By Major (Ret.) Tony Keene CD

The recent decision by the commander of 32 Canadian Brigade Group to end regimental church parades is to be lauded, not bemoaned. Christie Blatchford’s recent column in The National Post gives the impression that Col. Dan Stepaniuk has ordered his soldiers to stay away from church. The outraged heading says so almost explicitly.

In fact, all he has done is tell his unit commanding officers that they can no longer make their troops attend imposed religious services. Surely this is something no right-thinking Canadian would want in their own workplace; why then should our service members have to do it?

Queen’s Regulations and Orders for the Canadian Forces, usually quoted simply as QR&O, expressly forbid commanders from forcing their troops to attend church services. Yet it is almost universally ignored, especially in the army combat units, especially in reserve regiments. These units almost all have official associations with Christian churches, official Christian prayers and grace at meals, and ceremonies and traditions which involve the ordered removal of headdress and imposed prayer.

When was the last time your boss at work ordered you and your fellow employees to pray with him? It happens regularly in the Forces, especially in the army.

The Forces are among the most diverse military organizations on Earth. Its members come directly or indirectly from all corners of the globe, so much so that 20 years ago the military chaplaincy almost completely re-invented itself to provide ministry to all faiths, and to those of no faith. And yes, large numbers of people in the Forces are not members of any faith group and would like to be left alone. Yet commanders generally have not changed their thinking and continue to expect their units to take part en masse in Christian worship.

And it is Christian in form, tone, and appearance, even though sometimes-puny attempts are made to be inclusive.

These things may be described as voluntary, but they are not. Peer pressure appeals to unit loyalty. Otherwise derision, insult, and threat are all used to ensure a large turnout. Believe me, I’ve been there many times.

The military is the only government agency in this country in which your supervisor at work can order you to pray with him, and if you decline, he can charge you, try you, convict you, and punish you. In 2002 a naval officer was court-martialed simply for not removing his headdress for imposed Christian prayer. He was convicted and heavily fined. His career was seriously damaged as a result. That case made it into public view; most others do not.

In my more than four decades in uniform as a reservist, I have suffered insult, derision, and contempt for my non-belief, and my wish not to take part in enforced religious ceremonies. Decades of loyal service, multiple overseas missions (four complete operational tours), and a rack of medals suddenly mean nothing. You become an instant target of sarcasm and threat. Consequences have ranged from the above-mentioned court martial to simple shunning and ostracism.

I have myself personally witnessed soldiers not only thrown off parade, but ejected from the building, for asking to be excused from command-imposed religion. I have seen teenage cadets ordered to be marched right out the gates of their summer camp, and held in close custody, because they asked not to attend what were in fact compulsory Christian church services.

Col. Stepaniuk’s decision is completely in line with military regulations which have been in place for more than half a century. It is also in line with the 2015 Supreme Court of Canada decision on government and religion (Mouvement laique vs. Ville de Saguenay), and it is in line with common sense and decency.

Our troops are as free to worship, or not worship, as every other citizen. Col. Stepaniuk has made a step towards achieving this. I only hope that it is soon made Forces-wide, and all these imposed religious “traditions” will be put where they belong, in glass cases in a museum.

In such small incremental strikes does the Canadian tradition of decency and tolerance gain strength.

This article appears in the November 2019 version of Critical Links.