Operation Gamescan 76 by Michael Brun, National Film Board of Canada
Operation Gamescan 76.
Roll that around on your tongue for a moment.
It was a thing. It happened here.
And if you find the name as intriguing as I do, you’re in luck. Operation Gamescan 76 is damned fascinating, especially when you consider it within the context of how we do large scale security operations nowadays, not to mention the actual capabilities of our current military. I say this because I believe Gamescan 76 was a demonstration of a high water mark attained by the Canadian military, at a time many today think it was ill equipped and purposeless.
And if you don’t give a damn about military propaganda, that’s fine too. It’s not exactly a propaganda piece to begin with. If you like archival footage of Montreal in the ‘good old days’ of the mid-1970s, then this video’s for you. The city looked good that summer.
But on to the issue at hand – what was Gamescan 76?
Simply put, during the 1976 Summer Olympics and for several months before it, this city of Montreal was a veritable fortress or modern citadel.
16,000 personnel were deployed just to Montreal and the affiliated sites of the Olympic Games, providing not only security, but communications, logistics, medical and even protocol services for the Olympics. They had combat fighter aircraft at their immediate disposal, in addition to various transports and surveillance aircraft, not to mention a considerable number of helicopters. Several large warships were deployed to provide additional support and elements of the Airborne Regiment, precursor to today’s JTF-2 and Canadian Special Operations Regiment, were on standby, ready to rappel or parachute into anywhere in and around Montreal in a moment’s notice.
Operation Gamescan 76 was and likely still is the single largest peacetime Canadian military operation, ever. What’s particularly interesting to me is that it was done without withdrawing forces deployed in West Germany (Canada had a mechanized brigade deployed in support of NATO, supported by its own air wing and occupying two bases at the time, representing about 5,000 personnel), the Sinai, Golan Heights or Cyprus (three large peacekeeping deployments we were involved in at the time, representing several thousand more troops and their equipment). At the time the bulk of our local air force was operating in support of NORAD and most of our Navy was Atlantic-centric and almost exclusively focused on hunting Soviet submarines. And yet despite this absolutely massive deployment of Canadian Forces personnel and major equipment assets, we could still manage to pull together 16,000 military personnel and provide them all the equipment they needed to ensure Canada’s first Olympic Games would not suffer the same fate as Munich four years earlier.
Munich. The brutal murder of Israeli athletes by masked terrorists, captured live by television cameras and broadcast into tranquil living rooms the world over. What was supposed to be a triumph for liberal, reformed post-war West Germany became a spectacle so tragic and awful some commentators honestly thought the Olympics as an institution would crumble. Who would risk hosting a Games if terrorists could slaughter athletes on the six o’clock news? Who would pay for the security that would be required to prevent such a thing from happening again, who had the expertise to handle such an immense project scope, and who could be reasonably expected to deliver on all fronts?
It was obvious at the time that the Canadian Forces would take on the job so as not to overburden local law enforcement, leaving the bulk of the Montreal police and SuretÃ© du QuÃ©bec to focus on their day to day affairs.
The military would secure the city, the island, the key nodes of transport, command and communications, and most importantly the Olympic Park and its affiliated sites. The out of town troops took up residence in public schools closed for the summer, the depot at Longue Pointe housed all Games-related equipment and was humming along twenty-four hours a day. The military was deployed to all the airports in the region at that time (there were five by my count, including Mirabel, Dorval, St. Hubert, the Victoria STOLport and the old Cartierville airport, the latter two no longer exist), and patrolled the highways and port as well. Throughout the documentary I marvelled at the fact that the overwhelming bulk of work was carried out by soldiers armed only with walkie-talkies, binoculars and metal detectors.
We had several thousand people employed to literally ‘keep an eye on things’, and several thousand more coordinating and communicating everything they saw.
What really strikes me is how few guns you see in this documentary. When you do see Canadian soldiers well equipped with the latest fighting gear, it’s principally when deployed abroad. Throughout the doc the Canadian Forces look pretty geeky – it seems as though the bulk of the security apparatus in 1976 were lanky young men in their late teens or early twenties, in their dress uniforms (no camouflage), without any prominently displayed guns or offensive fighting equipment.
In other words, it was discrete. Subtle security. The documentary points this out several times.
Quite a contrast to security at the most recent Canadian Olympiad. Fewer than 5,000 Canadian Forces were deployed to two sites at the 2010 Vancouver Games, backed up by 5,000 law enforcement and about the same number of private security contractors. Security was armed, armoured and obvious. I would argue the collective whole of modern public security is menacing and invasive, and based on the video evidence offered here, it seems efforts were made to make the military look and behave truly as an aid to the civil power. It seems that they were keen to demonstrate the military being used differently, and to not offend the public by appearing overly menacing. The images of armed soldiers patrolling city streets during the October Crisis were still quite fresh in people’s collective memory.
So what we have here is archival footage of how they struck a balance. Yes, a massive amount of Canadian military strength was available and operational in Montreal at the time, controlling a security, communications and logistics operation of epic proportions we’d have trouble, I’d argue, doing again today. It just wasn’t particularly intrusive given its size.
It was the era of less is more I suppose. Government didn’t want images of men with rifles in newspapers or on television. Today the opposite is true; remember the G8/G20 Summit in Toronto? That would have been unfathomable in any Canadian city in 1976.
Today our government wants to empower a formerly outward facing spy agency to turn inwards with all the power of your local police force, and quite possibly make dissent a crime worthy of prosecution. Protesting may be considered terrorism, for your security (as the mitten-wearing class in Ottawa tells us day after day – limitations to our freedoms and liberties are always being done for our security…)
Forty years ago the military could provide security with binoculars and radios. Today the police has become militarized while the military and the state’s intelligence services are being used for police purposes. We are told constantly that we are not secure, not safe, and that an attack is eminent. We are even told that recent attacks in Ottawa and Saint Jean sur Richelieu were terrorist attacks, though the culprits in both cases had no ties to international terrorism and both were known to have suffered from severe mental illness.
In 1976 government spent no amount of time trying to convince the people we were threatened by terrorism. They spent their time coming up with films like this to show the discrete and sophisticated ways by which they assisted in actually providing high level security to the nation’s gleaming metropolis.
As I mentioned above I find this film infinitely fascinating, at least in part because it seems to be evidence of a far better use of government resources to achieve a superior end result.
And it wasn’t even that long ago either… how far have we let things go since then?