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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

On the Lawn charity bowling tournament returns to Kelowna

40 teams are set to participate in tournament between July 23 and August 13

Proposed sentence for West Kelowna teacher who exploited student more fitting of manslaughter: Lawyer

The Crown is suggesting a sentence of 30 months for sexual exploitation, 71 months total

Person in wheelchair narrowly avoids collision with car in Kelowna

There were no injuries in the scary looking near-accident last week in Rutland

Kelowna RCMP completes internal review of sexual assault cases deemed ‘unfounded’

The results of the investigation are expected to be released in the next few weeks

Fifty-three new teachers hired at Central Okanagan school district over past two years

The hires will cost the district $5.3 million more annually

Kelowna panel discusses ways to improve support for sexual assualt survivors

The event was hosted by UBCO and Central Okanagan Elizabeth Fry

B.C. still struggling to control non-resident medical care fraud

Unpaid bills, out-of-province claimants a costly legacy of MSP

Father to B.C.’s first MLB hall-of-famer is one proud dad

Larry Walker Sr. talks baseball background and son’s base running gaffe

Shuswap mental health study: Grocery stores a destination for people in need of connection

Ongoing interviews provide useful insight to suicide prevention efforts

Vernon biathletes compete at Youth Olympic Games in Switzerland

Lucas Sadesky and Ethan Algra represented Vernon’s Sovereign Lake Nordic Club in Laussane

HAWTHORNE: Monitoring, the bathroom scale

Personal trainer Sean Hawthorne asks, if we know what to do, then why don’t we do it?

Councillor in Revelstoke withdraws proposed 67% pay hike amid backlash

There was significant backlash to the proposed $25,000 and $70,000 wages

Risk to Canadians of Chinese coronavirus low, health minister says

Five or six people are being monitored in Canada, including at least one in Vancouver

Uber, Lyft approved for ride-hailing in Lower Mainland

Kater Technologies Inc.’s application was rejected

Most Read