Three Canadian veterans allege systemic racism in military

The former members filed a proposed class action against the military, claiming verbal taunts, racial epithets and insults to family members

HALIFAX — Three veterans say they endured years of racist abuse in the Canadian Forces, including slurs about aboriginals and blacks that were allegedly ignored by superior officers.

The former members have filed a proposed class action lawsuit against the military in Federal Court in Halifax. They claim they were subjected to verbal taunts, racial epithets and insults to family members — including one incident in which someone threw bananas at a black member’s spouse on the base in Esquimalt, B.C.

The suit, filed by Marc Frenette, Wallace Fowler and Jean-Pierre Robillard on Dec. 14, accuses superior officers of brushing off the behaviour by “silencing the wrongs” and urging some members not to file complaints.

“From top to bottom, the Canadian Forces has failed to protect racial minorities and aboriginal people from racism within the ranks,” the 31-page document states.

“Derogatory slurs, racial harassment and violent threats are tolerated or ignored …. Victims of racism within the Canadian Forces are forced into isolation, subjected to further trauma and, in many cases, catapulted toward early release.”

Frenette, a 39-year-old from Ontario, claims his career in aircraft maintenance with the Snowbirds 431 squadron was going well until colleagues in Moose Jaw, Sask., discovered he is aboriginal.

He alleges that led to racial slurs, rejected requests for leave and training, physical abuse and insults about his heritage. One member allegedly said in front of an officer that Frenette was lazy and abused the system, because that’s “what all aboriginal people do.”

Frenette, who was released from the Forces last February, described one encounter in 2015 when another member allegedly grabbed him from behind and held a lighter between his legs while other members watched, saying “time to burn this Indian before he burns any more wagons.”

Frenette, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder linked to the treatment, alleges he was told by superiors to laugh off the behaviour and not take his complaints up the chain of command. The claim states that Frenette was assured harassment training would be provided to that flight section, but that it never materialized.

Defence spokesman Evan Koronewski said in an email that the Forces are aware of the proposed suit and are reviewing the allegations.

The court document states that Fowler, a 43-year-old black man from Nova Scotia, was exposed to racist harassment soon after he was posted to Canadian Forces Base Borden to be trained as a vehicle technician. He alleges he was called racist names and denied adequate food, shelter and clothing on the basis of his race.

Fowler claims the racist behaviour worsened when he and his family were relocated to CFB Esquimalt in 2001, when his step-children were allegedly spat on, verbally abused and denied lunch in the cafeteria, while his spouse had bananas tossed at her on the base.

Fowler says the Forces did nothing to address his concerns, saying the incidents were not directly related to his duty or workplace.

Soon after, he was transferred to CFB Trenton, where he alleges the abuse continued. As a result ongoing “ridicule and isolation,” Fowler claimed he was diagnosed with a serious psychological illness. He was released from the Forces at age 30 and deemed “not advantageously employable,” the suit states.

Robillard, a black man from Haiti who was raised in New Brunswick, alleges he was routinely called racial slurs by his unit members and that when he complained to his commanding officer, he was assigned to latrine and cleaning duty.

In 2010, he volunteered to go to Haiti to help in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake. He claims that soon after he arrived, he determined his mother had been located in Haiti and he began arranging to have her reunited with him in the Dominican Republic.

Robillard said he asked an officer about helping his mother immigrate to Canada, and claims a captain made several insulting remarks, referring to the pair as “porch monkeys” and using the n-word.

He said he complained, but the military took no action.

“It has done nothing more than silence the wrongs, further isolate Robillard and protect and insulate the culture of racism within the Canadian Forces,” the suit claims.

None of the allegations in the claim have been tested in court. The suit does not indicate the amount of punitive damages being sought by the plaintiffs.

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