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

Word on the street: What is your strategy for not spending too much on Christmas gifts this year?

The Observer asked: What is your strategy for not spending too much on Christmas gifts this year?

People who are homeless in Salmon Arm provide consultants with key information

Urban Matters consultants gather information from ‘experts’ as they work on housing strategy

Map points to mysterious ‘Waterdome’ in the middle of Salmon Arm Bay

City would like to have map marker removed, pilot recalls its significance

43-acre property donated in memory of Shuswap man

Land along Eagle River to be named Ken Ritchie Park

Ski with Santa fundraiser and beginner trail opening coming to Larch Hills

Tour of new trail to take place on Dec. 28, followed by annual Lantern Ski

VIDEO: Boys help rescue Cariboo bear cub

The cub, weighing just 24lbs, has been taken to wildlife sanctuary in Northwest B.C. for the winter

Campbell River mom’s iPhone containing priceless photos stolen from Victoria hospital parkade

The phone contained photos, heartbeat recordings of her late son

Miller nets winner as Canucks edge Sabres 6-5 in OT

Roussel, Leivo tally two apiece for Vancouver

‘Norovirus-like’ outbreak interrupts Bantam hockey showcase in Greater Victoria

Several athletes were sent home, quarantined on the ferry

$578: that’s how much your first distracted driving ticket will cost with recent premium hikes

Over 50 per cent of Canadians admitted to using phone while driving last year, according to study

Healing with honesty: Justice served 40 years later

Revelstoke senior gets house arrest for sexually assaulting stepdaughter

WorkSafe BC to investigate explosion at Princeton facility

Explosion at Envirogreen waste reclamation plant occurred Nov. 27

Doors open to Vernon’s first refill store

Vernon’s Refill Store may be answer to plastics problem

Okanagan RCMP not toying around when it comes to impaired drivers

Saturday, Dec. 7 is National Impaired Driving Enforcement Day

Most Read