July 29, 2020 – By ELIZABETH MOORE
On July 19, the Canadian Armed Forces announced they are taking an important and, as critics have noted, a long overdue step to more effectively deal with hateful conduct in their ranks. The new orders finally define “hateful conduct,” make reporting incidents mandatory, and will include ongoing training, entrance screenings, and incident tracking.
As Maj.-Gen. Marc Gagne of the Forces’ chief of military personnel’s office put it, “the idea is basically as soon as you join, it’s crystal clear, and we’re going to keep reinforcing through education and training as you move through the ranks and as you assume more responsibility.”
While there is reason to be optimistic about the potential for positive change in the future, the military is clearly still struggling when it comes to handling cases of hate group members in their midst.
The U.S.-based media collective Unicorn Riot reported that Leading Seaman Boris Mihajlovic returned to active duty aboard HMCS Tecumseh on July 15, 2020, following an investigation into his ties to racist extremist groups. Mihajlovic claims he is reformed and has not been involved with hate groups since 2017.
In a video by Mihajlovic’s Commanding Officer, Joseph Banke, sailors were called upon “to find a way ahead together.” Banke emphasized his belief that rehabilitation should be chosen over retribution, concluding that “we need to build forward together, we need to rehabilitate together, we are going to support this member together.”
This approach would perhaps be warranted if the person in question was passively consuming hateful content online but otherwise not deeply entrenched. But that is not the case with Mihajlovic. He was a moderator on the now-defunct racist forum Iron March, claimed to be connected with Blood and Honour, a hate group that was classified as a terrorist organization by the Canadian government last year, and he tried to carry out illegal arms deals.
While it is wholly possible to leave racist extremist groups and change one’s worldview, doing so within the Armed Forces carries additional responsibilities, particularly when internet posts discussing the sale of “handguns, assault rifles, grenades and grenade launchers,” come to the public’s attention. At this time, it appears neither Mihajlovic nor the leadership at HMCS Tecumseh have issued an apology. No explanation of the ways Mihajlovic has grown or changed has been released, despite Banke’s acknowledgment that some sailors have “felt very victimized by this.”
It is unfortunate that at a time the Armed Forces are attempting to address both extremism and systemic racism, Banke seems to be asking those who felt victimized to do the emotional heavy lifting of supporting a former extremist without a proper explanation or support in return.
This is likely not an isolated incident. A 2018 military intelligence report identified 30 service members who belonged to hate groups or otherwise engaged in hateful conduct. In November, it was reported that 16 of those identified were allowed to remain within the Forces after being warned or disciplined.
Gagne noted that part of the problem was that the military took “a reaction kind of approach” instead of being proactive in addressing such matters. However, in order to ensure that sensitive and challenging situations like Mihajlovic’s are dealt with fairly and effectively, the Forces needs to move beyond the reactive/proactive dichotomy to embrace a holistic approach that remains ever mindful of past and current incidents of extremism in their ranks.
To illustrate the range of events affecting the current situation, former Master Corporal Patrik Mathews is facing U.S. charges related to possessing and transporting a firearm and ammunition while plotting to trigger a race war with members of the violent white supremacist group, The Base. Meanwhile, military police are investigating a racist meme targeting Black people that was circulated in Quebec last month.
If a person who engaged in hateful conduct is allowed to stay in uniform after a case has been investigated, the wellbeing of those who felt victimized must be prioritized over that person’s desire to resume their duties. No one should feel that they must literally soldier on without understanding how certain decisions were reached or why, especially since hateful conduct continues to occur.
It is unfortunate that those who need to issue apologies or explanations have more power and latitude about whether to provide them than those who feel such words are necessary. And it is these imbalances that must be addressed for the military to truly be able to “rehabilitate together.”
Twenty-five years ago, Elizabeth Moore left The Heritage Front, Canada’s largest hate group. Since then, she has become an anti-hate educator, writer, and social justice advocate. She is currently a member of the Enhancing Social Justice Education Coordinating Committee and Parents for Peace’s Community Network.