HALIFAX — The commander of Canada's East Coast Navy has apologized to the Aboriginal community for a Canada Day confrontation in which Armed Forces members disrupted a ceremony in Halifax.
Rear Admiral John Newton said he has spoken to five men who approached a spiritual event honouring the suffering of Indigenous Peoples at a statue of Halifax's controversial founder, Edward Cornwallis.
The group were clad in black polo shirts with yellow piping — one of them carrying a Red Ensign Flag — as they approached singing "God Save the Queen,'' according to one Mi'kmaq organizer. The Canadian Red Ensign, which bears the Union Jack in the corner, was the national flag until it was replaced by the Maple Leaf design in 1965.
The men said they were members of the Proud Boys, a self-declared group of "Western Chauvinists.''
"I told the young people they had crossed a line where their personal beliefs, their personal ideology — which they are allowed to have — got into the public domain,'' Newton, commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic, said Tuesday, standing at the edge of a jetty at HMC Dockyard.
"Their personal beliefs, whether religious, political or white supremacy, whatever the Proud Boys represent, it's not a shared value of the Canadian Armed Forces.''
I hope that those young people will find a moment to make their own apologies in due course.Rear Admiral John Newton
He said six members of the military, including members of the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian army and a member of a cadet organization, were involved. They will face an administrative process and a separate process under the military justice system, he said.
"I apologize for the actions of my young sailors, and ... I hope that those young people will find a moment to make their own apologies in due course.''
Newton said he received complaints from Aboriginal friends, and there was a "considerable outcry'' from serving members of the Forces.
"We have such a very open and inclusive message. It helps to stabilize conflict around the world,'' he said. "Those values are very much at stake in an incident like this.''
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan also apologized to Halifax's Mi'kmaq community and Chief Grizzly Mamma, who took part in the ceremony, "for the pain this incident has caused.''
"I know my words cannot undo the disrespect that was shown to you and your community. I know our government has much more work to do with respect to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples,'' Sajjan said in a statement Tuesday.
"But I want to give you my personal assurance that this kind of behaviour will not be tolerated within the ranks of the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence.''
Cornwallis, as governor of Nova Scotia, founded Halifax in 1749, and soon after issued a bounty on Mi'kmaq scalps in response to an attack on colonists.
'This is a British colony'
A video of the Canada Day incident at the Cornwallis statue shows five men interacting with spectators at the ceremony.
"This is a British colony,'' one of the men says in the video. "You're recognizing the heritage and so are we.''
In the video, one of the spectators appears to hold an upside-down Canadian flag, which someone implies has been marked with the word "decolonize.''
Asked if the group is associated with an organization, one of the men in the video says, "The Proud Boys, Maritime chapter.''
The Proud Boys Canadian Chapters Facebook page says they are "a fraternal organization of Western Chauvinists who will no longer apologize for creating the modern world'' and do not discriminate on the basis of race or sexuality.
A witness to the interaction says the men kept their voices down as the ceremony continued and left after about 10 minutes.
Men were reportedly on a pub crawl
A person close to one of the individuals involved in the incident, who agreed to speak to The Canadian Press on the condition that their identity not be revealed, said the men were on a pub crawl on Saturday.
One was carrying the old Red Ensign to celebrate Canada's 150th anniversary when they passed by the Cornwallis statue and noticed an upside-down Canadian flag with black markings, the person said.
The men did not intend to provoke people at the gathering, the person said, but were trying to peacefully defend the flag they fight for.
The person said the man they know doesn't hold hateful views and is no longer associated with The Proud Boys. The man was acting out of character due to a combination of youth and intoxication, they said, and he deeply regrets the incident, but believes the army is taking appropriate action.
It's military men coming and disturbing Indigenous women doing a ceremony. That is like a story since the beginning of them landing here.Rebecca Moore
Rebecca Moore, who participated in Saturday's ceremony, said in an interview Monday that the military shouldn't tolerate the men's behaviour, adding that it was far from an isolated incident.
"It's military men coming and disturbing Indigenous women doing a ceremony,'' said Moore. "That is like a story since the beginning of them landing here.
"The military has to say, 'They don't represent us.'''
Commanders of the Canadian Army and Navy released a joint statement Tuesday saying that the chain of command "takes action'' when a member's conduct is not in keeping with military code.
"The actions of a few do not reflect the Royal Canadian Navy and Canadian Army commitment to being inclusive and diverse organizations,'' Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd and Lt.-Gen. Paul Wynnyk said in a Facebook post.
"Unfortunately, some of our sailors and soldiers have not ... made the necessary mind shift that leads to deep institutional change.''
Newton said Tuesday the military has to be a reflection of the diversity within Canada.
"Inclusivity is paramount in fighting units of the Canadian Armed Forces. You can't have members of your team, whether of another gender, another race, another ethic background or language, who don't feel like they're included in the ship's company or the fighting unit. The combat effectiveness of our units is very much at stake if people don't trust each other.''
Newton said that when military members involve themselves with outside groups, such as motorcycle gangs or fringe political parties, they expose themselves to blackmail. That means their ability to handle sensitive information can be compromised.
However, he said the military is no stranger to such thorny issues. Newton mentioned Shidane Arone, the teen in Somalia who was tortured and killed by Canadian soldiers in 1993 after he was caught sneaking into a Canadian compound. He also drew attention to an apology he issued only two weeks ago after a sailor mimicked an native war cry while Aboriginal candidates for the military were being introduced at a military course.
With files from Michael MacDonald