It could take several more generations before some visible minority communities see military career as an option
The Canadian Armed Forces still hasn’t met its goal of having 11.8 per cent of its ranks filled by visible minorities.
A Department of National Defence communications officer, Jessica Lamirande, said that the number has tripled in the last decade and as of 2015 it sits at 6.1 per cent.
Walter Dorn, a defense studies professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, says “there’s a long tradition within Canadian society of people contributing, of families contributing, families and ancestors contributing to military. So we can say that this is a tradition that continues. Whereas coming in as immigrants have that less as a tradition.”
Major Nav Grewal of the Canadian forces explains that his family has ties to the military from a foreign country. As a Canadian-born citizen, Grewal knew he always wanted to be part of the Canadian military. Joining in 2001 as an officer, he worked his way up the ranks.
“I have a lot of family ties to the military in India, so it was always something that was in our life,” he says.
But not all immigrant families welcome the idea of their kin joining the forces.
Retired colonel Howe Lee, founder and president of the Chinese Canadian Military Museum, says there are lengthy reasons, both historically and culturally, for the Chinese-Canadians lack of representation in the Canadian Armed Forces.
Lee says that Canadian-Chinese were labelled as registered aliens despite serving as members of the forces in World War I and II. As a result, a number of Canadian-Chinese military volunteers who were killed in action are still not recognized as Canadian citizens.
Lee believes that it will take time for attitudes to change because many Chinese-Canadian parents and grandparents remember these experiences and as a result, are wary of the military’s intentions.
“Since it is 70 years since the end of World War II, it may take another generation or two to overcome the historic discrimination,” says Lee.
The military not a top choice career for immigrant families
Due to this perspective, many immigrant families would like for their children to succeed in Canada, and go into more lucrative professions. In some cases, King Wan, president of the Chinese Canadian Military Museum, says the military is not considered an employer of choice because it is not one of the higher-paying professions.
In fact, research done by Ipsos Reid on visible minorities recruitment and the Canadian Forces in 2012, proves that many ethnic minorities do not see the military as a top career choice.
One of the key findings was that, “The Canadian forces are not a top-of-mind career option for most Asian and Arab Canadians. When asked what careers they would be interested in pursuing, or would recommend to a young person, no more than one percent of Asian and Arab Canadian youth or community indicated the military as their preference.”
Christian Poonwah, a retired army reservist with the forces says that immigrant families may be more resistant to their children joining the military because they perceive it as being a career for people with lower education.
“We’re first generation Canadians, my brother and I, and I remember meeting some resistance within my family to join the military because they really remember it from their country, being a place for the sort of rejected, dejected, undereducated people. So that might be a reason,” says Poonwah.
Poonwah, whose parents are from Trinidad and Tobago, says he also saw joining the Canadian Armed Forces as an opportunity to help the world, deciding to do so when he was 17 years old.
“You know at the time Canada’s role was mostly peacekeeping, so I saw the army as a good opportunity to make a difference internationally and it just seemed to be where I was drawn.”
Poonwah says that being a visible minority in the Canadian forces was no different than his other life experiences as a visible minority in Canadian society.
“I was very active, both in sort of like military operational interactions as well as sort of extracurricular activities so I became very quickly liked within my regiment and my different teams,” says Poonwah.
Grewal agrees that the CAF is very inclusive, but he never felt his experience was different because of his ethnicity.
“The camaraderie that you get within the Forces, you definitely feel that at all levels regardless of sex or culture or ethnicity,” says Grewal.
Although King Wan acknowledges the Canadian Armed Forces have been trying to attract more visible minorities and immigrants, he still thinks more could be done to overcome these obstacles that impact Asian communities view of the Canadian military.
Thumbnail courtesy of 7th Army Joint Multinational Training Command/Flickr under a generic creative common lisence.
- By Caroline Fyvie and Melissa Kadey