Two Nova Scotia veterans are calling for an inquiry into what the first ombudsman for the Canadian Forces once called a "systemic" problem of racism in the military.
Rubin Coward, a Royal Canadian Air Force veteran, and Wally Fowler, a Canadian Forces veteran, are calling for a public inquiry into a problem they say the government has known about for years. Both men, who are black, say they faced racism while serving.
"I cannot, of good conscience — good and clear conscience — encourage any minorities to join the Canadian Armed Forces," Coward told reporters at a news conference in Halifax on Thursday.
Coward said he developed post-traumatic stress disorder and had to leave the military in 1995 due to "constant" racial taunts and discrimination.
"He was just really angry all the time. He suffered from a lot of flashbacks and sleep disorders," said Deborah Coward, Rubin's wife.
Fowler said eight years later, the same thing happened to him, his wife and children.
"I had base members driving by, giving my little girl the finger, destroying their property — it was just one thing after another," said Fowler.
Coward and Fowler are calling for a public inquiry into what they claim is widespread racism in the military. They said the federal government had known about the issue since 2005 or earlier.
'Systemic' problems in military
The veterans used the Access to Information Act to obtain a letter sent in June 2005 by André Marin, the first ombudsman of the Canadian Forces, to Defence Minister Bill Graham about Fowler's case.
"We have identified two systemic issues that could be pursued further, the first being: what is the CF's role and responsibility with respect to assisting with the integration of members and their dependants, specifically those that are visible minorities, into the community," said the letter.
"The second issue concerns CF's policy with respect to independent or higher level review of harassment complaints and more specifically of racism, with the aim of identifying systemic racism or discrimination.
"At present, the existing policies are either silent or lacking."
Dennis Manuge, who won his own disability pension fight against the federal government in 2012, has thrown his support behind the veterans' cause. He said a public inquiry would be better but doesn't rule out a possible legal challenge.
"It is difficult to get legal representation when you're the little man or the little woman," he said.
Coward said now is the time for past and present members to speak out.
"We've been fortunate enough to garner Dennis's support and show a collective effort here that we're no longer complaining by virtue that we're simply minorities," he said.
"We're complaining because we're Canadians, human beings."
Maureen Lamothe, a spokeswoman for the Department of National Defence, said the Canadian military treats discrimination complaints seriously, and has a zero-tolerance policy on discrimination for all members.
She said between 2001 and 2012, there were 290 cases of racism complaints within the Canadian Forces and 129 of those cases were won by the complainants. The information for 2013 is not yet available, Lamothe said.