The alleged abuse of Canadian soldiers at the hands of their own military during training exercises was widespread during the '80s and '90s, according to former military members.

After a Go Public investigation into a 1984 training exercise at Canadian Forces Base Wainwright, which was described by some participants as "torture," we were contacted by about a dozen ex soldiers who had similar stories. They say the alleged abuses occurred not just in Wainwright, Alta., but across the country — from Gagetown, N.B., to Petawawa, Ont., to Chilliwack, B.C.

The training has been called an "embarrassment to Canadians," and has prompted calls for Canada's minister of national defence to apologize.

Former recruits say they suffered abusive treatment on "escape and evasion" courses, meant to teach soldiers how to avoid being captured by the enemy.

The courses were intended to simulate war, but the former military men allege the training crossed the line into abuse when instructors changed the program to "prisoners of war" scenarios. 

The exercises included:

  • Waterboarding, an interrogation method that simulates drowning.

  • Deprivation of sleep and food for multiple days.

  • Beatings.

  • Electrical shocks.

  • Forced to crouch, kneel or stand at attention overnight.

  • Left with broken fingers or other injuries.

Greg Alkerton, of Port Alberni, B.C., who was a soldier from 1985 to 1994, says he took part in two training exercises that included POW-type training that crossed into abuse.

Greg Alkerton

Greg Alkerton says he wants Canadians to know what he and others went through in the military during prisoner of war training. (Michael MacArthur/CBC)

The first was a basic infantry reconnaissance training course in 1987 at Canadian Forces Base Shilo, near Brandon, Man., and the second, was a sniper training course in 1990 at CFB Gagetown.

"On one hand, you really want this qualification so badly that you are willing to put yourself through anything for it, but on the same token, you're seeing your own leadership turn on you in a way that's damaging," he says.

Alkerton says the majority of the alleged abuse happened during his training at CFB Shilo in Manitoba where drains were taken off urinals, and recruits were forced to lie on the bathroom floor, face down, as the urine of their instructors was flushed on them.

"The floor is basically flooded with this stuff," he recalls.

Greg Alkerton

Greg Alkerton during a military training exercise. (Submitted by Greg Alkerton)

The soldiers also were forced to crawl through an open sewer, he says, left out in the rain naked, then brought into a tent where female military police officers would interrogate them, making derogatory remarks about their genitalia.

He says the abuse was less severe at CFB Gagetown, where he and other soldiers were bound and left outside in freezing temperatures for extended periods of time. 

"In retrospect, it did teach you to be a harder individual but … what they taught me to do is be a person with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]," Alkerton says.

"They taught me not to be able to relate to my family. They taught you to be hardened against all the things in life."

'Crammed into 2x2 boxes'

Another former soldier says after avoiding capture on one of the escape and evasion courses at CFB Wainwright in 1988, he witnessed what happened to fellow recruits who did not. The man asked CBC not use his name for fear of reprisals.

"It was –50 C with the windchill, there was no food, there was pails of water dumped on guys ... standing out there for hours," he says.

The next year, the man says he and others were tasked with building a prisoner of war training camp at CFB Wainwright and then witnessed what it was used for when new recruits were brought in.

"They actually dumped water on these guys crammed into two by two boxes with barbed wire. They poked at them with sticks, threw rocks at them, pails with muddy water dumped over them. They were left in there for hours," he says.

Greg Alkerton

Greg Alkerton says he still struggles to speak about what he experienced. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

Go Public put the former soldiers' latest stories of abuse to the military.

In an email, a spokesperson for the Department of National Defence/Canadian Armed Forces says, "while we understand that individuals might feel wronged by the training they received some 30 years ago, we hope they come forward and contact us so that we may look into this further."

Investigation under review

Alkerton says he regrets never filing a complaint with the military.

But, as CBC News reported, after years of therapy and a depression and a PTSD diagnosis, another former soldier, Jeffrey Beamish, did file a complaint two years ago.

Greg Alkerton photo

Greg Alkerton during a training mission in the 1980s. (Submitted by Greg Alkerton)

Military police investigated in 2015 and determined there wasn't enough evidence to lay charges.

That investigation is now under review to ensure it was "handled fairly and appropriately," according to a statement from a spokesperson for Canada's minister of defence.

National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan won't comment on the soldiers' experiences while that review is happening.

"We strongly encourage anyone who has an issue with an experience they had while in the Canadian Armed Forces to come forward ... to ensure they receive the support they need," Sajjan's spokesperson wrote in an email to Go Public.

'Tarnishing' Canada's image

The executive director of the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture, an organization that provides services to refugees who are victims of torture, calls what happened to the soldiers and the minister's failure to apologize for it "an embarrassment to Canadians."

"By allowing this issue to linger longer, they [the government] are tarnishing the image of Canada," Mulugeta Abai says.

He believes the training described by ex-soldiers was torture, which goes against Canada's 1949 commitment to the Geneva Convention.

Mulugeta Abai

Mulugeta Abai is the executive director of the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture. He says the exercises described by former soldiers amount to torture. (John Badcock/CBC)

"In one way, we are setting up organizations like the [UN] Committee Against Torture," Abai says.

"And the other, we are hearing about cruel and inhuman and degrading treatment to our people."

Trauma lasts decades

While the training continues to haunt some former soldiers, others have contacted Go Public to say they went through  similar courses and saw them as a normal part of military training. They also question why the injured soldiers are coming forward now, decades after the events.

Jennifer Primmer

Registered clinical counsellor Jennifer Primmer says people who experience trauma sometimes take years to speak about it. (Colin Hall/CBC)

Registered clinical counsellor Jennifer Primmer, from Calgary, who works with military veterans who have experienced traumatic events, says some people can "bottle up" traumatic experiences for decades, while others walk away unharmed.

In the early 2000s, the Canadian Forces put in new standards and a course curriculum to teach escape and evasion skills, and what to do if captured. The training includes continuous medical and psychological oversight, and instructors are filmed during the course.

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Clarifications

  • Greg Alkerton says while he suffered abuse at CFB Gagetown during training, the majority of the alleged abuse occurred during his course at CFB Shilo in Manitoba.
    Apr 25, 2017 1:01 PM ET