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Canadian military not doing enough to detect, prevent extremism in the ranks: report

The report is the result of a yearlong review by a panel of retired Canadian Armed Forces members following concerns about systemic racism in the military and links between some members and hate groups. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The number of Canadian military members belonging to extremist groups is growing and it's getting harder to detect them, says a new report looking at racism and discrimination in Canada's armed forces.

In its 121-page report, made public Monday, members of an advisory panel on systemic racism and discrimination found widespread problems in the military, including the presence of white supremacists and those inspired by ideologically motivated violent extremism (IMVE).

"Membership in extremist groups is growing, it is becoming increasingly covert, and technological advances such as Darknet and encryption methods pose significant challenges in detecting these members," the panel wrote.

"The Defence Team is not immune to infiltration by these extremist groups and some units and departments may even be more vulnerable given their isolation from large metropolitan areas."

The panel also found that DND hasn't been very effective in detecting extremists in its ranks.

WATCH: Panel delivers report on racism in the military

"Despite local, national and international exchanges of information about IMVE, the detection of extremist pockets or individuals is still very much siloed and inefficient," the panel wrote.

The report says some military leaders don't know who they should notify when they see signs of extremist behaviour and the military doesn't know how to recognize tattoos, patches and logos affiliated with extremist groups. The perceived need to keep investigations confidential also makes it harder for commanders to detect extremism in the ranks, the report said.

The report recommends, among other things, expanded cooperation between the military, police and intelligence organizations.

Panel calls for better 'tools'

"Tools for an increased detection of white supremacists must be honed, deployed and optimized for maximum efficiency," the panel wrote. "Data on the presence, movements and actions of extremists must be diligently collected and shared across key stakeholders in the Defence Team, but also with external partner organizations."

Speaking to reporters Monday, Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre said the presence of members of extremist groups in the military is disturbing.

"This is an issue in our society that worries me tremendously as we see the polarization of our society," he said. "And the question I have is, how do we keep that toxicity out of our ranks?"

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One way is to keep an eye on what members of the military are posting online, he said.

"Widespread monitoring of our members social media, there will be some privacy issues with that, but that being said, when we receive reports — from wherever it may come — we take action," said Eyre.

Eyre said the military is facing a constantly changing situation.

"The real challenge we face with many of these organizations is they tend to morph," he said. "Once they are illuminated, once the spotlight goes on them, they change their names, they change their symbols, symbology, so the challenge is staying abreast of these changes. As hate groups become mainstream in our society, we have to be very, very vigilant and continue to educate ourselves about what these signs and symbols are."

Retired major general Ed Fitch, a member of the advisory panel set up by former Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan in December 2020, said the panel concluded that the department was aware of the problem.

"Particular groups were known, were mentioned to us," he said.

"I think the panel's position is that the defence team, the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence, still don't know enough about these groups, who they are, where they are, how they are affecting recruiting, how they are affecting members of the armed forces and that it is increased effort, increased focus that is needed to completely clean out this nasty area."

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian PressAdrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Defence Minister Anita Anand said the presence of extremists in the ranks is among several problems the military has to tackle in addressing racism and discrimination within the armed forces.

"As minister of national defence and a racialized woman, I am strongly committed to building institutions where Canadians from all backgrounds are included, welcomed and empowered," she said.

Discrimination with deep roots

The advisory panel report paints a picture of widespread discrimination in the Canadian armed forces with roots dating back as far as colonization.

"Inequality in representation persists in every corner of the Defence Team: recruitment, retention and career progression are seriously hampered by systemic discrimination," the panel wrote. "The gap between Canada's diversity and the Defence Team's representation of this diversity seems to be growing so that any progress made to date for inclusion of women, Indigenous, Black, other racialized and ethnic communities, persons with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ2+ community risks reversal."

For example, the report found that Black members of the military were under-represented at the senior and mid-management level and many Black members have experienced "marginalization, microaggressions and overt racism on a regular basis."

While the military makes efforts to recruit Indigenous youth, its culture doesn't respect their unique perspectives or traditions, the panel said.

"The programs for Indigenous Peoples almost appear to be an effort to 'get them in the door' so that they can then be assimilated to the traditional military mould with no further regard for their cultural diversity," the panel wrote. "There is very little effort to promote access to traditional Indigenous medicines, or spiritual practices such as smudging ceremonies. There is no appreciation for their spoken languages and no accommodation for their lack of 'bilingualism' in the official languages."

The government has set up a working group to develop an action plan to address the problems identified by the advisory panel report.

Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, researches extremism in the Canadian military. She said the number of Canadians attracted to far-right extremism has been "growing across the board."

"Whether we're talking about geography, whether we're talking about demographics, I think that is one of the interesting things is that we've seen a real shift in the demographics associated with the movement," she said.

Scratching the surface

Once, said Perry, those gravitating toward extremism tended to be young disenfranchised males — but now extremist groups are drawing from all sectors of society.

Perry said the report only scratched the surface of the problem.

"It was a disappointing report. I think it was very superficial," she said. "While it talked about consultations, there wasn't much in there about the experiences of the people who have been the most affected by hateful conduct, by right-wing extremism, by racism, by various forms of discrimination."

Perry said the military should monitor the social media posts of its members and provide training to allow them to recognize when someone is trying to draw them into an extremist group.

'This is urgent now'

Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, described Monday's report as a preliminary step forward.

"We started seeing this back in 2018 where the military, after a lot of prodding from us, finally admitted in its own investigation that there might be 30 or more white supremacist ideologists in the Canadian military," said Farber.

"The problem is they had no means with which to deal with it. They didn't know how to spot them. They didn't know how to recognize them. They didn't know when others were being radicalized.

WATCH | Report says Canadian military struggling with racism in the ranks:

"This is urgent now. We have to make sure that our armed forces is sparkling clean when it comes to ensuring that extremism isn't part of it. If not, I really fear for what may happen next."

NDP MP Lindsay Mathyssen called on the government to address systemic racism and discrimination in the military.

"Both the Liberals and Conservatives have failed to make systemic changes as numerous stories of discrimination and rising extremism within the military have gone unchecked," Mathyssen said in a media statement.

Conservative MP James Bezan hadn't seen the report Monday afternoon but said discrimination shouldn't be allowed in the armed forces.

"Everybody that serves in uniform in this country should never be discriminated against based upon gender, based upon sexuality, based upon race, based upon ethnicity and religion," Bezan told reporters on his way into question period. "Everybody deserves to be treated equally and to be treated with respect."

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