen not to."

It’s possible that most East Timorese were grateful to troops perceived to be helping them end a horrific occupation. However, Yves Engler described a less positive reaction to Canadian troops:

"Former JTF2 officer Denis Morisset writes that Canadian troops oversaw a small village where ‘the poor villagers were terrorized by our presence.’"

Even if most people were glad to see Canadian troops, it cannot excuse Cohn’s lies of omission which also shred the credibility of his reports from East Timor.

As for Australia’s involvement in East Timor since 1999, John Pilger has explained how the Howard government attempted to steal oil and gas revenue from East Timor that was desperately needed to rebuild the country. East Timor’s government under Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri resisted Australia’s theft. Pilger described the situation in 2006, shortly after soldiers rebelled against Alkatiri’s government:

"A mendacious campaign against the ‘corrupt’ Alkatiri was mounted in the Australian media, reminiscent of the coup by media that briefly toppled Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Like the US soldiers who ignored looters on the streets of Baghdad, Australian soldiers stood by while armed rioters terrorised people, burned their homes and attacked churches. The rebel leader Alfredo Reinado, a murderous thug trained in Australia, was elevated to folk hero. Under this pressure, the democratically elected Alkatiri was forced from office and East Timor was declared a ‘failed state’ by Australia’s legion of security academics and journalistic parrots…" [6]

Contrast that with Martin Cohn’s version of events: "the East Timorese remain at each other’s throats" despite all the efforts foreigners have made to civilize them. Self congratulatory lies like these have proven deadly to people around the world, and they continue to stunt our own society in many ways.


Write polite, non-abusive emails to

The Toronto Star – lettertoed@thestar.ca

Martin Regg Cohn -mcohn@thestar.ca

Please copy all emails and replies to


To help promote Yves Engler’s book contact him at yvesengler@hotmail.com


[1] Athena R Kolbe, Royce A Hutson. Human rights abuse and other criminal
violations in Port-au-Prince, Haiti: a random survey of households. Lancet

NOVEMBER 11-21, 2004 By Thomas M. Griffin;

My review of the Canadian press on Haiti is at

[2] Complicity: Human Rights and Canadian Foreign Policy. Sharon Scharfe,
Black Rose Books (1996)

[3] http://www.peak.sfu.ca/the-peak/98-3/issue2/crackdown.html

[4] Montréal Gazette July 25 2008

[5] Embassy magazine Aug 6 2008

[6] ZNet; John Pilger; http://www.zmag.org/zspace/commentaries/3407

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