Systemic Racism in the Canadian Armed Forces

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By MWO Trevor Knight
PLA-0017-DL– Advanced Leadership Programme (ALP)
March 18, 2021

Introducing the Issue

The shadow of a wave of an anti-racism movement and the admission of systemic racism within the institutions of CanadaFootnote 1 hangs not only over Canada and the United States of America, but the institutions of Canada including the Canadian Armed Forces. The Honourable Harjit S. Sajjan, Minister of National Defence recently stated “systemic racism and prejudice still exist – in this country and in our organization”Footnote 2 when he stood up an advisory panel on systematic racism, discrimination with a focus on anti-indigenous and anti-black racism, LGBTQ2 prejudice, gender bias, and white supremacy in December 2020. The purpose of this report is to provide recommendations to the CAF at an institutional level on how to change its culture to one that is incompatible with systemic racism. Having said that, a quick definition is in order: The Cambridge Dictionary defines systemic racism as “policies and practices that exist throughout a whole society or organization, and that result in and support a continued unfair advantage to some people and unfair or harmful treatment of others based on race”.Footnote 3

Set as the top priority in December 2020, to the former Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) by Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was the rooting out and elimination of systematic racism within the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).Footnote 4 The former CDS faced an old institutional issue sparked and brought to the forefront in today`s technologically connected society through revelations of police brutality towards racialized people in the United States, and the subsequent “Black Lives Matter” movement. Within our own institution, the publicizing of a recent circulation of racial memes in the CAF, the investigation into racial comments made by a CAF member towards Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, and the linking of CAF members to hate groups have all served to remind us that racism exists within our institution and society writ large. As mentioned, this is not a new problem, nor one that the CAF has not tried to address. Many veterans would recall the twenty-five-year-old Standard for Harassment and Racism Prevention program, ethics training brought into action during the Afghanistan deployment era, and, most recently, training to address and bring awareness to hateful conduct and indigenous culture.

Describing the Context

As mentioned, there have been cases of racism within our institution and our broader society, and, as of late, social movements, social media, and the media in general have cast a spotlight onto systemic racism and, by doing so, have brought it to the forefront of concerns within government, institutions, and the public alike. To combat such an issue the idea of changing one's culture has been the message from national leaders, but really, such an endeavour requires changing the perspectives of the members within an institution. As members of the CAF it is not uncommon to hear the word “change” and leading change is actually a performance assessment in the CAFs personnel appraisal system. So, it is by design that leaders within the CAF can and must be successful change agents, able to foresee resistance, and must contribute to refining the change process. These are all good qualities that are required for such a task of changing culture within an organization, since if it is possible to change the culture of an organization to one that is incompatible with any behaviour then inevitably that behaviour will be extinguished.

To effectively change the culture of the CAF, three linkages have been made to major leadership functions found in chapter 4 of “Leadership in the Canadian Forces.”Footnote 5 Within the effectiveness dimension of “Military Ethos” the institutional leadership responsibility of “establishing an ethical culture” is the most obvious linkage, as it speaks directly to changing culture, which can only come about once the establishment of a climate of respect for individual rights & diversity prevails. This means respect and dignity for all, which implies the transformation of unit climates (workplaces) to existing free from discrimination, bullying and harassment, which in turn changes the institutional culture ethical, within the common grasp of its meaning. It is leadership teams, leading the people through examples of professional and ethical behaviour at all times and the utilization of discipline to address non-ethical behaviour, as appropriate, that can promote ethical behaviour and aid in attaining such a culture.

To enforce discipline, and, additionally, to put in place policies for representative recruitment and reporting of systemic racism, another extremely important institutional leadership responsibility from “Leadership in the Canadian Forces” is: “Developing a coherent body of policy.” Without such policy, within the CAF, leadership at all levels are left to their own devices to firstly interpret higher policy from the Government of Canada or, in a worse case situation, be ignorant to the Government’s (people’s) desire for change.

Finally, from “Leadership in the Canadian Forces,” the institutional leadership responsibility of “Honour the social contract; maintain strong quality of life & member-support systems” is a significant undertaking that is consuming for a leader, but positively affects a member well-being (physical, mental, and emotional health, and resilience). This speaks to open communication from the leadership team to the whole of their unit, and, above that, leadership who care for their subordinates, and who are committed to their subordinates concerns and interests. This leadership responsibility requires a leadership team who represent equally and treat equally all the members under them, regardless of diversity. With such relationships in place, a healthy workplace can exist, which is at odds with a workplace culture that harbours systemic racism.

Mapping the Environment

Four categories or streams were used to capture the various elements or sub-components of this institutional issue to aid in mapping out the environment, or concerned systems (Fig 1). By no means have all aspects of this issue been identified, but the sub-components do fit neatly into the categories of institution, members, racialized individuals, and the public/media. Through simple comparison of these categories, multiple relationships become apparent and provide further context for the development of ideas to combat systemic racism within the CAF.

Figure 1: Mapping the Environment

Mapping the Institution

As with all of the identified categories, by looking at the CAF institution as a system, one can trace the follow-on effects from consequences of systemic racism. Systemic racism, once identified, whether through internal or external investigations, chain of command reporting, and/or media reporting, can realize near immediate detrimental effects to the institution. Loss of credibility and trust from members of the institution as well as the general public is likely to occur. The fallout from the Somalia Inquiry into the Canadian Airborne Regiment’s 1992-93 deployment to Belet Huen, Somalia was a reduction to military spendingFootnote 6, disbandment, and punishment of individuals.Footnote 7 Although video of racist comments and hazing rituals surfaced during the inquiry, the reference is not made to draw a link between those events with systematic racism, but to show the impact on the institution following damage not only to its reputation but to Canada's as a valued international peacekeeper. Further elements within this category include affected resource systems such as inquiries, public affairs, organizational restructures, audits, UDIs, conflict management, and policy and training program reviews.

Mapping the Members

This category is not entirely inclusive of all members of the CAF. Those members belonging to a racialized demographic, or those who have been affected by racism have been excluded. The broad brush for this category intentionally paints all members unaffected by racism into one demographic for simplicity. One note is the lack of diversity within the entirety of the institution. As of February 2018, there was a total representation of 2.8% membership identifying as indigenous compared with Statistics Canada’s 2016 census data that showed aboriginal people in Canada make up 4.9% of the population. Similarly, as of January 2019 the representation of visible minorities in the CAF was 8.7% compared with Statistics Canada’s 2016 census data showing visible minority at 22.3% of the Canadian population.Footnote 8 Footnote 9 Elements mapped within this category included resistance to change, which can be tied to unintentional biases and unawareness of the issue. Further elements are based on a lack of education or failure to utilize Gender-Based Analysis when reasoning with preconceived notions, or when problem solving or considering resolutions.

Mapping Racialized Individuals

Elements of this category can be broken into two broad subcategories: Lack of Equality and Mistreatment. Lack of equality refers to the missed opportunities, or being overlooked, for things such as recruitment, education, social involvement, promotion, and senior appointments or key positions. To qualify that, based on a report of the Standing Committee on National Defence from June 2019, as of February 2018, of 129 General and Flag Officers in the CAF, one had self-identified as indigenous and one had self-identified as being a member of a visible minority group.Footnote 8 Mistreatment can go by many names: abuse, bullying, harassing, etc. The mapped sub-elements of such treatment include trauma, poor mental health, isolation, radicalization, discrimination and hateful conduct. From such treatment, it is easy to infer institutional consequences like loss of productivity, loss of skill, loss of talent, loss of training investment, loss of diversity, and reduced capacity of health services and legal resources.

Mapping the Public/Media

Many different perspectives can be taken when considering the role and biases of the media and the inter-relationships with the Canadian public, who has their own biases and impressions towards the CAF and systemic racism. These perspectives can be seen through: Public sentiment through the lens of the media towards the CAF; biases of the media towards the CAFs messaging to the public; reporting or feedback mechanisms to the Government or media from the CAF; and, messaging on systemic racism internally or externally from the CAF through social media. The most detrimental effects of social media are the incitement of hate and the recruitment of members into hate groups, as social media has been proven to be a powerful tool to mobilize a movement or influence people’s opinions.Footnote 10

Other relationships between the systems across the categories can be seen at figure 1 through the use of similar colours. For example, denial or unawareness of systemic racism within the “members” category doesn’t allow for change, and keeps systems such as recruitment, and advancement opportunities for racialized individuals at bay. The follow-on effect to the institution is continued lack of diversified recruitment. Lack of diversity training and education of members does not help alleviate misconceptions and unconscious biases, which can lead to mistreatment and exclusion of racialized individuals. Reports of systemic racism from the media leads to loss of credibility and trust for the institution and can result in resource reductions. Worse effects can be seen with the loss of membership from racialized individuals to the recruitment of members into hate groups.

Analysing the Problems

In analyzing the problem of systemic racism within the CAF, one can see that the make-up of the force does not reflect the racial diversity of the Canadian public. Racial minorities and indigenous peoples are underrepresented despite efforts by the federal government to advance diversity through the application of the Employment Equity Act (EEA). The Canadian demographics have become more racially diverse when compared to the dominant Western European background of Canadians in the past. This will inevitably change the composition of the recruitment pool that the CAF will have at its disposal for enrollment, but based on present representation, senior leaders within DND and the CAF must focus on this underlying issue. In an article by Jolson Lim it is suggested that reviewing practices of screening based on citizenship status and experience, written tests, and interviews (particularly when highlighting personal successes) may lead to more successful recruitment of visible minorities and indigenous peoples.Footnote 11 Another aspect involves the concept of unconscious biases of recruiters. Such biases are now being recognized by members through mandatory training in Gender-Based Analysis Plus and hateful conduct, and will hopefully be internally depressed by individuals. Additionally, reaching out specifically to racial minorities and indigenous peoples at a younger age for membership in the cadets and junior Canadian ranger programs may be beneficial for later recruitment into the CAF. One other major factor to consider is public image. With lightning fast communications, messages of scandals within any institution can reach the national public in real time. News of the membership of CAF personnel in hate groups likely has a negative effect upon the public image of the CAF and in-turn a negative effect upon recruitment. Institutional leaders must continue to message “respect and dignity to all,” and continue to uphold the standards established within the CF military personnel instruction on hateful conduct and within the Department of National Defence’s (DND) publication “Duty with Honour: the Profession of Arms in Canada.”Footnote 12

The key instruments that the CAF holds to uphold and create such standards are policies from the federal government, such as the Constitution Act, the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA), the National Defence Act (NDA), and the EEA, which direct not only the CAF, but our whole of Government practices.Footnote 13 Specifically, the CHRA states that individuals should have equal opportunity, that their needs be accommodated, and that they should not be hindered based upon discriminatory practices. Further, the EEA states that the government should be representative of the population. Within the CAF, these acts must guide our recruitment strategy and internal policies, like the Defence Administrative Order and Directive (DAOD) 5019-0, Conduct and Performance Deficiencies (modified July 2020), and CF Mil Pers Instruction 01/20 – Hateful Conduct (July 2020), in order to provide the institution with guidance and direction. These policies, although having just been published, are great steps in addressing the issue of “anti-black racism, white supremacy or any other hateful ideology anywhere in the Canadian Armed Forces,” as stated by the Minister of National Defence on February 1st, 2021.Footnote 14 With these frameworks now in place, the CAF now has the ability to address a number of issues including hateful conduct training, administrative and disciplinary matters, intervention in hateful conduct, enrollment and release, and reporting and tracking. This policy should have immediate effects on systemic racism within the CAF through the application of DAOD 5019-0, which holds members accountable for their conduct and performance deficiencies and prohibits hateful conduct. Additionally, mandatory annual training on what constitutes hateful conduct will serve to promote positive behaviours as outlined within “Duty with Honour: the Profession of Arms in Canada.”Footnote 12 Of course, CAF members are also subject to the Code of Service Discipline via adherence to the NDA. It is through the application of discipline by all levels of leadership within the CAF that members will be brought “to a point where, of their own volition, they willingly control their own conduct and actions according to military regulations and the values incorporated in the military ethos.”Footnote 15

Changing the perspectives of the members within the CAF is no small task, but in analyzing the results and consequences of change initiatives the organization can improve upon and identify other catalysts for change. It is important to think of an organization like an ecosystem. Just as adding an invasive species to a wetland can change dynamics of various systems (i.e. predation, food chain, O2 levels, etc.), so too can new policies have unintended repercussions upon organizational systems such as logistics, personnel, operations, communication, leadership and relationships. In changing the culture of the CAF to eliminate systemic racism, leaders must keep continuous pulse of the “processes, structures, and resources that comprise the defence system and its subsystems”Footnote 16 in order to make adjustments to established policies or frameworks. The utilization of feedback by the subsystems allows for the integration of change as it provides for lessons learned and after-action reports to educate on best practices. Often, people don’t know they’re not doing something in the most efficient manner, as institutional cultural, or shared beliefs, can dominate systems i.e. “we’ve always done it this way, so that’s why we do it.” By implementing feedback mechanisms, institutional leaders can better refine internal measures and unintended outcomes across the systems. Internal monitoring and measurements through surveys, ethnographic studies, focus groups, interviews, and demographic analysis are all methods of facilitating feedback. External measures such as reports of the Office of the Auditor General and the CF ombudsman, and public opinion polls also provide a mechanism of feedback for institutional leaders.Footnote 17

Presenting the Recommendations

Figure 2 displays a simplified diagram with the goal of establishing a culture incompatible with systemic racism on the left moving right through idealized concepts for the establishment of that goal, followed by action items, and ending with ideal end states that accomplish the goal.

Figure 2: Goal – Action – End State

The action items (Fig 2 centre – in colour) begin, from top to bottom, with coherent bodies of policy in green. They exist now and include the CHRA, the NDA (which allows for our members to be subject to the Code of Service Discipline), DAOD 5019, the EEA, the DND and CF Code of Values and Ethics, and finally Duty with HonourFootnote 12. In blue, the exercising of discipline and education, which has already been taking shape within our organization through training on Gender-Based Analysis Plus (which provides an understanding of unconscious biases), training on hateful conduct, and most recently indigenous culture training, serve to promote diversity, remove barriers, and penalize offenders. In purple, natural processes are shown as Canadian demographics have become more racially diverse and will naturally lead to a change in the composition of the recruitment pool, which will aid in reaching our end states.

The end states of racial acceptance, elimination of biases, representative recruitment, respectful workplaces, and operational effectiveness all need to provide feedback on the accomplishment of our goal. We have multiple means of feedback now, and the new hate incident reporting should provide institutional leaders with better understanding of the where corrective or mitigating action can aid the process. Additionally, the new Advisory Panel on systemic racism and discrimination will provide advice on how we can ensure that individuals who hold racist or white supremacist beliefs are not allowed to enter or remain in the CAF.

What remains unaddressed are recommendations for the attainment of the goal:

Recommendation 1 “review recruitment policy/strategies” is tied to the internal integration leadership responsibility of “developing a coherent body of policy,” from chapter 4 of “Leadership in the Canadian Forces.”Footnote 5

“If the military does not accept or reflect change in broader society it runs the risk of becoming isolated from that society.”Footnote 18 In that regard, recruitment policy, strategy, and techniques must be reviewed to ensure not only adherence to legislation, but to promote equal representation of the Canadian fabric of diversity. Accomplishment is recommended through the specific review of recruitment of racially diverse Canadians into the Cadets and Junior Canadian Ranger youth programs, which act as early preparation for military careers,Footnote 19 and the review of the selection practices of screening based on citizenship status and experience, written tests, and interviews, with the goal of increased successful recruitment of visible minorities and indigenous peoples. These two specific reviews are recommended to be complete by annual posting season (APS) 2022.

Recommendation 2 “implement diversity support systems” is tied to the member well-being and commitment institutional leadership responsibility of “honouring the social contract to maintain strong quality of life & member-support systems,” from chapter 4 of “Leadership in the Canadian Forces.”Footnote 5

The new hate incident reporting tools and advisory panel on systemic racism will provide feedback to institutional leaders on where efforts need to be concentrated for the elimination of systemic racism, but member support systems could also be utilized to encourage or support members in reporting incidents, and provide initial member support. It is recommended that a diversity support system be implemented and supported by the Defence Team Champion for Visible Minorities. It is recommended that this support system be modelled after the “Sentinels Program,” which consists of a network of member volunteers who are trained to provide a comforting presence, be active listeners, and be non-judgmental. Implementation of this support system or expansion of the sentinel program to include training on issues faced by visible minorities and Indigenous peoples is recommended by APS 2023.

Recommendation 3 “lead by example” is tied to the military ethos institutional leadership responsibility of “establish an ethical culture,” from chapter 4 of “Leadership in the Canadian Forces.”Footnote 5

It is to each member of the CAF to uphold and embrace the military ethos as outlined within “Duty with Honour: the Profession of Arms in Canada.”Footnote 12 This acts as a centre of gravity for all members and is intended to “establish trust between the CAF and Canadians, guide the development of CAF leaders, create and shape the desired culture of the CAF, establish the basis for personnel policy, enable professional self-regulation, and assist in identifying and resolving ethical challenges.”Footnote 20 The most relevant sections of the ethos in the context of eliminating systemic racism are recognizing and sustaining Canadian values by upholding our legislation, and the core military value of integrity, which encompasses adherence to high ethical standards.Footnote 21 To effect change, all members of the CAF must report infractions and take action. Those who “promote accountability are more likely to have members who behave ethically.”Footnote 22 This recommendation is already active, but should serve to remind us to have respect and dignity for all people and to lead by example at all times.

“It is up to each of us to dismantle the deeply entrenched systems that have long excluded certain groups at National Defence…The future is now: all of us need to put in the work to eliminate systemic discrimination and white supremacy from our organization.”Footnote 23

Key Reading:

Department of National Defence. (2005), Introduction – The Changing Context of CF Leadership, in Canadian Forces Leadership Institute, Leadership in the Canadian Forces: Conceptual Foundations. (pp. xi-xv), Kingston: Canadian Defence Academy and Canadian Forces Leadership Institute.

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