Mi’kmaq professor says racism won’t leave military until it’s recognized at the highest ranks

An Ontario university professor says persistent racism continues to be a problem within Canada’s military because it is tolerated within the senior ranks.

“You have to think about who is in control of the military,” says Pam Palmater, chair in Indigenous governance at Toronto Metropolitan University.

“What is the power structure? Who is actually sitting in the hierarchy? And if those who are in management – upper management and senior management – hold those same views, they’re not going to be interested to tell the guys beneath them not to do that,” she says.

Palmater, who studies intolerance and discrimination within the military and RCMP, was reacting to a Department of National Defence report issued on Monday that finds systemic racism is alive and well in Canada’s forces and the proliferation of white supremacist groups in the ranks is on the rise.

According to the report, the Canadian military’s links to neo-Nazism, white supremacy and right-wing extremism have plunged it into scandal after scandal over the past three decades and is getting worse.

The military’s advisory panel on systemic racism and discrimination, which then-Defence minister Harjit Sajjan established in December 2020, delivered a scathing final report Monday at a press conference in Ottawa.

It says a toxic, corrosive environment marked by rampant abuse of power is “repulsing” potential new recruits and will continue to harm the defence establishment’s reputation unless it’s rapidly reined in.

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Nunavut NDP MP Lori Idlout says the ongoing racism in the military is all the more hurtful to Indigenous people because they have a long history of serving their country in the forces.

“For these kinds of extremist people to be allowed to continue to keep their infiltration within these systems is so painful to continue to watch,” she says. “And for us to have to continue to try to compel government action is disheartening.”

Idlout says the military needs to do a better job of bringing Indigenous people into its decision-making process if it truly wants to combat racism.

Alex Maurice, president of Saskatchewan Métis Veterans and who served eight years in the military from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, says ongoing racism in the forces is having a negative impact on Indigenous recruitment summer training programs such as Bold Eagle and Black Bear.

“The young people aren’t dumb,” Maurice says. “They know what is subtle and what is not subtle. Some of them do their training, some of the challenge it (racism) after but most of them don’t even last a year or two and then they quit. If they even join.”

Both Palmater and Maurice say the government doesn’t have the stomach to seriously challenge racism within the military ranks.

They say change will only come through keeping the issue in the public eye.

“Their (government’s) hand can be forced through litigation,” Palmater says. “Through complaints to international bodies and political embarrassment. But most importantly, they can be pushed to act by both the media and Canadians themselves not stopping attention on this.”

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