Canadian military says new hateful conduct policy will help weed out extremists in the ranks

The Canadian military has created a new policy on hateful conduct to help identify and weed out members with links to white supremacist organizations or other hate groups. For the first time, the Canadian Armed Forces also has a formal definition for hateful conduct.

Military law expert says policy 'misses the mark,' seems to minimize seriousness of hateful conduct

Patrik Mathews, seen in this 2015 photo, is a former combat engineer with the 38 Canadian Brigade Group in Winnipeg with training in explosives. His high-profile January arrest in the U.S. expedited the Canadian military's creation of a policy to cover hateful conduct. (Courtney Rutherford/CBC)

The Canadian military has created a new policy on hateful conduct to help identify and weed out members with links to white supremacist or other hate groups.

"This is a foundational conduct specific DAOD (Defence Administrative Order and Directive) that will enable future action to address the systemic racism and discrimination that have permeated our ranks," Gen. Jonathan Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff, wrote in an administrative order sent to all staff on July 10.

"There is no place in the CAF for discrimination, racism or hateful conduct."

The policy changes, which come as the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) grapples with a recent, high-profile example of extremism in its ranks, have been acknowledged by some as a good first step, but questions remain about screening processes and enforcement, and at least one military law expert says the policy misses the mark because it seems to minimize the seriousness of hateful conduct.

As part of the policy, for the first time, the CAF has a formal definition for hateful conduct: "an act or conduct, including the display or communication of words, symbols or images, by a CAF member, that they knew or ought reasonably to have known would constitute, encourage, justify or promote violence or hatred against a person or persons of an identifiable group, based on their national or ethnic origin, race, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, family status, genetic characteristics or disability."

The CAF is implementing a new system to help monitor and track any suspected incidents of hateful conduct within its ranks, calling on a network of researchers to help military investigators. There will be an emphasis on education and training.

Any members found to have violated the hateful conduct policy could face disciplinary action that ranges from additional training courses to having their cases investigated by military police. 

"It is unacceptable for a Canadian Armed Forces member to participate in an activity or have membership in a group or organization that is connected with hate related criminal activities, and/or promotes hatred, violence, discrimination," Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson, Commander Military Personnel said in a statement Thursday.

'Important first step'

Tony McAleer, a former skinhead and organizer for the White Aryan Resistance, said the new policy is a good start, but he is disappointed it doesn't include more stringent screening processes for recruits and reservists. 

Tony McAleer, a former skinhead and white supremacist, said the new policy is a good first step, but he's disappointed it doesn't include more stringent screening processes for recruits and reservists. (Submitted by Tony McAleer)

McAleer knows what he's talking about. In the 1990s, he joined an airborne infantry reserve unit to obtain weapons training and encouraged other white supremacists to do the same.

"I think the important first step is acknowledging and owning the problem, but is only a first step," said McAleer, now a B.C.-based author and co-founder of a nonprofit organization called Life After Hate that helps people leave hate groups and white supremacy organizations.

"How this will be implemented is key going forward. The intention is good but do they have the will to follow through? The fact that leadership is now accountable for clearly defined activity is good."

High-profile example of extremism

The CAF has been grappling with a recent, high-profile example of extremism in its ranks, after the January arrest in the United States of Patrik Mathews, a former Manitoba-based reservist, as part of an FBI undercover operation.

Mathews disappeared from Beausejour, Man., last summer following media reports alleging he was a recruiter for The Base, a white-supremacist group with growing notoriety in the U.S. and around the world.

During a search of the apartment Patrik Mathews shared with one of the co-accused, law enforcement agents found videos of Mathews making violent, anti-Semitic and racist statements, including one where he's wearing a gas mask. (U.S. Attorney detention memo)

In January, a federal grand jury in Maryland indicted Mathews, 27, and two U.S. men on firearms- and alien-related charges.

Mathews is also facing additional counts in Delaware. If convicted, he could face up to a maximum of 90 years in U.S. prison.

In court documents, prosecutors say Mathews videotaped himself advocating killing people, poisoning water supplies and derailing trains. They also allege that Mathews and two other co-accused had been planning to violently disrupt a gun-rights rally in Richmond, Va., in hopes of inciting a civil war.

Lawyers for all three men have asked for more time to complete their pretrial work, which they say has been slowed by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Military was already investigating Mathews

The Canadian military had begun investigating Mathews in the spring of 2019, after someone reported comments "incompatible with the Canadian Forces." At the time, he was a former combat engineer with the 38 Canadian Brigade Group in Winnipeg, with training in explosives.

Mathews had asked to be released from the reserves in April 2019 and the military fast-tracked that request with the release becoming official on Aug. 30, 2019. 

After Mathews' arrest, Brig.-Gen. Sylvain Menard, the chief of staff operations for Canadian military personnel, said the defence department was still defining and codifying the term "hateful conduct," something that had to be done in conjunction with the military justice system.

Brigadier General Sylvain Menard, left, the chief of staff operations for military personnel, says he's trying to 'demystify' the process of identifying and disciplining CAF members involved in hateful conduct. (Pierre-Paul Couture/CBC)

At the time, hateful conduct was considered a behaviour that doesn't measure up to military standards and expectations as outlined in the Code of Service Discipline.

Every year, Menard said the military reviews about 200 cases of behaviour that don't meet their standards. Of those, he said approximately half result in military personnel being released from duty. 

New policy 'misses the mark'

Retired colonel Michel Drapeau, an author and lawyer specializing in military law, has been waiting to examine the new policy. 

Although the actual document is only available internally, Drapeau said what he's seen "misses the mark." 

A man with thinning white hair and glasses stares at the camera. He's wearing a suit, a yellow tie and there's a Canada flag behind him.
Retired Col. Michel Drapeau is disappointed with the new policy, saying it 'misses the mark.' (Pierre-Paul Couture/CBC)

"Under the new policy, the CAF has distanced itself from the Criminal Code, inviting commanding officers and members of the chain of command to treat any such wilful hateful conduct as an administrative, disciplinary matter," he said.

The Criminal Code of Canada identifies two offences related to hate crimes:

  • Statements made in a public place that incite hatred for an identifiable group and are likely to breach the peace
  • Statements that wilfully promote hate of an identifiable group

"What is required is a clear statement that any incident of hateful nature needs to be reported to and investigated by the Military Police, NOT, repeat NOT, the chains of command, which are currently charged under this new policy to 'address hateful conduct,' " Drapeau said.

"As written, the policy provides the military chain of command the ability to shield offenders from criminal liability. CAF members proffering hateful comments should not escape from criminal accountability."

Drapeau pointed to reports that the military is dealing with most cases of Canadian Forces members accused of extremism and hateful conduct behind closed doors, without any disciplinary action; and that more than a dozen members linked to hateful actions or groups have been warned, disciplined or ordered to take counselling, but allowed to remain in uniform.

However, military leaders said the CAF deliberately included racism and discrimination in this policy to address any behavioural problems early, before they escalate to hateful conduct considered an offence under the Criminal Code.

A broad definition allows the CAF to take both administrative and disciplinary action against anyone violating the policy. Anyone committing a Criminal Code offence could be charged under the National Defence Act, or it could be referred to the civilian criminal justice system.

The military said it is also committed to increasing the representation of visible minorities, Indigenous peoples, women, and people with disabilities — both in numbers and in senior leadership roles — as a way of combating systemic racism and discrimination in the forces.

WATCH | The fight to keep extremists out of the Canada's military reserves:

Trying to keep extremists out of Canada’s military reserves

4 years ago
Duration 2:50
Canada’s military says it is working to prevent extremists from joining the reserves following the high-profile arrest of a former reservist with alleged ties to a U.S. white supremacy group.