11/26/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 01/26/2015 05:59 EST

PTSD and danger among deterrents to visible minorities joining military

The Canadian Armed Forces remains far short of its goals for recruiting more women, aboriginals and visible minorities and concerns about sexual assault, racism and mental health are dissuading some from a career in the military, according to a sweeping new survey of targeted groups.

A study commissioned by the Department of National Defence reached out to black, Filipino and Latin American Canadians to find out why they are underrepresented in uniform. It found that military service is considered the least desirable career choice for more than a fifth of participants — with other jobs like policing or retail service being distant seconds as careers least likely to be pursued.

Using a combination of focus groups and online surveys, the research by Ipsos Reid found that while some see service in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) as a stable job with good pay and benefits, others believe the drawbacks like danger, separation from family and having to follow orders outweigh the pros.

Stress and mental health issues were also cited as deterrents.

"Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was mentioned on an unprompted basis by a number of participants, with many bringing up concerns that the CAF does not provide sufficient support for members suffering from this disorder," the report reads.

Some black participants also flagged a perception of racism in the ranks as a barrier, and some female participants were negatively influenced by reported incidents of sexual assault in the military, according to the report.

Many respondents did not perceive it as prestigious career, or the best way to achieve career goals such as working in the health-care field. A lack of familiarity with the military and its members and a lower likelihood that parents or community leaders would encourage them to join are also factors.

Ipsos Reid was paid $196,460 to carry out focus groups in six cities and surveys with 1,838 people online between March and June 2014. This is the third and final phase of research on targeted visible minority groups, after previous studies of Chinese Canadians in 2010 and Arab Canadians in 2012.

The Canadian Armed Forces Employment Equity Plan was established in 2006, and since then outreach programs and targeted advertising and recruitment have made some progress in boosting diversity in the ranks. But the Forces still falls far short of reaching the required targets, according to figures provided by National Defence:

- A goal of 25.1 per cent for women is now at 14.8 per cent.

- The 11.8 per cent target for visible minorities is now at 5.3 per cent.

- A 3.4 per cent goal for aboriginals is now 2.3 per cent.

'Considerable challenges' in recruiting

"The major implications of these findings are that the CAF will encounter considerable challenges in recruiting members of the black, Filipino and Latin American Canadian communities in the same percentage as they are represented in the overall Canadian population," the report concludes.

"Therefore, in spite of the efforts of the CAF to be reflective of Canadian society, tendencies and perceptions that are steeped in culture and often conditioned by the circumstances of recent immigration make compliance with the requirements of the Employment Equity Act a difficult and a complex issue for the CAF."

Among the key findings:

- Many youth wanted to pursue careers in health care, entrepreneurship or business.

- Drawbacks include danger, following orders you disagree with and being away from home.

- The impression that the military is for people with no other options and is not prestigious is greater than in the general public.

- A civilian university education is seen as a more direct pathway to success.

- Familiarity with CAF is low compared to the general public and participants in the target groups are less likely to know a current or former Forces member.

- A strong sense by parents and communities that it's an unsafe occupation.

DND spokeswoman Marie-Hélène ​Brisson said the military is committed to meeting Employment Equity Act obligations...

"Diversity plays a pivotal role in ensuring that the CAF remains a strong, innovative and forward-looking organization," she told CBC News. "We strive to be reflective of Canada's cultural, ethnic and linguistic makeup, as well as its regional diversity."

Reflecting Canada's cultural makeup

The research will help the military evaluate and adapt recruitment programs and activities to boost diversity, Brisson said.

Walter Dorn, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, said the emphasis by some past military brass on "killing" can turn off recruits who want to help people. To that end, the military could do more to emphasize the peacekeeping role, and to have more visible minorities, women and aboriginals in senior leadership and command positions.

He also noted that some immigrants don't have the same family tradition of serving in the military and a knowledge or experience of military abuses in their countries of origin can also negatively sway their opinions.

Dorn believes it is important to have Canada's diversity reflected in the military not only to represent the population but also to operate more effectively abroad, pointing to the demand for Arabic speakers for military operations in the Middle East.

"Canada can show multiculturalism and gender equality by example," he said. "Multiculturalism, not Western imperialism, should be the impression we create."