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

Forest fire 1.5 km from Sara Lake listed as out of control

While the fire is classified as out of control, they expect it to be under control imminently.

20th annual OrcaFest takes over Port McNeill

Check out the North Island Gazette’s OrcaFest photo gallery!

Oh Yeah takes a bite out of Woodchuckers at OrcaFest slo-pitch tournament in Port McNeill

Oh Yeah defeated the Woodchuckers 21-10 after seven innings.

Gate House Theatre reopens, kicks off OrcaFest in style

It was an evening of laughter and good times and the perfect launch to the festival weekend.

Port Hardy council creates subscription-based portal for agendas and minutes

It was a “council decision based on presentation by staff during financial planning budget meetings.”

Clean the house, prep for your next trip: Tips to nix the post-vacation blues

48 per cent of travellers are already stressed about ‘normal life’ while still on their trip

Vancouver Island senior found safe with help from six search and rescue teams

Wayne Strilesky found safe in thick brush in north Nanaimo

More women may need breast cancer gene test, U.S. guidelines say

Recommendations aimed at women who’ve been treated for BRCA-related cancers and are now cancer-free

Couple could go to jail for taking 88 lbs. of Italian sand

Pair said they didn’t know it was illegal to take the sand, which is protected as a public good

Bodies of two missing Surrey men found near Ashcroft: RCMP

Ryan Provencher and Richard Scurr have been missing since July 17

B.C. manhunt suspects left cellphone video before they died: family

Family member says Kam McLeod, Bryer Schmegelsky recorded final wishes

VIDEO: RCMP unveil new, state-of-the-art forensics lab

The laboratory is expected to handle thousands of forensic services from across Canada annually

Scheer promises EI tax credit for new parents if Conservatives form government

The government currently taxes employment insurance benefits for new parents

Most Read