Ex-military members claim systemic racism in lawsuit

Three former members of the Canadian Forces have filed a proposed class action lawsuit claiming "systemic racial discrimination and harassment" during their service.

Called 'porch monkey,' wife pelted with bananas, threatened to be burned, ex-members say

Three former members of the Canadian Forces have filed a proposed class action lawsuit claiming "systemic racial discrimination and harassment" during their service, detailing how derogatory slurs and threats of violence against them were either ignored or tolerated by their superiors.

Marc Frenette, a 38-year-old Indigenous man from Ontario, Wallace Fowler, a 43-year-old black man from Nova Scotia, and Jean-Pierre Robillard, a black man of Haitian descent raised in New Brunswick, made the accusations against the Canadian Forces in a statement of claim filed Dec. 14 in Halifax. Fowler has previously called for an inquiry into racism in the military.

"Rather than properly punishing the wrongdoers and deterring insidious behaviour, victims of racism within the Canadian Forces are forced into isolation, subjected to further trauma and, in many cases, catapulted toward early release from their careers," according to the claim.

The statement of claim says people enroll in the Canadian Forces "to protect and advance the ideals that Canada purports to uphold" — including equality and the right to live and work in a tolerant environment that "fosters human dignity."

"But unfortunately, the Canadian Forces has failed to look after its own with respect to these most basic human rights," the claim goes on to say. "From top to bottom, the Canadian Forces has failed to protect racial minorities and Aboriginal peoples from racism within the ranks."

The allegations have not been proven in court.

Told to 'laugh it off'

Frenette, who maintained the iconic Royal Canadian Air Force Snowbirds in Moose Jaw, Sask., didn't have any issues in the military until other members found out he was Indigenous in his fifth year of service, according to the statement of claim. He was then treated differently, including being denied requests for leave and additional training that were granted to other members.
Marc Frenette says he was subjected to years of racist abuse while serving as a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

When he transferred to a helicopter squadron at Garrison Petawawa in 2013, he was called "lazy" and told he "abused the system" because that's "what all Aboriginal people do;" he was asked if his wife got drunk before sex because "a drunken Indian is a better lay;" and other members would "pat their hands against their mouths and state, 'oh, oh, oh,'" when he passed, among other taunts, according to the statement of claim.

When he reported the abuse to superiors, he was told to "laugh it off," according to the claim. The abuse continued, including a threat by another member in February 2015, who held a lighter between Frenette's leg's and told other members, "time to burn this Indian before he burns any more wagons," the claim details. That same month he requested a transfer, detailing in a memorandum the harassment he had endured at the base in Petawawa.

An investigation was launched, during which Frenette was isolated from other members, and in April 2015 the commanding officer of his squadron found there was a "breakdown in leadership," the claim said.

The commanding officer wrote in a memorandum: "I am appalled at the lack of immediate and swift action" in response to the "ethnic discrimination," the claim detailed.

Frenette was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and extreme stress disorder as a result of the discrimination and harassment in the military, the claim detailed. He was released from the military in February 2016.

Wife pelted with bananas

​Racial harassment against Fowler began in 2000 when he was posted to CFB Borden to train as a vehicle technician — including racist nicknames and jokes, being denied administrative time that was allowed for other members, and being denied food, shelter and proper clothing in severe weather, according to the statement of claim.
Canadian Forces veteran Wallace Fowler alleges base members harassed him and his family. (CBC)

After he filed a complaint, he was "inappropriately coerced by his superiors into dropping the complaint," the claim detailed. 

Harassment continued against Fowler and his family when he was posted to CFB Esquimalt in B.C., in August 2001.

"His stepchildren were spat on, subjected to drive-by verbal assaults, put off the school bus and denied lunch in the cafeteria. His spouse had bananas thrown at her while walking home on the base, and members often refused to be served by her at the shop where she worked," the claim detailed.

Despite fears for the safety of his family, his concerns were "cast aside as falling beyond the responsibility of the Canadian Forces," the claim said.

The claim detailed that a social work officer found that since none of the discrimination happened "in direct relation to his duty or in his workplace," it could be argued the military cannot be held "directly responsible" for it. Still, the worker recommended Fowler be posted to a unit near Halifax, close to his extended family.

"With the help of a supportive extended family and community, the Fowlers could learn to better tolerate racial discrimination they might encounter at another posting," the worker said, according to the claim. Instead, Fowler was relocated to CFB Trenton, where harassment and discrimination continued, the claim detailed.

As "ridicule and isolation" continued for months, he was referred to a psychologist and diagnosed with major depressive disorder and racial abuse, the claim detailed. He was released early from the Canadian Forces as being "not advantageously employable," which limited his future job options, the claim detailed.

No formal investigation was conducted.

Called a 'porch monkey'

Robillard served in the reserve force in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia "without incident," but "everything changed" when he transferred to the regular force in 2005, the claim detailed.

While posted at CFB Winnipeg, his unit went on a training exercise at a United States air force base in Greenland. After raising concerns about "rampant" alcohol abuse by members of his unit and how that could tarnish Canada's reputation, "Robillard was subjected to a persistent stream of racially-motivated harassment, discrimination and bullying by other members," the claim detailed.

When the unit returned to Winnipeg he was routinely referred to as "the n---er," and called "useless" and "stupid" by other members, the claim detailed. When he reported the harassment to his superior, he was told to just punch the offending member out, the claim said. Even after reporting a racially-motivated physical assault, no action was taken, the claim said.

After he reported that other members put a sticker on the back of his vehicle that said, "F--- me, I'm gay," his commanding officer called a section meeting to tell the members to "knock it off," the claim detailed.

When the devastating earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010 — the whereabouts of his mother were initially unknown but she was eventually found alive — he joined the relief effort but disrimination continued abroad, the claim detailed.

After asking for advice to help his mother immigrate to Canada, Robillard overhead a captain say he would "never help out that monkey and his foul mother" and that Canadians had "done enough for these n---ers," the claim detailed. The captain also called them both "porch monkeys," the claim said.

Robillard was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive episodes, the claim detailed. 

He was released from the Canadian Forces in July 2012 after being found "unsuitable for further services" and an "administrative burden," which limited his future job options, the claim said.

Proposed class action

The three plaintiffs are seeking to certify their case as a class action to represent all Canadian Forces members who identify as "racial minorities, visible minorities or Aboriginal peoples."

The plaintiffs claim damages for their ongoing psychological and physical injuries, as well as for loss of earning and benefits professionally. A dollar figure is not specified.

The plaintiffs also seek "punitive, exemplary and aggravated damages based on the abusive and reprehensible misconduct of the Canadian Forces and those Crown servants who have shown a callous disregard for the plaintiffs' and class members' rights, dignity, health and safety."

The plaintiffs request that the case be tried in Halifax.

Read the full statement of claim here.

with files from Ashley Burke