Nova Scotia

2 former Forces members say racism forced them out of the military

Wallace Fowler never saw active combat in the Canadian Forces, but he was discharged in 2004 after three years of service because of post-traumatic stress disorder. He says his diagnosis came after suffering through racism at the hands of fellow servicemen and women.

Wallace Fowler and Rubin Coward say they encountered racism at bases throughout Canada

Ruban (Rocky) Coward (left) and Wallace Fowler say they experienced racial discrimination when they served in the Canadian Forces. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Wallace Fowler never saw active combat in the Canadian Forces, but he was discharged in 2004 after three years of service because of post-traumatic stress disorder. He says his diagnosis came after suffering through racism at the hands of fellow servicemen and women.

This alleged racism serves as the grounds for a class action lawsuit that was launched by Fowler, fellow black Nova Scotian Rubin Coward and two other Forces members against the Canadian Forces in December 2016.

A hearing to certify that class action was scheduled to be heard on April 11 of this year. However, lawyers for the Canadian Forces offered in February to settle out of court, though no final deal had been reached as of Tuesday.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced in February the government would try to reach out-of-court settlements in several class action lawsuits relating to sexual assault, racism, harassment and discrimination.

"We look forward to commencing these discussions to bring closure, healing, and acknowledgement to the victims and survivors of sexual assault, racism, harassment and discrimination," Sajjan said in a Feb. 23 statement.

Wallace Fowler says nothing was ever done about his racial discrimination complaints. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

The minister added that the Forces "take seriously our obligation to ensure a safe work environment," adding that military leaders have "taken concrete action" to eliminate racism and discrimination from the workplace.

Fowler said he encountered racism soon after his first posting in Esquimalt, B.C., in 2001. He said he was subjected to racist jokes and nicknames like "Sunshine" and "Boy" by his superiors. Fowler said he was denied warm clothing, food and sleep during exercises because of his race.

He lived on CFB Esquimalt with his spouse and children. He said his sons were taunted on the school bus, got into fights and were spat on and subjected to drive-by verbal assaults.

Fowler said his spouse had bananas thrown at her while walking home on the base.

Complaints went nowhere, says Fowler

"It hurts when they're taking shots at your family," said Fowler. "Not only were they doing things to me at work, I would come home and I would hear stories of what was happening to my kids and my spouse."

Fowler, who never made it past the rank of private, said he reported his complaints up the chain of command, but that nothing was ever done.

Fowler was transferred to CFB Trenton in Ontario where he said the discrimination continued.

'Serious health issues' persist

A statement of claim filed for the proposed class-action lawsuit reads, in part, that "after months of ridicule and isolation, Mr. Fowler was diagnosed with serious and deteriorating psychological illness" and "continues to suffer from these serious health issues today, none of which were present at the time he enrolled in the Canadian Armed Forces." 

None of the allegations has been proven in court.

When Fowler was discharged in 2004 his superiors said he was "not advantageously employable."

Ruban (Rocky) Coward says he routinely overheard superiors refer to him using racial slurs. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Fowler met Rubin (Rocky) Coward in May 2011. Coward had joined the Armed Forces in 1981.

Coward said his first run-in with racial discrimination started as soon he began basic training at CFB Cornwallis in Deep Brook, N.S., which has since closed. Eventually, he said, the racism he encountered made him angry.

"I said to my wife, I was the angriest black man in Canada," said Coward.

He recalls walking into a mess hall with two white women in Borden, Ont., when a man yelled to the women, "What are you doing here with a n----r?" said Coward. He then got into a fight with the man.

In February, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the Canadian Forces has taken steps to eliminate racism and discrimination from the workplace. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

By the early 1990s, Coward was a sergeant at CFB Greenwood where he said he routinely overheard superiors refer to him using racial slurs. He said he reported the abuse to a superior officer, but was told to either put up with it or leave the Forces.

Coward left the Forces in 1995. He'd served in Israel, Syria and Germany, but said it was racism in the Forces that brought on his post-traumatic stress disorder.

The February 2018 suspension of litigation means an out-of-court dialogue between Fowler, Coward and the Forces is underway, with an aim to agree on a settlement and discuss ways to move forward.

For Fowler, it's a relief to have litigation end and conversations begin.

'It'll give me some closure'

"When it's all said and done, it'll give me some closure, but I'll never get my time back," he said. 

Coward said he's elated about the conversations taking place.

"It's always arduous when you have to pull the toboggan up the hill, but it's always fun when you can sit on the toboggan and go back down," he said.

If the settlement negotiations fail, Fowler and Coward's lawyers will be back in court next February to restart the class action lawsuit.

About the Author

Preston Mulligan has been a reporter in the Maritimes for more than 20 years. Along with his reporting gig, he also hosts CBC Radio's Sunday phone-in show, Maritime Connection.