Army commander orders Canadian soldiers to call out racism in the ranks

The commander of the Canadian Army has issued a new order that requires troops to report racism and hateful conduct when they witness it. Failure to do so would make them "complicit" in any follow-up investigation.

“We will hold our members accountable for their actions,” says army commander of new anti-racism order

Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre listens to speakers during a change of command parade for the Canadian Army on Parliament Hill Tuesday, August 20, 2019 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Soldiers who witness — or become aware of — racism and hateful conduct in the ranks will be expected to blow the whistle to their superiors under a sweeping new order issued today by the commander of the Canadian Army.

The new directive, which is being distributed to all army units across the country, also warns of consequences for those who turn a blind eye.

"We will hold our members accountable for their actions," Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre wrote in the order, a copy of which was obtained by CBC News.

Soldiers "at all levels will be expected to intervene and report incidents," he said, "and where necessary, we will provide support to those affected by these behaviours.

"Failure to act is considered complicity in the event."

Eyre, who verbally outlined his expectations last week at a virtual meeting of commanding officers from across the country, promised he would give explicit direction on how to handle a growing number of cases of far-right extremism in the ranks.

He made the pledge as the army conducts an investigation of the 4th Ranger Group. That probe was triggered by a series of CBC News reports about a reservist who was allowed to continue to serve after being identified as a member of two far-right groups.

The order also comes as prosecutors in the U.S. are pursuing firearms charges against former Canadian army reservist Patrik Mathews, who is accused of recruiting for a white supremacist organization in the States.

Patrik Mathews, seen in this 2015 photo, is a former combat engineer with the 38 Canadian Brigade Group in Winnipeg, with training in explosives. He’s been in custody since January in the United States in connection with an FBI investigation of a white supremacist group. (Courtney Rutherford/CBC)

Eyre was not available for an interview Thursday. He's told CBC News previously that he is deeply concerned about the spread of a far-right ideology across the army.

While only a handful of such cases have been made public to date, Eyre said "one is too many" and vowed the army would take action in concert with the rest of the Canadian Armed Forces.

In his interview with CBC News earlier this month, Eyre said it "sickens" him to see racism and intolerance in Canadian society — especially when people holding those views want to join the military.

The 25 page order, which was signed late Wednesday, said that a commanding officer is now "directed to take a proactive response to concerns of hateful conduct and does not need a written complaint to investigate any concerns."

Those in charge of army units and formations now also have the authority to "temporarily" relieve someone accused of racist behaviour from duty "until the appropriate investigation or follow up has concluded."

There are limits to that authority, however: the order says that commanders must "balance the public interest, including the effect on operational effectiveness and morale, with the interests of the member" before taking the formal step of relieving soldiers of duty.

And the order still depends on the willingness of soldiers to call each other out over racist and inappropriate behaviour.

"Bystander intervention training will be key in our efforts to eliminate hateful conduct, because we all have a responsibility to act and respond if we witness hateful conduct and associated incidents," says the order.

To that end, commanding officers have been told they need to keep an eye out for whistleblowers and "investigate any reports of threatening, intimidating, ostracizing, or discriminatory behaviour taken in response to a hate incident report."

Some aspects of the order still need to be worked out. The order cites the need for a way to identify soldiers who "may be leaning towards a hateful ideology, or who are exhibiting troubling conduct."

The army says it plans to develop a mechanism to monitor and track reports of hateful conduct in the ranks, which will plug into an existing Department of National Defence system announced last summer.

Range of penalties includes dismissal

Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, has suggested in the past that commanders take the proactive step of regularly monitoring the social media accounts of soldiers under their command.

The army also plans to train soldiers in identifying hateful conduct in the ranks.

Balgord said his group is pleased with what it sees in the order but remains concerned about the amount of discretion allowed when it comes to punishing those caught engaging in in hateful conduct.

"The devil in the detail here is really going to come down to how this new order is put into effect," he said, adding that "any member caught participating in a hate group" should be ejected from the Armed Forces.

There are a range of sanctions available under the military's disciplinary and administrative systems, up to and including dismissal from the Forces.

The order also explicitly gives the commander the option of rehabilitating the individual.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.