Defence Minister Sajjan launches panel to probe racism in the ranks

·4 min read

The Department of National Defence (DND) has launched a four-member advisory panel to investigate and report on incidents of hate and racism within the Canadian military, the defence minister tells CBC News.

The task of the panel, which has an open-ended mandate, is to take a deep look within the department to uncover "systemic discrimination, unconscious bias, [and] white supremacy," Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said today.

The creation of the panel is a direct response to a growing number of reports of extremism within the ranks. A CBC News investigation published recently reported that international allies had warned Canada about the far-right activities of a Canadian Ranger, but the army allowed him to continue to serve.

Whether the measures announced Thursday will satisfy human rights groups — which have been urging the Liberal government to crack down hard on hateful conduct and prejudice in the ranks — remains to be seen.

The department's new approach stands in contrast to the way DND handled another major social issue five years ago — the large number of sexual misconduct and sexual assault cases within the military.

Former supreme court justice Marie Deschamps conducted a high-profile investigation and issued a scathing report that condemned the "highly sexualized culture" and abuse within the ranks. That led to an equally high-profile campaign, known as Operation Honour, which created a set of expectations and a series of bad headlines as the effort to root out misconduct proved more difficult than expected.

'One is too many'

Sajjan said today the effort to stamp out racism and discrimination in the military will be pursued with the same degree of focus and energy applied to Operation Honour — but he did not commit to producing progress reports or to any specific legislative changes, saying he wants to give the panel room to do its job.

As problems are identified, they will be addressed, he said.

"The incidents we have seen inside the Canadian Armed Forces are disturbing," Sajjan added. "It's easy to say, to try to defend it, [that] it's a small percentage, point-something of a per cent.

"I always look at it as one is too many."

Each branch of the military has issued specific orders requiring members to report hateful conduct and discrimination when they see it — but some in the military's leadership have expressed a concern that they lack specific laws to deal with incidents expeditiously.

Sajjan pushed back on that suggestion, saying he'd like to see the tools already in place being used.

'Send a message'

Evan Balgord of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network said he sees the panel a step forward. He also said it needs to be followed up with concrete action against known extremists such as Boris Mihajlovic, the naval reservist whose removal was recently recommended by his chain of command.

"They need to kick out at least a single member of a hate group in a high-profile way to send a message," said Balgord. "Second, they need to bring in outside experts to create tool kits and training modules to help officers identify the telltale signs of hate ideologies.

"I'm sure the panel will have more recommendations, but they can start with those two basic steps."

Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, policy director at the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies, welcomed the initiative as an "important and commendable step forward in ensuring individuals who espouse racist or white supremacist ideologies are definitively rooted out of our armed forces."

The four panel members include: retired U.S. Marine Corps sergeant Derek Montour, a Mohawk who originally joined the Canadian military but left after the 1990 Oka Crisis in Quebec; retired major-general Ed Fitch, only the second Jewish member of the Canadian Armed Forces to attain the rank of major-general; retired major Sandra Perron — who, as one of Canada's first female infantry officers in the 1990s, was at the centre of a major case of abuse and discrimination; and retired captain D.L. "Door" Gibson, of Victoria, B.C.

They are free to speak with members of the military and investigate past incidents of abuse and hateful conduct, said Sajjan.

"One thing I want to do is send a very strong message to these people, who think they can put the Canadian Armed Forces uniform on and bring these types of viewpoints and think they can get away with it," he said.

"If there's legislative changes we need to make, we'll make them. And if anybody thinks they can hide, we will find you and we will get rid of you."