Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan gave the keynote address at the Aerospace, Defence & Security Expo at Tradex in Abbotsford in 2017. (File)

Defence minister asks watchdog to investigate racism in the military

Concerns have increased in the wake of reports about right-wing groups recruiting service members

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has asked Canada’s military ombudsman to investigate racism in the Canadian Forces following several high-profile incidents and a report linking service members to right-wing extremist and hate groups.

The unprecedented request also comes on the eve of a fall federal election in which racism and identity politics are expected to figure prominently, though Sajjan says his request is “absolutely not” motivated by politics.

The minister also denied that his request to ombudsman Gregory Lick reflected a lack of confidence in the military’s leadership, saying commanders have done a good job responding to individual incidents of racism in the ranks.

“What this allows us to do is to have a much more thorough understanding: are there things we can do to make sure we can prevent it in the first place?” Sajjan said in an interview Wednesday with The Canadian Press.

“One incident is too many and we have to make sure we do right by all our members.”

The ombudsman’s office confirmed receiving Sajjan’s request in a letter to Lick dated July 29, with spokesman Andrew Bernardo saying the watchdog’s office has starting to look at how to conduct such an investigation.

While the minister is allowed to ask the ombudsman to launch an investigation, Bernardo said such requests are extremely rare.

There have been mounting concerns about racism in the Forces and links between some military personnel and hate groups following a spate of incidents, including reports that some right-wing groups are actively recruiting service members.

Those include a group of sailors associated with the Proud Boys who disrupted a Mi’kmaq ceremony in Halifax in 2017 and media reports of other members associating with Neo-Nazi groups such as the Atomwaffen Division.

A military-intelligence report last year, which Sajjan referenced in his letter to Lick, said officials were aware of 30 active service members who were part of a hate group or had made statements that were discriminatory or racist.

The report, obtained through the Access to Information Act, also said current and former military members “find that their skills are valued, giving structure to these groups and allowing them to gain positions of leadership.”

And while officials asserted in the report that “hate groups do not pose a significant threat” to the military, given their small numbers, they also acknowledged that many members involved in such groups are likely hiding their affiliations.

Sajjan, who has previously said he personally experienced racism while serving in the military, said there was no single incident or report that prompted him to ask for the review, which almost certainly won’t be finished before the election.

“We have had incidents that have popped up,” he said. “We need to get a thorough look at what is happening and this is what it’s about. It’s about preventing these situations from happening in the first place.”

As for the timing, Sajjan said he was waiting for the appointment of a permanent ombudsman; Lick had been acting ombudsman since November 2018 before being formally appointed to the position in June.

Yet even as he welcomed an independent review to get a handle on racism in the ranks, Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, accused Sajjan and the military of failing to hold members to account for associating with hate groups.

“We know there are members of hate groups in the Canadian military, but not one of us knows what action has been taken,” Farber said in reference to the military-intelligence report. “That puts us in a very, very dangerous situation here in Canada.”

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

Just Posted

Blackfalds RCMP officer’s firearm discharged in struggle

Red Deer and Sylvan Lake RCMP assist after police vehicle stolen

Sylvan Lake RCMP assist Red Deer, Blackfalds in major drug bust

RCMP arrest six and seize drugs, cash, firearms and vehicles in drug trafficking investigation

Red Deer-Lacombe MP, other Conservative MPs meet with AB justice minister

Calkins said the justice system is a revolving door for criminals targeting rural areas

Eckville Town Council approves 2020 budget

Council voted to approve the 2020 Operating and Capital Budget as presented on Dec. 9

VIDEO: Feds give update on flying clearance for Santa’s sled

Transport Minister Marc Garneau has this message for the country’s children

Canada’s Attorney General looking to larger reforms on doctor-assisted death

The Quebec Superior Court gave Ottawa just six months — until March 2020 — to amend the law

Two adults, two youths from Maskwacis charged in ATV, gun theft

Wetaskiwin RCMP Investigate Break, Enter & Theft and Weapons Offences - Arrests

Indigenous mother wins $20,000 racial discrimination case against Vancouver police

Vancouver Police Board ordered to pay $20,000 and create Indigenous-sensitivity training

‘He was good for the West:’ Sadness, surprise in Saskatchewan over Scheer

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and his predecessor, Brad Wall, both thanked Andrew Scheer

Travellers know little about air-passenger rights, Canadian poll suggests

The first set of passenger-rights rules landed in mid-July and the rest this weekend

Johnson claims Brexit mandate with new conservative majority

Conservative Party wins 365 seats in the House of Commons

Couple who bought $120k banana duct-taped to wall say artwork will be ‘iconic’

Pair compared it to Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans,’ which was initially ‘met with mockery’

Alberta to change drug coverage for 26,000 patients, expects to save up to $380M

Patients being treated with biologics on government-sponsored drug plans must switch to biosimilars

Most Read