Military goes multicultural


Strapping on combat boots was the last thing in the mind of Luis Miguel Portillo Illescas when he moved to Vancouver as a landed immigrant last year.

Tall, a neat dresser, and with the bearing of a potential officer, the 33-year-old lawyer from Mexico City isn't gung ho over prospects that Canada will offer a quick route to citizenship to those who join the military, or waive the citizenship prerequisite to allow immigrants to enlist in the Canadian Forces.

“I can wait for three years,”  Illescas told the Georgia Straight, referring to the required 36-month residency before landed immigrants can apply for Canadian citizenship. A proud first-time father of a baby boy who was born a few weeks ago, he said military service would take him away from his family, and that wasn't part of his plan when he and his wife came over.

But other immigrants with limited career options may find enticing prospective plans intended to attract newcomers to the military. Last August, Capt. Helene Tremblay told the Montreal Gazette the military is looking at dropping citizenship as a prerequisite for armed service in a bid to boost sagging troop strength.

On a number of occasions, Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier has floated the idea of fast-tracking citizenship for landed immigrants who serve under the Maple Leaf. “We've got to look at the thing in a different dynamic and maybe we want to go and seek with Citizenship and Immigration agreement that if landed immigrants join the Canadian Forces they have an accelerated route to citizenship in our great country,”  Hillier said in a speech before a meeting of the Conference of Defence Associations in Ottawa early this year.

Ivan Drury, an organizer of the Vancouver-based Mobilization Against War and Occupation, said that in the absence of a draft that makes armed service mandatory, the military is targeting poor and vulnerable sectors of the population.

“It's coercion,”  Drury told the Georgia Straight. “They're trying to lure people who mostly work for minimum wages and have limited employment options. It's nothing but an economic draft.” 

Prof. Michael Wallace of the UBC department of political science noted that citizenship has been used by the United States as an inducement for military service at least since the Vietnam War and that Canada appears to be on its way to replicating this recruitment model. Wallace said proposals revolving around citizenship and military service indicate that recruitment totals are down and that the military is “getting desperate” .

According to the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces Web site (, there are approximately 62,000 regular force members and 25,000 reserves, including 4,000 Canadian Rangers. Canada will expand the regular force to 75,000 and add 10,000 reservists, it said.

Speaking to the Straight, Lt. Johanna Wickie denied that recruitment is on a decline in the face of a deeply divided public opinion on the Afghanistan mission and the increasing number of flag-draped coffins being flown back to the country.

“So far we have not noticed a difference in the number of people coming to us to talk about jobs in the military,”  Wickie said in an interview at the Canadian Forces Recruiting Centre in downtown Vancouver.

As diversity officer, Wickie confirmed that the military is trying to reflect the country's changing demographic structure. She noted that only 2.2 percent of the Canadian Forces are composed of people with “declared visible minority”  origins. Native troops comprise 2.1 percent of the force, and women 17 percent. Wickie said that the recruitment target calls for filling up nine percent of the total force with members of visible-minority communities.

In a May 2006 report to Parliament, federal Auditor General Sheila Fraser noted that with Canada's “changing demographic profile, a low interest among Canadian youth in joining the military, and increasing military operational demands, the current recruiting system is not supporting the needs of the Canadian Forces.” 

Fraser noted that National Defence has conducted demographic studies and has set targets to recruit young women and young Canadians from Native and visible-minority groups. “However, so far the department has not been successful in meeting these targets. The number of women recruited into the military has steadily decreased since our last audit in 2002, and the same trend appears for visible minorities and Aboriginal people,”  Fraser reported.

She debunked claims””and one was, in fact, made by Hillier in his speech before the Conference of Defence Associations””that a lack of advertising is to blame.

Although the advertising budget to attract applicants to the military decreased by about 50 percent recently, from about $13 million in 2001–02 to about $7 million in 2004–05, “we did not see this pattern and noted that advertising was only one of several influences on prospective recruits that led them to inquire about joining the military,”  Fraser pointed out.

“Even though the Department has carried out studies on the demographics of the Canadian labour force, is promoting diversity, and is spending $1.5 million on diversity recruiting, these efforts are not achieving results,”  the auditor general added.

Last May, the Ottawa-based Polaris Institute reported that Canada spent $4.1 billion on Afghanistan-related military operations since 9/11.

In the 2005 fall issue of the Dispatch, a newsletter of the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute, an article entitled “Canada's Culturally Correct Military”  said that “visible minorities”  make up roughly 13 percent of Canada's population and it is “essential”  for Canadian Forces to draw its members from across the entire spectrum.

The article, written by Ray Crabbe, pointed out that there are roughly four million visible minorities in Canada, of which one million are of Chinese descent, one million from South Asia, 700,000 blacks, 350,000 Filipinos, and about a million from other ethnic origins. “In a force of 65,000 regular force members and 25,000 reservists, on an equitable basis this equates to recruiting and retaining about 3,000 Chinese, 3,000 South Asians, 2,000 Blacks, 1,000 Filipinos and 3,000 others,”  Crabbe wrote.

Crabbe, who was appointed deputy chief of defence staff in 1997 and oversaw Canadian Forces operations and intelligence worldwide, acknowledged the difficulty in attracting and retaining visible-minority recruits.

“The predominantly white male population that makes up a very large percentage of the military will need to be educated to create an atmosphere of acceptance for visible minorities,”  the retired general wrote. “Many of the minority groups came to Canada to escape repressive and totalitarian military-led regimes and are sceptical about any military organization, even one whose soldiers are the envy of the world.” 

Derrick O'Keefe, cochair of, decried as duplicitous suggestions to entice landed immigrants into service even before they acquire Canadian citizenship. “The military is, in effect, saying that while immigrants don't have the full rights as Canadian citizens and cannot vote to choose their political leaders and influence the policies of the government, they have the right to go out there and die. That's very hypocritical,”  O'Keefe told the Straight.