Armed Forces commanders signal hard line against racism and sexual violence in the ranks

Both the incoming and outgoing commanders of the Royal Canadian Navy today delivered some of their most forceful public condemnations of racism and sexual violence in the ranks — an apparent signal the military’s campaign against misconduct has entered a new phase.

The remarks were delivered in tandem by Vice-Admiral Art McDonald — who becomes the country’s new top military commander later this week — and Vice-Admiral Craig Baines during a virtual change-of-command ceremony in Ottawa.

There was a tone of impatience and dismay in Baines’ first speech as commander of the navy as he addressed the social issues Armed Forces commanders have been struggling with for years.

“While many of us would agree that in the 21st century, it is mind-boggling that we are still having to deal with unacceptable sexual misconduct, still having to deal with hateful conduct, still having to deal with systemic racism and misogyny, still having to educate people on the requirements for respectful conduct — it is the world in which we find ourselves,” said Baines, who served as commander of Canada’s East Coast fleet until last summer.

Boris Mihajlovic, centre, who went by the alias Moonlord in the neo-Nazi forum Iron March, is promoted to leading seaman at the HMCS Tecumseh, a Navy Reserves division in Calgary. (HMCS Tecumseh/Facebook)

He is taking over the entire fleet at a time when the Armed Forces is trying to winnow out extremism in the ranks — and after a Calgary naval reservist, Boris Mihajlovic, was identified as a former administrator of Iron March, a notorious online neo-Nazi hate forum.

Mihajlovic was suspended after his activities were revealed in a CBC News investigation, but was later readmitted to his unit after his local commanders claimed he was no longer a threat. The decision prompted complaints from some sailors serving with him and from a human rights group.

A subsequent command review has now recommended he be released from the service. At last report, the matter was still before the military personnel branch.

In his speech Tuesday, Baines signalled he’ll take a tough stance on extremism in the service.

Rear-Admiral Craig Baines, commander of Maritime Atlantic Forces, fields questions during a press conference June 3, 2020. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

“We must be fierce in our commitment to be the vanguards of standing up for what is right and proper,” he said. “Being professional warriors demands nothing less. We must respect others as much — or more — than we respect ourselves. Our difference is what makes us stronger.”

Racism and sexual misconduct in the ranks will be among McDonald’s main preoccupations when he takes over as chief of the defence staff on Thursday, replacing the outgoing Gen. Jonathan Vance.

In his speech today, McDonald did not cite the right-wing riot that consumed Washington last week, nor the Black Lives Matter protests which have swept the U.S., Canada and other nations. He said recent social upheavals have forced the military to take a long, hard look at itself.

“We have had cause to reflect on our own shortcomings as an institution,” he said.

“What is clear is that racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny and discrimination exist within our ranks, despite the efforts of many to combat it, and as much as it hurts to admit it.”

The navy’s change of command ceremony — normally a pageant involving hundreds of sailors and invited guests — was bare-bones today because of the pandemic. It involved both admirals, the chief of the defence staff and one non-commissioned member of the navy in a small, curtained-off room where tables and lecterns were spaced far apart.

The event was livestreamed over the navy’s Facebook page and other social media channels. The lowering and raising of command flags and the ceremonial flagship bell ringing — part of the pageantry of the ceremony — were pre-recorded and conducted virtually on warships in their home ports.

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