OTTAWA - The military "did not miss" a Manitoba army reservist's alleged links to a neo-Nazi group, but in fact first started looking into it months before media reports on the subject began to surface, Canada's top general said Thursday.
Defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance was speaking out for the first time about Master Cpl. Patrik Mathews, whose case has raised questions about whether the military is doing enough to address hate and right-wing extremism in the ranks.
Vance promised to be more active in rooting out such behaviour and beliefs from the military ranks, and issued a stern warning to those hoping to use the Canadian Forces as a training ground or avenue to spread their "vile ideology."
"We're a serious institution that does serious things to protect Canadians, to protect this country, to protect our way of life," he said following a ceremony to install the military's new chief of personnel.
"We are not a place for sick hobbyists to practice their vile ideology. And we won't stand for it. We will react and where we can be proactive, we will be. But I assure you, we will react."
The combat engineer with the 38 Canadian Brigade Group in Winnipeg first met with his commanding officers in April to discuss "his utterances," Vance said without providing further details. On Monday, the Winnipeg Free Press published a story linking the reservist to a neo-Nazi group.
Mathews subsequently applied to leave the Forces even as military officials launched a formal investigation into his activities — a probe Vance said was underway in July, weeks before the Free Press story was published.
"The Canadian Forces national counter-intelligence unit had already begun to deal with him by the time that story broke," he said. "I'm happy to say we didn't miss the signal."
Mathews has not been arrested or charged with any crime, and Vance isn't providing further details, citing privacy laws and the ongoing investigation.
The RCMP are reportedly conducting their own investigation, but have only said that they raided a house in Beausejour, Man., on Monday and seized a number of weapons.
Concerns about the presence of hate groups and right-wing extremists in the military had been growing even before the allegations against Mathews thanks to an internal military report on the issue and several high-profile incidents.
Those had in turn prompted questions about what steps the military was taking, especially since some groups were specifically encouraging their members to get military training or trying to recruit service members.
Some experts have called on the Forces to tighten screening for new recruits and launch an awareness campaign for commanders and others know how to identify those associated with hate groups and extremism.
It can be a challenge to effectively screen individuals for hateful behaviour and beliefs before they join, said Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson, the incoming commander for military personnel.
"Could you do a better screening? Well, you could do a very detailed screening that could take a very long time, but you have to be respectful of the law," said Edmundson, whose new role includes overseeing military recruitment.
"But what you can do is you can ask them the right questions. You can do enough of a background check that at least you get a pulse of who they are. And then once you get them in the door, then you can start to see what their actions say."
Even then, some such as Bernie Farber of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network have questioned whether the military is walking the talk when it comes to dealing with service members who are found to exhibit hateful behavior or beliefs.
The concern has been prompted by uncertainty about the fates of 30 active service members identified in a military-intelligence report in November as being associated with hate groups or right-wing extremism.
Defence officials told The Canadian Press late last week that at least seven of the cases have been reviewed by commanders and at least two of the individuals have since left the military, but have yet to provide further details.
Edmundson said he could not speak to the 30 individual cases, but "I can assure you that when we do know, we act.
"As was the case in Winnipeg, we knew about it before it came out in the report and we acted and we investigated. And we are still acting and still investigating many of the other incidents that are out there."
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