Cree RCAF member left suicidal after years of racist abuse in the military

A Cree member of the Royal Canadian Air Force is leaving the military after enduring years of racism that left him feeling ostracized and suicidal.

'We cannot accept this sort of behaviour' within the Royal Canadian Air Force, commanding officer says

Cree airman left suicidal after years of abuse

7 years ago
Duration 2:28
The Royal Canadian Air Force member says racism has forced him to leave

A Cree member of the Royal Canadian Air Force says he is leaving the military after enduring years of racism that left him feeling ostracized and contemplating suicide.

Master Cpl. Marc Frenette served under "poor, incompetent and often inconsistent leadership" that allowed the alleged harassment to continue for so long, according to a military report obtained by CBC News. 

"He was on his hands and knees in the shower crying because he didn't know how he could take anymore," his wife Kristina Paudash-Frenette told CBC News. "It's been heartbreaking. No one deserves this at all."

Marc Frenette

7 years ago
Duration 0:27
Marc Frenette details the racial slurs he heard while in the Royal Canadian Air Force

This report comes at a time when the military is preparing to launch a new diversity strategy in late February to recruit more women, visible minorities and aboriginal members.

The aviation technician, 38, said he joined the military a decade ago to be part of a team. But for the last three years he says he's felt like an outsider. Frenette alleges the racism started when he moved to Petawawa's new helicopter squadron from Moose Jaw in 2013.

If I was to meet indigenous youth I'd tell them, "Don't join the military."- Master Cpl. Marc Frenette

Frenette says squadron members at Garrison Petawawa taunted him daily with racial slurs like "kawish," "wagon burner," and hooted offensive "oh-oh-oh" noises as he passed by in the hallway.

While working on a Chinook helicopter in February 2015, an RCAF member allegedly sparked a lighter underneath him and said, "time to burn this Indian before he burns any more wagons."

"That pretty much broke me," Frenette told CBC News. "That's when I thought, what's going to be next."

Told to laugh it off

When he went to his chain of command for help, Frenette says, he was told to laugh it off.

"I felt like it was a battle," Frenette said. "I had to fight almost the chain of command, where I was hoping they would be helping me."

Frenette sent his chief warrant officer a two-page complaint asking to move squadrons over concerns for his safety.

Master Cpl. Marc Frenette was subjected to years of racist abuse while a serving member of the Royal Canadian Air Force. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Lt.-Col. Chris McKenna, commanding officer of 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, who ordered an internal investigation of Frenette's claims, told CBC News he was outraged by what Frenette endured.

CBC News obtained the final report of that investigation, which revealed that the 25 squadron members interviewed during the probe either withheld information or only told partial accounts of what happened.

"I was furious," McKenna said in an interview with CBC about the allegations. "I was very angry this would have happened in my organization."

The report also revealed significant breakdowns in leadership allowing the alleged harassment to continue without  disciplinary action.

"My disappointment not only in the poor behaviour and performance of [the members] … is only surpassed by the poor, incompetent, and often inconsistent leadership provided" McKenna wrote in the report. "I am appalled at the lack of immediate and swift action.

"We cannot accept this sort of behaviour within the RCAF… as it degrades morale, combat effectiveness, and will ultimately stand in the way of delivering tactical aviation effects on a battlefield of the future."

According to the internal report the leadership involved were talked to about the gravity of not ensuring a harassment-free workplace, compelled to attend a series of professional development sessions. The officer who failed to follow up the initial complaint was issued a recorded warning. 

Lt.-Col. Chris McKenna

7 years ago
Duration 0:41
Lt.-Col. Chris McKenna says racism in the Forces is unacceptable

"It's all about making sure that next time this does not occur and not giving up on someone by kicking them out of the military," McKenna said. "These are junior folks who are still learning their role … I wanted to make sure that they realize what right looks like and they have a very clear picture of that now."

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 military recorded the numbers to review its human rights and discriminatory conduct policy. Since then, the force says it has not compiled data annually.

However, since 2013 there have been 11 human rights complaints forwarded to the Canadian Forces by the Canadian Human Rights Commission on the grounds of race, colour or religion. Of these 11 cases, eight are continuing, while the others were dropped.

Promoting diversity in military

 Lt.-Gen. Christine Whitecross said one of her three priorities in implementing the upcoming diversity strategy is to increase diversity numbers.

The Canadian Forces still falls far short of reaching the required targets, according to figures provided by the military:

  • Women: 15 per cent (goal is 25.1 per cent).
  • Visible minorities: 6.5 per cent (goal is 11.8 per cent).
  • Aboriginal peoples: 2.5 per cent (goal is 3.4 per cent).

"We want a diverse and respectful organization," said Col. François Bariteau, a spokesman with the Department of National Defence. "One that values differences, one that recognizes differences and can deal with differences."

Concerned the military wasn't doing enough to discipline the alleged offenders in his case, Frenette filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission in November, 2015.

The military says it did take action by launching a second, parallel harassment investigation, which is still underway. It involves alternative dispute resolution sessions in which Frenette sits down with a mediator and the eight people alleged to have allegedly harassed him, to confront the realities of racism and how it affected Frenette.

But Frenette says it's not enough.

"I feel the organization should be held accountable for what is done," he said.

Frenette, who is leaving the military at the end of the month, says he contemplated suicide. His marriage, once happy, has suffered, so he's moving with his wife and eight-year-old son to Hiawatha First Nation, a place where they hope to pull their lives back together.

"I feel disheartened and I'm emotionally drained," Frenette said. "I feel like I was abandoned. I was someone they couldn't really wait to get rid of as opposed to someone they wanted to care for.

"If I was to meet indigenous youth I'd tell them, 'Don't join the military."

Kristina Paudash-Frenette

7 years ago
Duration 0:28
Kristina Paudash-Frenette says racism in Forces hurt husband Marc Frenette


Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa who focuses on enterprise journalism for television, radio and digital platforms. She was recognized with the Charles Lynch Award and was a finalist for the Michener Award for her exclusive reporting on the toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. She has also uncovered rampant allegations of sexual misconduct in the Canadian military involving senior leaders. You can reach her confidentially by email: ashley.burke@cbc.ca or https://www.cbc.ca/securedrop/