Canadian Armed Forces Chaplain Captain Antin Sloboda holds Orthodox Easter Mass service at a reception centre in Warsaw, Poland, for Ukrainian refugees, in support of Task Force Poland on April 23. DND photo by Cpl Tori Lake

Military chaplains insulted by DND report

  • May 12, 2022

Retired Major Bob Near doesn’t dispute that Canada’s military has a problem. But he has a problem with at least one of the solutions the Minister of Defence’s Advisory Panel on Systemic Racism and Discrimination has proposed.

Getting rid of all the Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and most Jewish chaplains simply won’t result in a more inclusive, diverse, welcoming armed forces, Near said.

“In fact it will do nothing to solve the underlying problem,” he said. “That underlying problem has been a collapse of the military ethos and actually a failure to teach it.”

Near wrote the Canadian Forces handbook on military ethos back in 1997-98, in the aftermath of Somali teen Shidane Arone’s murder by members of the now-disbanded Airborne Regiment in 1993.

“If we had listened to the doctrine and taught the doctrine we would not have this problem that we’re suffering from today,” Near said. “Duty, integrity, discipline and honour — those four things. If the soldiers upheld them, we wouldn’t have these problems.”

Defence Minister Anita Anand initially appeared to accept the report unreservedly but her press secretary subsequently shrouded her response in a cloud of ambiguity.

“For many decades, chaplains from a wide range of faiths have served the members of the Canadian Armed Forces, and will continue to do so in the years to come,” press secretary Daniel Minden said in an email. “Minister Anand believes that the chaplaincy should represent Canada’s diversity, uphold the values and principles of the military and provide CAF members with access to spiritual or religious guidance if they seek it, regardless of faith.”

Still, just the fact that the recommendations were forwarded to Anand is an insult to Fr. Tim Nelligan, the first priest ever ordained by and for Canada’s Military Ordinariate.

“It insults all that history and the work that chaplains today, regardless of denomination, are trying to do to the best of their ability,” Nelligan said. “We’re the target here of this advisory report. The very idea of chaplaincy is being threatened.”

One of the report’s authors, Major Sandra Marie Perron, isn’t surprised that old soldiers like Near and Nelligan are upset.

“Obviously there will be some who are uncomfortable with the proposed recommendations,” she said. “Some will fight it. Some will leave. Some will just shut up and put up. Then some will try to grow through this and see how we can change the culture of the military to be more inclusive and diverse without really dampening anybody’s spirit or beliefs.”

Perron was the first female infantry officer serving in the Canadian Army. From 1991 to 1996 she completed two tours of duty in the former Yugoslavia, but along the way was subjected to sexual harrasment and outright hostility.

Perron insists her committee didn’t target any particular faith in its section on “Re-Defining Chaplaincy.”

“I don’t think we targeted any one particular faith. We listened to the people,” she said.

The report singles out “Christian religious leaders” for genocide against Indigenous people by way of residential schools. Catholics ran between 60 and 70 per cent of Canada’s Indian residential schools between 1880 and 1996. It calls out “some churches’ exclusion of women from their priesthoods” and “sexist notions.”

The review panel consulted with individual members of the military and defence advisory groups, Perron said.

“We heard from members of the LGBTQ2+ community that when they tried to bring up their issue of same-sex marriage they were, they felt, judged — demeaned,” she said. “So we heard the same thing from some transgender members.”

If the Canadian Armed Forces really do value diversity and equality, then the spiritual leaders the organization employs should fully reflect those values, said Perron.

“If you want to serve all your members, not just a select few, then you have to do this review and hire spiritual leaders that come from those organizations that also have the same values,” she said.

Whether or not there will be Catholic chaplains in the Canadian Forces in the future, “that will be for the Minister and her team to review, to decide. We did not make that recommendation,” Perron said.

That “regardless of faith” part has long been embedded in the mindset of Catholic military chaplains, said Nelligan, who is now seconded to the Archdiocese of Ottawa-Cornwall as pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish, but maintains a relationship with the Queen’s Own Rifles in Toronto and the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of the Canadian Militia.

While serving in Afghanistan Nelligan went toe-to-toe with an Admiral who insisted that the one Muslim serving under him had to shave off his beard. Nelligan won that battle for religious freedom. In Afghanistan and in Bosnia-Herzigovina Nelligan made sure that Muslim soldiers in his care had the opportunity to go to a mosque and he’s very proud of having served his fellow soldiers in that way.

“We have a policy of religious accommodation and chaplains have to know that,” he said.

Nelligan just doesn’t buy disclaimers that the report isn’t singling out Catholics.

“They don’t use the word Catholic outright, but there’s no making any mistakes about it,” he said.

The report authors seem utterly ignorant of what chaplains actually do, said Nelligan.

“They’re there to be advocates for the health and welfare of the soldier, at all levels — psychological, physical, moral and spiritual,” he explained.

There’s no doctrine or practice of the Church that stops a chaplain from serving soldiers of all faiths and none, according to Nelligan.

“If I allow that to get in the way of doing my job, then yes, absolutely, disciplinary measures need to be taken,” he said. “Because that contradicts what I say that I am as a military chaplain.”

Not only is the report not solving the real problems in the military, it may get in the way of a more fundamental conundrum — recruiting. For years the Canadian Armed Forces have been below full force because they can’t attract enough young people to join.

“They don’t want to admit it, but the military is not offering those who join the military the sense of happiness and well-being that they thought being in the military would be,” Near said.

As a Catholic who served, Near can’t imagine young Catholics joining an army that plainly doesn’t want them.

Nelligan believes good chaplaincy by professional and trained chaplains embedded in the ranks and military culture are more likely to be the solution than the problem.

“You can’t eliminate prejudice and discrimination by imposing a different kind of prejudice and discrimination,” he said.

And, Nelligan warns, there are no simple, one-step solutions.

“The Canadian military is reflective of the society that supports it, that is Canadian society. So if there is a sickness in Canadian society, you’re going to see some of that in the military… That’s a leadership issue. It’s also a recruiting issue.”

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