A soldier who made racist statements on a white nationalist podcast has been given the green light to return to duty with the Canadian Forces.
The soldier, Henry Lung, is a reservist based in Calgary. He will be placed on what the military calls “remedial measures” — which will include counselling and probation — for the next year. Three other soldiers who along with Lung owned and operated Fireforce Ventures, a business selling Rhodesian memorabilia, will be returned to duty without restrictions. Rhodesia, which existed from 1965 to 1979, was a pariah state led by a white minority that ruled a majority Black African population in what is now Zimbabwe.
Fireforce Ventures was the focus of a Ricochet investigation in October 2018 that unmasked its pseudonymous operators and revealed ties between company personnel and the military, several mainstream conservative parties, and the far right. It highlighted how the company used social media to broadcast extremist messages, and exposed Lung’s appearance on the white nationalist podcast.
As a result, the military suspended the four soldiers involved in the company and launched its own investigation.
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The military investigation, which wrapped up last month, concluded that Lung had contravened the army’s code of ethics.
“I questioned his loyalty to the Canadian Armed Forces, I found that he was disrespectful to the Canadian Armed Forces uniform that he serves in, and that he was disrespectful of our government in this podcast,” said Brigadier-General Trevor Cadieu, who ordered the investigation, in an interview with Ricochet.
“I think that he was knowingly engaged in inappropriate behaviour.”
While on remedial measures, Lung can be expelled from the military “if in the period of the next year he does anything to show inappropriate behaviour or conduct,” said Cadieu.
The military investigation, which included participation from the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, “could not directly link any of that extremist language or behaviour” to the three other soldiers who owned and operated Fireforce Ventures, according to Cadieu. Ryan Jorgensen, Kyle Porter, and Wesley Taylor will be allowed to return to active duty following suspension.
The military determined that the soldiers could not be held accountable for content posted to the social media channels of the company since it could not be directly attributed to individuals, and noted that the implicated soldiers had all resigned from the company or demonstrated intent to resign.
Where is the line?
Given the nature of Fireforce Ventures, some observers are wondering whether the soldiers got off too lightly, especially when three of them face no consequences as a result of the military’s investigation.
The company’s focus on promoting Rhodesian products, emblematic of a brutal era of white-minority rule, along with the nature of its social media posts — which include use of the hashtag #MakeZimbabweRhodesiaAgain, memes of Pepe the Frog (a cartoon character appropriated by the alt-right), and calls for violence against “floppies,” a racial slur employed by white Rhodesians against Black people — raise questions about how the Canadian Armed Forces both assess and address issues of extremism in the ranks.
“It is really surprising,” said Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, in response to the outcome of the military investigation.
“It seems like you really have to go over a line, a very stark line, in order to be held accountable,” noted Perry, who has studied hate crimes and extremism for over 20 years. “It seems to be even a much bolder line that needs to be crossed for them [the military] than for the general public.”
“So membership and affiliation with a racist organization … clearly doesn’t seem to be sufficient from that perspective.”
The soldiers have maintained that they do not hold racist views and that Fireforce Ventures does not promote white supremacy, despite Lung’s appearance on a white nationalist podcast to advertise the company and the many social media posts featuring racial slurs and glorifying the era of white-minority rule in Zimbabwe.
“Just the name ‘Fireforce,’ just that term, is problematic by itself,” observed Candyce Kelshall, president of the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies - Vancouver.
Fireforce Ventures takes its name from a military tactic developed by the Rhodesian forces during their war against an indigenous African population seeking liberation.
Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan declined to respond to specific questions about the outcome of the investigation, but provided a statement in which he said that “members who engage in these types of activities undermine the confidence Canadians have bestowed in them.” He said his government “will not tolerate racism and discrimination in the Canadian Armed Forces” and he will “continue to monitor these issues closely” and “look at further action if necessary.”
‘Canadians should be really disturbed’
“I’m quite angry, quite disturbed,” said Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress, when told of the results of the military investigation. “And Canadians should be really disturbed.”
“The Canadian Armed Forces should be striving harder than anyone else to make sure hatred and white supremacist behaviour is not tolerated. Anyone engaging in white supremacy is not welcome in the armed forces period, and should be dismissed from service.”
Cadieu said the action taken with Lung, including being suspended and now put on probation, “sends a significant message” that inappropriate conduct will not be tolerated.
He also noted there have been “immediate career-limiting implications,” since a request from Lung to join the full-time regular force has been denied.
The remedial measures facing Lung are serious, agreed Kelshall, who is also an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University and a former reserve officer with the Royal Navy in the United Kingdom.
“This guy is going to be under scrutiny for the next year of his life,” she said. “The punishment he has received is quite rigorous. It’s not to be taken lightly.”
“The other three are aware that they’re skirting a fine line, and agreed that they would sell their shares in this business and would resign from the business. That is a clear indication to me that they are aware that this business is incompatible with [military service], because of what it’s spreading and because of the associations.”
Call for a public inquiry
In the last few years, dozens of Canadian Armed Forces members have been found to be involved in hate groups, according to Kelshall, who is currently researching right-wing extremism in militaries around the world. And according to her research, the real number of soldiers involved with these groups may be far higher.
“This is something that is actually impacting the fabric of our society here in Canada, and we don’t have the tools to deal with it.”
“That’s a wide range of groups that are following the same doctrine,” she says, describing a “sudden surge” in documented cases of right-wing extremism over the past two years in the militaries of countries like Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada.
“There’s a context to look at. Canada is not unique. There’s something that’s going on in the militaries around the world.”
Perry said that the Fireforce Ventures case “raises very serious questions about the extent to which they really do take the problem seriously within the service.”
“I think that [the defence minister’s] role at this juncture is to force that conversation about whether it is time to engage in a larger inquiry. I think he has that capacity so that would be a very powerful statement.”
Kelshall also suggested an inquiry into extremism within the military would be useful.
For Amira Elghawaby, a human rights advocate and board member with the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, the biggest issue is the message being sent.
“When you have a situation where soldiers within these services are found to be engaged in what is clearly the promotion of racist, white supremacist ideology, the way that they then are going to face consequences will signal to people who are already in the service, or people who are considering joining the service, as to what kind of organization is this truly, and whether or not they actually walk the walk of respecting and promoting diversity.”
‘It’s really quite simple to address’
The issue of extremism in the military is much broader than the Fireforce Ventures case, and even Canada’s top soldier has acknowledged the forces could be doing more to combat it.
Last fall General Jonathan Vance told the Toronto Star that there are “clearly” members of far-right extremist groups serving in the military, and that homegrown extremists view it as a source of training, experience, and even potentially weapons.
Vance also said it was “not just possible” but “probable” that the Canadian Forces are not “sensitive enough to the issue of white supremacy,” and promised that when extremists are discovered, action will be taken. “People have online personas; they associate privately and it’s unknown to the chain of command. When it is known, we act.”
Cadieu echoed this point in speaking with Ricochet. “In order to foster trust amongst our tactical teams, any sort of racist behaviour, extremist ideology, is completely unacceptable. And when we find evidence of it, it’s our job to stomp it out,” he said.
Critics question whether the armed forces are living up to those words.
“As a child of Holocaust survivors,” said Farber, “my entire family in Europe during World War Two was murdered by soldiers who were part of a white supremacist movement at that time. How have we lost our understanding of history?”
“What’s next? Will they be able to wear the swastika around their neck? Swastika tattoos? Are they drawing the line anywhere?”
For Elghawaby, the danger of extremism is very real. “It’s about the actual promotion of ideology that is dangerous, and that leads communities to feel very worried and afraid and anxious about their safety, and whether or not they are protected by the institutions that say they will protect them.”
Extremism in the military, says Kelshall, is a “virus” that “will spread. It will not be able to be contained and we see that from the alarming rise of cases around the world, not just in the Canadian military.”
As for what can be done, she points to the need for education and training to help soldiers resist the appeal of extremist doctrine.
“It’s actually really simple to address. We have lots of money being invested in dealing with bullying and gang initiatives, we have lots of money being invested in dealing with organized crime, and we have absolutely no money invested in understanding counternarrative and the need for counternarrative training in frontline troops and serving military and police officers.”