A Halifax-based media company best known for its portfolio of beloved television shows such as Teletubbies, Inspector Gadget and Bob the Builder is stepping out of its comfort zone by making animated training videos to help put an end to the use of child soldiers.

DHX Media was approached about a year and a half ago about whether its talents could help the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, an organization based out of Dalhousie University that works to prevent children from becoming child soldiers.

“At the time, I sort of thought it was a strange request. I didn’t really see how our animation studio, which is focused mainly on making kids shows, would be able to contribute to this initiative of theirs,” said Phillip Stamp, the vice-president of current operations for DHX Media.

The Dallaire initiative has programs in countries like Sierra Leone, Somalia and Rwanda. It works with peacekeepers, police, prison and military officials to train them “to prevent the recruitment and use of child soldiers in the field,” says its website.

The videos, which don’t feature audio of the peacekeepers interacting with the child soldiers, instead communicate a great deal of information through body language and the subtle details of what the parties do. (DHX Media)

The Dallaire initiative trains people on the 12 most common scenarios in which they would encounter child soldiers as an enemy force, such as in a battlefield scenario, as suicide bombers, children wanting to exchange sex for food and at military checkpoints.

What the videos show

DHX Media is working on animated training videos that focus on a pair of peacekeepers who are travelling in a convoy down a dusty road and pass by a young girl carrying a jerry can.

Once the peacekeepers are out of sight, she uses a cellphone to call some child soldiers down the road who are monitoring a checkpoint. Once the peacekeepers arrive there, they interact with the child soldiers and the videos show how the encounter can go smoothly or how it could go wrong.

Shelly Whitman, the executive director of the initiative, said without training, the adult is likely to overreact and escalate the conflict.

PAR2003061509476 child soldier

Thirteen-year-old Bah Bola, a member of a militia fighting for Liberian President Charles Taylor, readies to leave for the front line in Monrovia on June 15, 2003. (AFP/Getty Images)

“They may not understand all of the context as to why the children are there at the checkpoint and they may immediately assume that the children are there because of their own volition or own desire to be there,” she said.

In fact, the children may be there because they were recruited through force or intimidation of their families and communities.

Tips for de-escalating a conflict

To de-escalate the situation, Whitman said soldiers can get down on their knees to be at eye level with the child soldier, put their hand out as an offer to shake the child’s hand, offer them food or drink and show them respect.

“Salute them and give them the respect that they think they deserve being a soldier of that rank, even if they are only 13 years old,” she said.

The videos, which don’t feature audio of the peacekeepers interacting with the child soldiers, instead communicate a great deal of information through body language and the subtle details of what the parties do, such as how the peacekeepers hold their guns and whether they shut off their noisy, huge vehicles when they arrive at the checkpoint.

The videos are expected to be completed within the next few months and the hope is to do more after that.

Phillip Stamp

DHX Media’s Phillip Stamp says working on the animated training videos is a privilege. (Robert Short/CBC)

For DHX staffers, working on the videos makes for some interesting days. Stamp said employees could be working on an episode of Bob the Builder in the morning and thinking about whether it sends a message to preschoolers about the importance of teamwork.

In the afternoon, they could be looking at storyboards for a scenario where peacekeepers are encountering child soldiers armed with assault rifles at a checkpoint.

“The leap, both creatively and emotionally, was quite extreme,” said Stamp.

‘They don’t get to enjoy a childhood’

There’s a certain irony that a company with DHX’s focus on children’s programming is involved in this project.

“There was this acute awareness of all of these kids who not only don’t get to enjoy cartoons, they don’t get to enjoy a childhood. So being involved in it was and continues to be an incredible honour and in fact something that I kind of see as an obligation since we have the means to participate,” said Stamp.

Shelly Whitman, Roméo Dallaire

Shelly Whitman gives a presentation in South Sudan to a group of peacekeepers from Rwanda. Roméo Dallaire is seated on the far right in the front row. (Submitted by Josh Boyter)

For DHX, the work on this project falls under its corporate social responsibility program, but the company’s connection to Roméo Dallaire runs much deeper.

In 2007, the feature film Shake Hands with the Devil was released by The Halifax Film Company. The film looks at Dallaire’s work as a force commander in a United Nations mission to Rwanda in 1994 where an estimated 800,000 people were killed in the Rwandan genocide.

The company’s chairman, Michael Donovan, served as a producer on the film. The firm merged with Decode Entertainment in 2006 to become DHX Media, for which Donovan serves as chief executive today.

Donovan wasn’t available for an interview, but Stamp said Donovan’s friendship with Dallaire continues to this day.

Shake Hands with the Devil

Shake Hands with the Devil is a 2007 film about the UN mission to Rwanda led by Canadian Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire. (Chris Reardon/DHX Media)

Besides using the videos for training purposes, Whitman hopes to use them as an advocacy tool to help people understand more about child soldiers and the importance of the work the organization is doing.

She said the videos are a great example of the unusual partnerships that can exist between corporations and charities.

“It’s not always about the money corporations can donate or give to organizations like ours that are trying to do social good. It’s also about how can we take our talents collaboratively together to build some really innovative approaches to try to end some of these horrific contexts around the world,” said Whitman.