Military faces calls to train soldiers to identify neo-Nazis, hate-group members

OTTAWA — The Canadian Armed Forces is facing calls to drop what experts say is a reactive approach to racism and hate in the ranks, and instead launch a concentrated, proactive effort campaign to root out extremist beliefs and behaviours.

The demand, including more training to identify and weed out members of hate groups, follows an internal military report and several high-profile incidents linking some service personnel to right-wing extremists.

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The most recent case includes separate RCMP and military investigations this week into a reservist in Manitoba on suspicions of being a recruiter for a militant neo-Nazi group. The military has said it is investigating Master Cpl. Patrik Mathews, who joined the reserves in 2010 and is a combat engineer with 38 Canadian Brigade Group in Winnipeg

No arrests have been made or charges laid. Police would only say that they raided a house in Beausejour, Man., on Monday and seized a number of weapons.

The military already uses interviews and background checks to screen recruits for hateful beliefs and behaviour, defence officials say. New recruits must also sign an agreement stating they understand such behaviour is forbidden.

"Investigations or corrective measures are made on a case-by-case basis and initiated when there is reason to suspect inappropriate behaviour exists," said Defence Department spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande.

Experts, however, question the degree to which recruiters, commanding officers and other military personnel actually know what to look for, given what they say appears to be an absence of training and awareness on the subject.

"I don't know what kind of education has been given to commanding officers," said Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, who has been studying links between right-wing groups and the military.

"I don't know if a commanding officer can tell the difference in tattoos between a kolovrat and a sonnenrad" — circular symbols that reference different neo-Nazi groups — "and what they potentially mean."

The military implemented a training program to prevent harassment and racism in 1998 after the Somalia inquiry, which made several recommendations aimed at eliminating racism and discrimination in the Forces following the beating death of a Somali teenager at the hands of two members of the now-defunct Canadian Airborne Regiment.

Those recommendations included developing a list of banned extremist groups for service members, monitoring links between such groups and the Forces and having anti-racist groups help train commanders to identify racism and hate.

In 2015, however, former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps concluded the training program had "lost its lustre." Farber said the military's education and training on racism and hate pales in comparison to some police forces.

"If we're doing it with police, as we should be, why would we even hesitate to think about doing exactly the same thing with the Canadian military?"

The question is all the more timely given the Forces has been working overtime in recent years to attract new recruits to address a shortage of personnel, which included the need for thousands of new reservists.

The recruiting effort has included slashing red tape to get people through the door and into basic training faster — in some cases within two weeks, though officials insist they have not skimped on screening.

Even if the screening process is thorough, David Hofmann, an expert on right-wing extremism at the University of New Brunswick, said the best way to combat hate is to teach service members how to identify it.

"The only effective screening process, it has to be after they join," Hofmann said. "It's going to rely on uniformed members stepping forward and speaking up when they see something."

Retired colonel Michel Drapeau said the Forces' approach to racism appears to be one of "wait and see," with officials seemingly caught off guard whenever an incident pops up.

That speaks to a lack of awareness and seriousness toward the issue, Drapeau suggested, even as he contrasted the brass's response to reports of racism in the ranks to its high-profile effort to stamp out sexual misconduct.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan expressed confidence in military's ability to screen recruits and deal with cases as they arise, but acknowledged the need to ensure the Forces was doing everything possible to weed out racism and hate.

"This is why it was so important for me to have an independent look done through the ombudsman," Sajjan said in reference to his recent request for the military ombudsman to conduct a review on the issue.

"We feel that we do have a good, robust screening process. But having another look at it through an independent lens is a good thing as well."

—Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter

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