Defence minister asks military watchdog to investigate racism in the ranks

OTTAWA — 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.

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The minister also denied 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."

The Defence Department could not immediately provide exact numbers Wednesday, but said at least two of the 30 members identified in the report have been released from the Forces.

While some members of the military have always associated with hate groups, David Hofmann, an expert on right-wing extremism at the University of New Brunswick said an outside review is in order to help understand the scope of the problem.

Sajjan's request is particularly timely, Hofmann said, given right-wing groups have started eyeing the military as a source of training and recruits at a time when nationalism, nativism and racism are more accepted in mainstream culture.

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