Todd: The “most diverse” military regiment in Canada is in Vancouver

Opinion: The honorary commander of the regiment is tired of Canada’s armed forces being treated as a punching bag, targets of multiple accusations, including racism.

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Iranian-Canadian Farid Rohani calls it the “most diverse” regiment in the Canadian military, made up of ”brothers and sisters” bonded by adversity and the willingness to serve.

The Vancouver-based regiment, of which Rohani is honorary colonel, consists of men and women of Filipino, Arab, Chinese, Indigenous, European, South Asian, Latin American and Korean heritage. It’s led by a Sikh-Canadian.

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The 140 soldiers of the British Columbia Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own) are army reservists trained for combat. As members of the province’s oldest regiment, they are well aware that their military forebears have fought in every major Canadian conflict since the Boer War in 1899.

While Rohani is proud of the regiment’s ethnic and gender diversity, he notes few regiment members care much about each other’s backgrounds. “What’s more important is that they serve together. They’re a family.”

Rohani is frustrated with the way the 97,000 members of Canada’s armed forces are often treated as a cultural punching bag, targets of endless criticism. And he is especially taken aback by a recent edition of The Canadian Military Journal, in which 13 essayists argue the country’s armed forces are thoroughly racist, colonialistic and sexist, and need to be remade from scratch.

While Rohani doesn’t think the military or any other institution is flawless, he says the arguments launched by the academics in the special edition of the journal are “absolutely” false and fail to show members of the military the respect they deserve, particularly for their sacrifices.

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Operating out of the Beatty Street Drill Hall in downtown Vancouver, members of the B.C. Regiment have recently served in Latvia, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere. For six to nine months at a time, they provide overseas training, border services and other functions. They are also regularly called up when Canada is battered by fires, floods and pandemics.

In regard to demographics, Rohani estimates slightly more than half the regiment is made up of members of visible minorities. About one-third of the regiment is ethnic Chinese, with significant numbers of members of South Asian, Latin American and Indigenous background. One in eight, roughly, are female.

B.C. Regiment
From left: Members of the B.C. Regiment, from left: Lt. Braverman, Lt. Attalaoui, Sgt. Aliakbar, Maj. Vinning, Sgt. Galang, Cpl. Parker and Lt. Wong.  Photo by Farid Rohani /sun

Although Rohani doesn’t have the data to prove the B.C. Regiment is the most diverse in Canada, it makes sense it would be among them, in part because it reflects the ethnic makeup of cosmopolitan Vancouver, where slightly more than half of all residents are people of colour.

A Ministry of National Defence study published last year found the country’s armed forces are roughly 85 per cent of European descent (higher than the national population average of 72 per cent), 10 per cent visible minority (compared to 21 per cent nationally), and four per cent Indigenous (five per cent nationally). In addition, about one in five are female.

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As far as Rohani is concerned, such national demographics don’t give academics such as Maya Eichler, a professor of women’s studies at Halifax’s Mount Saint Vincent University, the justification to write in the Canadian Military Journal that the nation’s “problematic military culture” is shot through with “patriarchy, colonialism, white supremacy, heteronormativity, ableism and classism.”

The B.C. Regiment’s commanding officer, Lt.-Col. Vincent Virk, believes strongly in multiculturalism and increasing various kinds of diversity in the armed forces.

But while Virk welcomes discourse over difficult topics such as racism, and acknowledges there can be discrimination in the military, he says it is not allowed to run amok.

In his 23 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, he said, he has experienced less racism than in his everyday life.

“Am I concerned there’s a proliferation of white supremacy and racist undertones in the Canadian military? Absolutely not,” said Virk.

“It’s been an overall positive experience. There’s a familial bond. It doesn’t matter where you come from. We have a saying in the regiment: ‘Once a Duke (of Connaught), always a Duke.’ We stay connected beyond our service time.”

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Raised in Osoyoos until he attended the University of B.C., Virk follows in the footsteps of another Sikh, former Canadian defence minister Harjit Sajjan, who also commanded the B.C. Regiment. In 2021, Sajjan was succeeded as defence minister by Anita Anand, who has roots in India.

Despite such military realities, however, the federal government stated publicly in 2021 that the Department of National Defence is replete with “systemic racism and discrimination.”

In turn that has led to Eichler, in her feature article in The Canadian Military Journal, maintaining the forces must be remade via an “anti-oppression framework” of “feminist, decolonial, critical race, queer, critical ability and critical political economy theories.” Another essayist referred to the Canadian Armed Forces as being poisoned by “institutional whiteness.”

Virk, who has been in charge of the B.C. Regiment for almost four years, has a decidedly different understanding from the point of view of a long-time insider.

He says his “citizen soldiers,” who include university students, filmmakers, financial auditors and first responders, connect deeply through adversity, whether it strikes in their personal lives or in their often-challenging physical, classroom or combat training. “It’s where the bonds really get made.”

Referring to the traditional colour of the uniforms worn by most of the tens of thousands of women and men in the Canadian military, Virk says, “You can have all the diversity there is, but you’re still wearing the same uniform. ‘In the end,’ we say, ‘we all bleed green.’”

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