In the novel’s first chapter, Alex Gabriel’s raid on Petawawa is broken up by several other scenes. One of these is the raid on CFB Halifax where Fred McTavish is tragically killed, but several other cuts take us to NDHQ where a CF staff officer gradually becomes aware of the growing crisis. In the interest of continuity, I’m presenting those scenes as a complete section so that we can deal with them in their entirety.
In NDHQ, an officer named Col Ian Dobson is on duty, pulling together some final briefing notes before ‘Morning Prayers’1 the daily situation report:
The night shift was coming to an end. Colonel Ian Dobson, the National Defence Operations Centre’s director, was at his desk earlier than usual, filling in the last sections of his report, which would form the basis for the daily ops briefing at 0730 hours. He expected the day’s “Morning Prayers,” as these sessions were known at NDHQ, to be routine: a few words from the intelligence staff, brief reports on the status of deployed units and ships, summaries of the last day’s activities from deployed units overseas, comments on major exercises, and the status of the one active search-and-rescue operation, SAR Harper, which was looking for a missing person presumed lost in Newfoundland’s wilderness.
I’d be a hypocrite if I criticized Bland for run-on sentences. What I will say is that it’s possible to do it wrong, and this ain’t right. What’s interesting here is that there is no mention of the CF’s current peacekeeping mission in Zimbabwe. You’d think an entire infantry Battle Group in harm’s way would rate at least a brief subheading at ‘Morning Prayers.’
Ten, twenty minutes tops, then off to the cottage to join the kids for one last precious week before they went back to school. Next year, Carolyn would be heading off to college and might not be around for the summer; Julie was going to junior high this year and was getting squirmy about family. They’re growing up so fast, he thought. The last thing he wanted was something surprising that would cut into this one last blissful family week.
Unlike previous characters, Col Dobson is presented more as an everyman rather than as a hero or heel. He’s worried about spending enough time with his family, about his daughters growing up and his having trouble relating to them. Fair enough. Not everyone in the army’s going to be a steely-eyed hero just waiting for that call to action. Some of them will be the kind of quiet professionals who do their job, worry about life, and hold the army together behind the scenes.
As a first reaction, I actually kind of like Dobson. These days, I’m a bit of a sucker for the ‘everyman’ type character, and personally I think showing the average man’s reaction to the uprising rather than a hero’s reaction could prove instructive.
The effect is spoiled shortly after when we overhear Dobson’s musings about the DCDS, the second in command of the Canadian Forces. Gen Gervais will be properly introduced in the next section, but he is clearly meant to be one of the weaklings in this equation, and Dobson’s quiet contempt for him shifts him out of the everyman category and over to righteous scold. Oh well, can’t have everything, I suppose.
The action here is pretty straightforward. Just hours before ‘Morning Prayers’ Dobson gets news about a Significant Incident Report (SIR) from Petawawa. The MPs have now noticed Cpl Newman is missing, and that there is no sign of her vehicle. Dobson and his staff respond with what seems like a normal, healthy level of professionalism, gathering information and contacting the Deputy Base Commander of Petawawa and the Provost Marshall (head of the MPs). The only thing that stands out is that no one has yet bothered to check the Menin Road Ammo Compound(!) to make sure it’s vast arsenal of weapons and ammunition are secure. Given that this was part of her assigned route, I would have assumed this would have been standard operating procedure, but okay I guess not.
This scene doesn’t actually add any new information or move the plot (in fact, Bland not only repeats information that the reader knows, but also that the characters know), but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Scenes like this are common for the ‘techno-thriller’ (as they were known back in the 1990s) and actually have a fairly vital role in the overall novel. Read almost any Tom Clancy novel (or at least, his early ones) and you’ll have some scene early on in the novel that doesn’t seem to make sense to the overall story. The omniscient eye of the narrator will zero in on some random person, seemingly unconnected to events only to have said character re-appear later in the story, once fate has conspire to place him or her directly in the path of world events.2
When I first read through Uprising, I assumed that Col Dobson was going to be one of the key go-between characters (or to use a Canadian reference, the ‘fifth business’) in the upcoming drama. Clearly his department would become a critical hub of activity as the action developed. Bad news will come through their offices, maybe there will be some desperate scramble to piece together key evidence and relay them to a brave but desperate soldier in the field (who, for dramatic emphasis will suddenly have comms problems at a key moment to build the tension).
But then we get this when Bland describes Dobson’s surroundings:
…The NDOC was a windowless, rather drab facility. Despite its unspectacular appearance, however, Ian knew how crucially important the centre was to Canada’s military operations: it was its nerve centre. And access to this secure facility was tightly guarded. Entrance into the NDOC, located on the twelfth floor of NDHQ, required passing through security checks at the main entrance, and futrher, increasingly stringent checks, which involved the supplying of highly secret codes, to get through the many doorways and elevators leading to the upper levels of the building. Ian, like everyone else in the room, wore a special security tag on a neck-chain, so that guards could easily identify individuals and their security clearances. On the twelfth floor, as on the upper level, high-security floors, guards randomly verified the identity of those walking the hallways and their purpose for being there. The inside joke, however, was that security was unintentionally assured by the confusion caused by the continual rebuilding and rearranging of officers, meeting rooms, and hallways that made the top floors into an impenetrable rabbit warren. If a bad guy were ever to get in here, Ian thought, he would never be able to find his target or his way out without a guide.
Still trying to be charitable, my first thought as a critical reader was be that this description is a hint that the layout of Dobson’s offices will become crucial in a later chapter of the story. The scene mirrors the opening scenes in the classic Cold War thriller ‘Fail Safe’ (where key characters just happen to be given a guided tour of the nuclear command centre just minutes before a malfunction will launch a squadron of bombers on an ill-fated run into Soviet airspace).
Perhaps at some point in Bland’s novel, NDHQ itself will be invaded by the NPA? All the talk about codes and check points and ID cards seems to be a set up, laying the ground work before a critical flaw is revealed. Perhaps there is a way to forge fake ID cards? Or maybe the security force itself has been compromised? The emphasis on the confusing floor layout seems like foreshadowing some future drama as well. Is it possible that the maze of offices will enable the everyman Dobson to escape his attackers, carrying vital information with him as he does? Or, if he’s meant to be a tragic figure, he could find himself cornered in this self-same maze, perhaps sparing a last longing glance at a family photo on his desk before being shot down in his own office, with the key piece of information lying unattended on the floor to slowly absorb his blood just as a certain boating magazine…
But no, we get the world’s most boring guided tour of a stifling bureaucracy (including never-before-seen details about ID cards!3) and none of it will be relevant in the future. The first problem here is that this layout doesn’t really matter for the story. The NDOC in NDHQ will be supplemented with nondescript offices in the Langevin Block (home of the Prime Minister’s Office or PMO), and later still with Canada Command HQ and another place called the ITAC (Integrated Threat Assessment Centre). None of these actual locations are relevant physically. Most of the action that will take place there will consist of briefings which could have just as easily taken place somewhere else, or else descriptions of powerful men (it’s almost always men) making grim pronouncements about the subjects of those briefings.
A competent editor would have took one look at this paragraph (and several others that I haven’t included) and told Bland to cut them out for the sake of brevity. As the author Kurt Vonnegut once said, every sentence must either advance the plot or develop the characters, and the two hundred words quoted above do neither of these things. What’s disturbing to me though, is the fact that Bland spends so much time describing essentially interchangeable offices, while spending almost no time on Canada itself or the people living in it.
As the story progresses, stand offs and shoot outs will be described second hand by characters who never witnessed them personally. Pages will be dedicated to specific offices, and the occasional building of import, but when the shooting finally happens on page, it will be hard to tell who is standing where, or what they may be seeing. Extras will be nameless, unless their actions or fate can serve as some kind of allegorical object lesson.4
What’s bothering me about all this is the fact that it seems to speak to a very narrow view of what’s important to Douglas Bland in this country I love. Bland seems to like high offices and important people. As a result these people get detailed descriptions and their offices are lovingly laid out on the page. Meanwhile the rest of us can pound salt somewhere on the outside of his plot line. It makes for a surprisingly boring novel, one full of missed opportunities and mind-numbing repetitiveness.
Now consider this: A lot of the action takes place at either NDHQ or the Langevin Block. These two buildings are located less than a kilometre apart (Google Maps says 700m) in down town Ottawa and it’s possible to walk from one to the other in less than fifteen minutes. To give you an idea of what kinds of settings Douglas Bland is passing up on, consider the locations that lie between these those buildings:
Exiting NDHQ by the north tower puts you on the MacKenzie-King bridge which passes between the ‘HQ and the Rideau Centre Shopping Mall. Walking barely fifty meters west gives you an excellent view of Confederation Park to the south, beyond which is Ottawa City Hall and Cartier Square Drill Hall. Continuing west, you pass the War Memorial, located at the intersection of Elgin, Wellington and Rideau Streets. Even in 2007-8 (when Bland presumably wrote Uprising), before the massive renovations, the location was still formidable to see. Standing at the Memorial’s foundation (where the newly added Tomb of the Unknown Soldier lies) you can see the National Arts Centre, the Chateau Laurier, and the East Block of Parliament Hill itself.
(The Chateau Laurier itself is noteworthy since, as the oldest Hotel in Ottawa, it has been the scene of many official events, including a home for Parliament after the Centre Block was gutted by fire in 1916.)
Further west, the Sparks Street pedestrian mall used to be a mecca of classy businesses and entertainment in Ottawa, but it’s become hit-or-miss in recent years, with several businesses in historic buildings now closed (although it’s still home to Ottawa’s studios for the CBC, one of Bland’s favourite bogey men). However, one of the thriving venues to remain is D’Arcy McGee’s pub, a bar at the corner of Sparks and Elgin, within sight of the War Memorial. It’s named after Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a father of Confederation who was murdered by an Irish nationalist named Patrick Whelan in the early years of Confederation.5
Walking north and hanging a quick left puts you in front of the Langevin Block, just across the street from Parliament Hill, the seat of Canada’s Federal Government.
A bare bones, 300-word description of the walk between two of our main locations, but already the possibilities abound. Imagine the chilling moment of introspection one of the military characters might feel, looking at the hunched over statues passing beneath the arch of the National War Memorial, and contemplating the lives that are about to be lost. One of the crucial themes of the memorial was that of resolve in the face of strife and exhaustion. What conclusions might a CF staff officer draw staring up at those bronze faces as the NPA crisis deepens and the scale of the costs become evident. Or from the grim fact that the Memorial was dedicated in 1939, just months before Canada would be plunged once again into global war.
Imagine Cartier Square Drill Hall as a kind of barometer of the increasing tension in the country; gradually filling with Reservists and sprouting an orbit of mod tents into Confederation Park as the Militia mobilizes in response to the crisis6.
Confederation Park is home to a number of memorials, including one to the Boer War and another (recently moved to the Drill Hall) commemorating the fallen at Cut Knife Hill, a battle of the North West Rebellion. That same park is home to the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument, commemorating the Indigenous peoples who served in the armed forces during all of Canada’s conflicts, and a Totem Pole marking the hundredth anniversary of British Columbia’s entrance into Confederation.
D’Arcy McGee’s pub is a popular venue that regularly hosts live musical performances, and in addition to this is also an occasional watering hole for the odd Member of Parliament. Imagine a clandestine meeting with a sympathetic MP, perhaps an older man, recovering alcoholic, who has fallen off the wagon as times grow desperate. Imagine meeting him in one of the cramped alcoves of D’Arcy McGee’s, as a crowd of young people cheer nervously and the cover band launches into a rendition of Great Big Sea’s ‘The Recruiting Sergeant.’
Then there’s the Langevin Block itself. Named after Sir Hector-Louis Langevin (19th Century Secretary of State for the Provinces) who is one of the key architects of the Residential School System that would devastate the First Nations culture.
This is the sort of thing that can happen when one looks out the office at the environment the office occupies. The possibilities that emerge when one starts thinking of people as individuals rather than the positions they hold? In the space between two of Bland’s preferred settings are locations where Canadian history merges directly with modern Canada itself. Any number of these locations capable of serving as a significance-ladened backdrop for a story laced with politics and history. I find it stunning that Bland, as a retired LtCol could have worked in this City (or any other City) without actually seeing what was around him. It’s almost as if he allowed himself to be driven from location to location without ever looking out the window of the car…
I’m not saying that I want Bland to write a better racist conspiracy novel about the destruction of Canada. What’s leaving me stunned is the fact that he’s seen as an expert when the sum total of his expertise seems to be contained within cubicles and displayed in power point.
What I’m saying is, if you’re going to blow up my country, at least show me that you know what you’re destroying.
***Photos by Author.***
1 ‘Prayers’ is a term for a regularly scheduled briefing and (at least in my experience) it’s still used fairly regularly. In the version I’m familiar with, ‘prayers’ is meant to be short & sweet so as not to take away from actual activity. All the key appointments gather together in the same room, and quickly run through the latest developments, what their current plan of action is, and whether they have any requests for information or support. The driving concept is to touch base quickly, then get back to work.
2 One point comes in with the character FBI agent Walter Hoskins in the Sum of All Fears, and the fact that his office window faces the stadium in Denver where the Superbowl is held. During a later scene, his shell-shocked description of this window being cracked will provide a vital clue for Jack Ryan and Co.
3 I wonder if Bland retired before retractable lanyards became commonplace?
4 Fred McTavish, we will remember you!
5 The assassination came in the midst of what would be known as the Fenian Crisis, when Irish nationalists in the United States (many of them Civil War veterans) began staging cross border raids and attacks as a way of carrying on the republican struggle against Great Britain in the new world. The worst of the raids saw the first official employment of the newly establish Canadian Militia.
6 Depending on how you wanted to play it, they could either spring into action with commendable swiftness or (more likely given Bland’s opinion of us ‘Toons) lurching their way forward with fatal hesitation until it was tragically too late.