Searching for diversity in the Canadian Forces

Photo courtesy of Western Sentinel, Flickr

Photo courtesy of Western Sentinel, Flickr

As an organization with a mandate to represent and protect national interests, it is understood that the Canadian Forces should reflect the values and composition of society.

In 2006, the Canadian immigrant population rose to 6.2 million, accounting for almost 20 per cent of the Canadian population. It is projected that by 2017, the visible minority population will represent approximately one in five Canadians.

But data from the 2008 census shows that the Canadian Forces does not reflect the same level of ethno-cultural diversity. A small proportion of Canadian Forces personnel, only six per cent, were non-Caucasians, compared with 17 per cent of the regular working population.

Grazia Scoppio

Grazia Scoppio

Grazia Scoppio, an associate professor at the Canadian Defence Academy and the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont., agrees that the composition of the Canadian Forces does not yet reflect the gender and ethnic diversity of the Canadian labour force. Representation rates of non-Caucasians in the Canadian Forces are lower than those in the federal government and the general labour force.

Based on self-identification figures as of January 2012, there are 2,721 non-Caucasian people serving in the regular force and 2,051 serving in the reserve force. Similarly, there are currently 1,477 Aboriginal people serving in the regular force and 601 in the reserve force.

According to statistics from the Department of National Defence (DND), the total population of civilian employees in September 2011 was 28,040. At the time, only a little over six percent, or 1,738 civilian DND employees, were non-Caucasian. It is not mandatory for employees to identify as non-Caucasian.

Scoppio notes that the Canadian Forces compares well to other militaries in the world in employment equity. In fact, it is one of the few militaries where all combat occupations are open to women.

And while, generally speaking, there is less diversity in higher ranking positions, Scoppio indicates that this is similar to other organizations.

“It takes time for minority groups and women to reach a critical mass and make their way to the top ranks of any organization. This is true not only for the [Canadian Forces], but also for other militaries, other government departments, private sector organizations, and even universities,” she comments.

Reasons for low representation of non-Caucasians

The low rates of non-Caucasian and immigrant members may be related to the citizenship requirement for joining the Canadian Forces. Currently, only Canadian citizens can join the regular forces.

The discrepancy could also be partially explained by problems in the way non-Caucasians within the Canadian Forces are measured, as the self-identification process is voluntary.

However, significant differences in non-Caucasian representation still remain between the Canadian Forces and the working population, even after excluding recent immigrants.

In a report called “Can the Canadian Forces reflect Canadian Society?” published by the Canadian Military Journal, several reasons are cited for the low representation of non-Caucasians in the Canadian Forces.

One main reason is that, in some cultures, a military position is not considered as one that requires a high degree of education. Since education is perceived by many cultures as an essential way of achieving higher professional aspirations and financial success, parental and older generational influences advocate against a career in the military.

In addition, higher education is often seen as the means to overcome discrimination in the work force, and the current lack of non-Caucasians in higher ranking positions, within the Canadian Forces, is proof of a further deterrence.

Other reasons cited in the report include an attachment to family or ethnic identity, which may be compromised by a career in the Canadian military. Interestingly, the reason for not joining the Canadian Forces can also be based on the negative image of the person’s country or origin or background.

According to the Canadian Forces website, 6,000 new personnel are brought in each year, with an aim to expand to 100,000 personnel in the regular forces and primary reserve within 15 years.

To meet these recruiting targets, non-Caucasian representation in the Canadian Forces will become increasingly important as they are the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population, particularly in the traditional recruitment target age group of 17 to 24.

Amber Lee Bineau, communications advisor and military personnel command of National Defence, states that the Canadian Forces aims to have “an inclusive workforce, representative of Canada’s cultural, ethnic and linguistic makeup, as well as its regional diversity.”

Under the Employment Equity and Diversity Program, the Canadian Forces has developed specific programs and activities to recruit non-Caucasians and Aboriginals.

Some of the best practices developed by the Forces, as outlined by Scoppio, include setting policies for dress and dietary accommodation to allow members of diverse backgrounds such as Aboriginal, Muslim, and Jewish, to preserve their cultural, spiritual and religious identities.

They have also established a structure of Employment Equity Advisory Groups, to provide strategic advice on issues regarding different groups, including one for non-Caucasians.

However, Scoppio notes that, while the Canadian Forces shows examples of good practices in the area of diversity, that setting policies and developing programs are not enough.

She says more effort is needed to “ensure the organizational culture is conducive to having a diverse membership.”

Percentage of members that are non-Caucasian