By Scott Taylor
Last week the social media platforms were set abuzz over a photograph depicting a squad of armed Canadian soldiers in combat uniforms, seemingly on patrol on the streets of Toronto. The majority of these soldiers wore regimental turbans adorned with the cap badges of several different militia units. They were in loose order, rather than in formed ranks and they carried their C-7 assault rifles at the ‘low-ready’ as if on patrol.
The photo was first posted by Toronto Sun columnist Tarek Fatah along with his commentary on this as being “Canadian Sikh soldiers march in Toronto’s Khalsa Day Parade. What’s next? Jewish soldiers to mark Yom Kippur or Hindu soldiers marching for Diwali? Stop it please. Trudeau is turning our Canadian Armed Forces into an ethnic vote getting spectacle. Stop ghettoizing our military.”
Admittedly, at first glance the photo appeared to be a fake news story, a bit of doctored click bait which Fatah had fallen for. My colleague David Pugliese of the Ottawa Citizen, undoubtedly Canada’s best defence reporter, retweeted Fatah’s twitter post with a cautionary alert to it possibly being a fake, and a promise that he would follow up the story with Public Affairs.
Turns out that photo was indeed authentic, and that the participation of these Sikh-Canadian soldiers in the April 28, Khalsa Day parade had been authorized by no less than the Commander of 32 Canadian Brigade.
The approval for participation is easy enough to understand, as the Khalsa Day parade is a significant annual event for the Sikh community, drawing a crowd of over 100,000.
Where the wheels came off this cart was when the Commanding Officer of the Lorne Scots Regiment was tasked to fulfill his Brigade Commander’s commitment. Apparently, this Lieutenant-Colonel wanted to demonstrate to the Khalsa Day parade audience that Canada’s Army is a well equipped, capable combat force. To facilitate this he authorized the participants to march in ‘full fighting order’, with assault rifles. Who instructed them to carry these weapons at the ‘low-ready’ is not clear.
For those familiar with such things, it is well known that on the rare occasions in which soldiers are authorized to parade in public with weapons, there are strict guidelines to follow. As one would expect, the Canadian Armed Forces manual on Drill and Ceremony is very specific about every movement and proper sequence. Hence the surprise among the military community to see this squad posed more for an actual war-zone, than on ceremonial parade in the streets of Canada’s largest city.
In responding to media questions about this incident, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, himself a Sikh-Canadian veteran, stated that “While the intentions to participate in this event were good, the choice that was made was inappropriate.”
A military spokesperson confirmed that the incident is currently under investigation and could result in administrative or disciplinary measures being taken.
In response to the military’s admission of this being ‘inappropriate’ some would be army supporters began questioning why this particular parade was being singled out by the top brass. Several other photos appeared online showing similar scenes – one included a fully geared up Special Forces operative on the streets of Edmonton – as if somehow these multiple wrongs would somehow make a right.
Personally, I don’t agree with Fatah’s assertion that participation in such events ghettoizes our military. Nor do I agree with Balpreet Singh Bopari of the world Sikh organization in Canada, who commented to media in the wake of the parade “If this was a group of white soldiers, people who don’t look different, it wouldn’t have been an issue.”
Turbans have been official headgear in the Canadian Military since 1986 and Sikh-Canadians in uniform are a familiar sight within the military community.
What upset people was the image of Canadian soldiers casually displaying lethal weapons, in ragged formation on a civilian street.
This case will not need a lengthy investigation to determine who made the ‘inappropriate’ blunder. That is the beauty of a clearly defined chain of command. It should also not result in a re-writing of the guidelines. Those are already clearly defined – they just need to be followed.