Twenty-five years ago, a public inquiry recommended assistance for Canadian military leaders in detecting “signs of racism and involvement with hate groups.”
The inquiry was looking into a military scandal that included an incident in which members of the since-disbanded Canadian Airborne Regiment beat a Somali teenager to death. Some members of the regiment were found to have had racist and white supremacist beliefs.
A quarter century later, the problem of white supremacists and other extremists in the military not only remains, but is growing at an “alarming rate,” according to a recent report from an advisory panel on systemic racism in the Canadian Armed Forces.
Yet critics say the government has failed to deliver a concrete action plan to tackle a threat that affects the military’s ability to diversify its ranks — something it has been struggling to do — while at the same time posing a serious safety risk to the public.
In the age of social media, when members of white supremacist and right-wing extremist groups are becoming much more sophisticated at concealing their affiliations, it raises the question: What should the Canadian Armed Forces be doing to identify members with affiliations to hate groups?
Keeping an eye out for signs of extremism in potential recruits’ social media activity as well as in interviews is crucial, anti-hate researchers say — a task made difficult by the fact that hate groups are constantly changing their symbolism and members are becoming more savvy at hiding their beliefs.
That’s why specialized training is required, experts say, as plenty of hateful posts can look fairly innocuous to the untrained eye.
“When thinking about the alt-right in particular, they’re very canny about using irony, satire and humour to veil their sentiments, so we’re not just looking for the blatant things like the Confederate flag,” said Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University.
According to the experts, some red flags that may not be obvious to the public include terms like “red pill,” “black pill,” “great replacement,” or “white genocide.”
Other indications may be mentions of books with ties to white supremacy, along with terms and numbers like “14 words,” which is a white supremacist slogan, the number 88, which refers to “Heil Hitler,” and the placement of three sets of parentheses around a word, an anti-Semitic symbol.
“There’s this culture/subculture of the universe that you need to have experts on. Just a regular person wouldn’t see these things,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the U.S.-based Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.
“It may well be worth the Canadian Forces taking a look at hiring contractors who are experts in tracking this stuff down.”
The CAF should also be on the alert for mentions of conspiracy theories, especially around masks and COVID-19 vaccines, which are “basically universally shared” among far-right extremist groups, said Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.
“That’s not to say that every anti-masker or anti-vaxxer is involved in that,” Balgord said, “but it’s a good first indicator to look more closely at somebody.”
While the advisory panel report said “a thorough review of social media posts from potential recruits is part of the filtering process,” that doesn’t appear to be the case.
The Defence department told the Star in a statement that the screening of applicants includes “interviews, a criminal records check, cross-referencing employment history and qualifications, medical and aptitude tests, and suitability screening.”
In response to followup questions, the department said the CAF “does have mechanisms in place to screen out potential recruits who engage in, or endorse, hateful actions, including through social media searches in some cases.”
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Members are regularly trained on what constitutes hateful conduct, the department said. “Recruiting detachment members are often able to recognize signs that could point to a belonging or affiliation to groups that do not share CAF values,” it said, while the advisory panel concluded the contrary.
Once a person affiliated with a hate group or hateful beliefs has made it into the CAF — and it will happen, experts say — trying to find them poses its own set of challenges.
Researchers told the Star that there should be ongoing monitoring of members’ social media activity, but chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre said last week “there will be some privacy issues with that.”
Balgord said sometimes the only way to identify someone is due to “leakage” — when they inadvertently let something compromising but not necessarily obvious slip in a private conversation — again highlighting the need for regular, specialized training of military members.
“It may be a resource intensive effort to root these people out, but there’s a high price to pay if you don’t,” said Beirich. “These people are serious national security threats.”
There have been several high-profile cases in recent years of former military members with white supremacist and/or anti-government conspiracy beliefs.
Former reservist Patrik Mathews, who joined the white supremacist group The Base, was sentenced to nine years in prison last year in the U.S. for his involvement in a violent plot to trigger a race war.
A military investigation last year found the 4th Canadian Ranger Patrol Group had failed to proactively deal with extremist members, according to a report obtained by CBC News, which had discovered that one member had posted support online for far-right groups.
A military police report from November 2018 noted that since 2013, 53 military members had been identified “as being part of a hate group” or displayed racist/hateful beliefs, of whom 30 were still active in the CAF at that time. The report concluded that “at this time, hate groups do not pose a significant threat to the CAF/DND.”
Perry said the report downplayed the problem, noting these were simply the cases that were reported to military police. “That’s a very small tip of the iceberg,” she said. Perry’s centre has received a grant from the Department of National Defence to research right-wing extremism in the CAF.
By 2021, Canada’s national security watchdog found that white supremacy “poses an active counter-intelligence threat” to the military, and that the Canadian Forces National Counter-Intelligence Unit needed to do more.
There is very little hard data on the problem. The military’s database for tracking “hateful conduct incidents” lists 275 incidents as of April 25, of which 150 were deemed to have been founded, the Defence department said.
The database includes historical data going back to 1997, and collects incidents beyond those reported to the military police, but also through the chain of command. The department said “administrative action” was taken for 150 members, and that 17 members had been released from the CAF.
Defence Minister Anita Anand announced last week that a working group would develop a plan for implementing the advisory panel’s recommendations, which also touched on the need to recruit and retain more people of colour.
Beirich said tackling the infiltration of the military by hate groups “is the first thing you need to do” in order to make the armed forces more inclusive while also protecting the public.
“This is about terrorist attacks, hate crimes, mass violence,” she said. “You have to do this. This is not an option.”
Jacques Gallant is a Toronto-based reporter covering politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @JacquesGallant
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