Those who serve our country should not face discrimination of any kind, the Ottawa Citizen
Almost every public institution in our country claims it wants to better reflect the populations it serves. The same is true of our military. Parliament’s defence committee has even begun a study to determine which groups need better representation.
As the nation marks Remembrance Day, it’s important to reflect not only on those who have sacrificed their lives and well-being serving our nation, but those who have had to face racism and harassment in doing so. If such barriers continue to exist, efforts to recruit people of colour and people of various faiths and backgrounds will ultimately fail.
One needs only look to the very top to understand the challenge at hand.
Canada’s defence minister, Harjit Sajjan, has acknowledged facing significant racism throughout his long career in the Canadian Armed Forces. This has been his reality since joining the Forces in 1989 and even more recently. The first Sikh-Canadian to command a Canadian Army regiment has faced racist and vulgar comments on his personal Facebook page, as well as on the Forces’ official page. “I still can’t take this guy seriously as head of the armed forces!” posted one person. “Man, it’s not us! Sikh?”
Consider the case of Bashir Abdi, a Canadian of Somali descent who served for 10 years in the Forces. In 2013, Abdi says he obtained permission to attend Eid celebrations for the day. Yet, when he returned, he was fined and eventually convicted at a military summary trial for being “Absent Without Leave.” He was fired from his post and took his case to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. “As Canadian society and workplaces continue to grow and diversify,” reads his GoFundMe page, “it is imperative that we bring more attention to the issue of fair religious accommodation so that no one else has to experience Bashir’s humiliation.”
Canada’s defence minister, Harjit Sajjan, has acknowledged facing significant racism throughout his long career in the Canadian Armed Forces.
Or take the disturbing episode this past spring, when a group of officer cadets were expelled from the Royal Military College in Saint-Jean, Que., after video emerged of them desecrating a Qur’an with bacon and semen during a cottage party.
The head of Canada’s military, Gen. Jonathan Vance, has admitted that the Forces are struggling to identify those within the ranks who not only hold racist views, but who are actively engaged in white supremacist and right-wing activities. “Clearly it’s in here,” Vance said earlier this fall in an interview.
None of this makes joining the military a particularly endearing proposition, nor will it help improve the numbers. As of 2018, 15.4 per cent of the military were female, 2.7 per cent were Indigenous, and 8.1 per cent were visible minorities. The Department of National Defence has said that by 2026, it wants the military to comprise 25 per cent women, 3.5 per cent Indigenous peoples, and 11.8 per cent visible minorities.
“I used to wonder how Indigenous soldiers who went to residential school felt about serving for a country whose government discriminated against their people,” wrote Indigenous journalist Wawmeesh Hamilton in a recent online post.
At the very least, their contributions must be acknowledged, and existing challenges addressed. That begins with education as well as clear consequences for racist and anti-immigrant behaviours and attitudes.
Success looks like Capt. Barbara Helms, who joined the Forces as its first Muslim female chaplain this past April. And we can look as far back as 1996, when the late Wafa Dabbagh became the first Canadian Muslim woman to wear the headscarf in the Forces. In a 2008 media interview, Lt.-Commander Dabbagh described her experience as“95-per-cent positive.”
As defence committee chair Stephen Fuhr put it recently, “having a diverse, healthy, happy military personnel will have a direct impact on combat effectiveness. So we need to determine that we’re moving in the right direction.”
Among those we memorialize are those who defeated the very worst fascist and white supremacist forces of our time. Lest we forget.