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Members of the Canadian military stand at attention as the Canadian flag is raised during the National Day of Honour Parade in Edmonton, on May 9, 2014.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

The Canadian military is not doing enough to stop white supremacists and other extremist elements from infiltrating its ranks, putting the country’s national security at risk, a new report says.

An advisory panel of four retired Canadian Armed Forces members examined how to eliminate systemic racism and discrimination from the Canadian Armed Forces and Department of National Defence.

The panel found that “systemic barriers” to inclusivity run deep and wide across the Defence team’s leadership and units. It warned that a failure to remove those barriers will negatively affect operational capabilities, undermine the well-being of the military and put Canada’s national security in peril.

At a news conference on Monday, Defence Minister Anita Anand said her department recognizes that exclusionary practices exist and agreed the government needs to move as quickly as possible to address the panel’s recommendations.

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“National Defence has officially recognized these practices exist in the Defence team,” she said. “As this report today acknowledges, these obstacles hurt our operational capacity and harm the security of our country.”

The report was ordered in December, 2020, when Harjit Sajjan was defence minister, after several service members were linked to right-wing extremist and other hate groups.

The report said membership of extremist elements within the military is growing and becoming increasingly covert as technological advancements, such as encryption, make detection difficult. The military is not immune to infiltration, the report concluded, adding that some units and departments are particularly vulnerable, given their isolation from large metropolitan areas.

The panel recommended military, police and intelligence organizations collaborate better to detect white supremacists and ensure members know how to report signs of extremism.

General Wayne Eyre, the Chief of the Defence Staff, said that while he is focused on keeping “toxicity” out of military ranks, tracking many extremist organizations is a challenge.

“Once they’re illuminated, once the spotlight goes on them, they change their names, they change their symbology, so the challenge is staying abreast of these changes,” he said. “As hate groups become mainstream in our society, we have to be very vigilant and continue to educate ourselves as to what these signs and symbols are.”

The report also noted that while Indigenous, Black and racialized people account for about 25 per cent of the available work force, they make up only 13 per cent of Canadian Armed Forces and Defence staff combined. On the other hand, white men account for 71 per cent of the Forces’ work force and 52 per cent of the department’s staff, despite making up 39 per cent of the available work force.

As the Canadian population grows, so will the chasm between the composition of the military and society, the report said. It warned that if the government fails to address this widening rift, the military will struggle to fill some positions.

“Tapping a broader talent pool is the only viable solution to meeting recruitment needs without sacrificing mission readiness and operational effectiveness.”

Retired major Sandra Perron, a panel member, said the military has had plenty of warning about how to address racism and discrimination. She said that over the past two decades, 41 reports have generated 258 recommendations to address diversity, inclusion, respect and professional conduct in the military, many of which were poorly implemented, shelved or discarded.

“We believe that the Defence team does not need to wait for an additional external team such as ourselves to tell them what to do, nor do they need new recommendations to address racism and discrimination,” Ms. Perron said. “They need to listen to their own members, take concrete actions for positive change and they need to be held accountable and measured when they don’t do what they know they should be doing to remove systemic barriers.”

Ms. Anand said the government will establish a working group to develop an implementation framework and an action plan to address the recommendations.

As the first Hindu cabinet minister in Canada, Ms. Anand said she personally understands the impact of discrimination in large institutions.

“I know what it is like to be a racialized woman in a large institution and to face discrimination and systemic racism,” Ms. Anand said.

Conservative defence critic Kerry-Lynne Findlay welcomed Monday’s report, but said her party is “skeptical” about the Liberals’ plans to implement the recommendations and properly address the military’s recruitment and retention issues.

NDP defence critic Lindsay Mathyssen said the party will push the government to ensure the military reflects Canada’s diversity so members feel safe regardless of their race, culture or gender. She said those changes must be led from the top, urging the minister to act on the report’s recommendations immediately.

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