Rubin “Rocky” Coward is “extremely optimistic” about changes he feels are imminent within the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Coward ⁠— along with JP Menard, Marc Frenette, and Wallace Fowler ⁠— are the four plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the CAF, and are are suing for systemic racism and institutional discrimination they say they faced within the Canadian military.

“Good things come not only to those that are willing to wait but those that are ready to fight,” said Coward in an interview with the Examiner. “Because we’re not asking them to do this, we’re demanding this.”

Black man in Black glasses and grey sweater smiles for the camera
Photo: Rocky Coward

Coward, who is Black, is retired from the air force.

“When I finished serving in Germany back in 1990, I went to Greenwood and I faced systemic racism there for three years, and I ended up with post-traumatic stress disorder,” Coward said. “Actually, I think it was the first case diagnosed in the country for racism within the system.”

Coward said the catalyst for the case goes back to May 11, 2011, when former prosecutor, now judge, Perry Borden introduced him to Wallace “Wally” Fowler.

“Wally Fowler served in the Canadian Armed Forces from 2000 to 2003, and regrettably he’d encountered systemic and horrific racism at CFB Borden Ontario, then he went to CFB Esquimalt, and then he went to Trenton, and at all three bases he faced horrific racism,” Coward said. “And it’s well documented, quite frankly.”

Coward said Fowler developed post-traumatic stress disorder and had two nervous breakdowns because of the racism he faced in the military.

“He told me his story and he came with a plethora of documents, and I read through them and I said, ‘Yeah, Wally, I think I can help you but it’s going to be probably a marathon. We’re not going to be able to get through this in a couple of days, a couple of weeks, maybe not even a couple of years.’”

Coward said in 2011 they began to solicit politicians including then-prime minister Stephen Harper, Peter MacKay, who was then national defense minister, and the chief of defence staff.

On March 14, 2014 Coward and Fowler held a press conference at the Halifax North Memorial Public Library when they were approached by three white former members of the CAF – Dennis Manuge, Rollie Lawless, and Rob Dobson – who’d also suffered setbacks through the military. He said the three men came forward to help support Coward and Fowler.

“It’s interesting to note that subsequent to them saying the exact same things that I’d been saying for probably almost 20 years, it began to get traction,” Coward said.

Two years later in June of 2016, Coward said he and Fowler suggested the idea of a class-action lawsuit to the law firm Stewart McKelvey. He said the firm later agreed to take them on on a contingency basis. Coward said they were asked if they knew of anyone else with similar experiences within the CAF.

JP Menard, a young Black man who had been in the military and who came to their press conferences in 2014, and Marc Frenette, an Indigenous man who said he’s suffered discrimination at CFB Petawawa, joined on as plaintiffs.

The class-action lawsuit against the CAF was formally filed on December 16, 2016.

‘I’m very optimistic’

Though the details are still being worked out, Coward said an agreement in principle has been reached.

“I’m very optimistic because we’ve been working in close collaboration with the (federal) Department of Justice, which is the legal counsel for the Canadian Armed Forces and we seem to be no longer at a crossroads, as it were, but we’ve implemented cultural competency and trauma-informed care in our deliberations, and that gives me significantly great hope,” Coward said.

Coward said one of the most important aspects of the lawsuit is to have systemic and institutional changes within the framework of the Canadian Armed Forces, and to have oversight from an external review authority.

“They’re serious because they don’t have any other option,” Coward said. “Because they’re negotiating with us as opposed to going to court to fight with us. Because they recognize that the … specific cases that we have, they’re so egregious, in my humble opinion, if it were to go public it would be a national scandal.”

The cultural competency component, Coward said, will encompass a more stringent screening process for people, including white people, who are not only entering the military, but also for those already serving within the military.

The external review authority will be an independent body of racially visible and Indigenous people — Coward’s team are in the process of selecting those members — that will function “like an oversight for the Canadian Armed Forces as it relates to systemic racism and institutional discrimination.” People of colour in the military will now be able to file complaints directly to the external review committee rather than with their superior ranking officers within the CAF.

“The change is going to be in seeing how these institutions act subsequent to being monitored, and subsequent to being provided with information that … is going to show that there’ve been breaches to the agreement, and by seeing expressly and specifically what they’re going to do,” Coward said.

Apology to the No. 2 Construction Battalion

In March, the government held a virtual press conference where National Defence Minister Anita Anand reaffirmed Canada’s commitment to apologize to the former members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion. The apology is set to take place on July 9 in Truro.

The initial commitment was announced over a year ago by Anand’s predecessor Harjit Sajjan. Since then, a National Apology Advisory Committee was formed to help advise the government on what the apology should entail and/or if it should be expanded to include other Black members of the Canadian military who faced discrimination, and other Black Canadians who were outright denied the right to serve in in the Canadian military.

Douglas Ruck is a member of the National Apology Advisory Committee. He spoke at the virtual press conference back in March.

Black man in glasses and dark suit gives a speech at a podium with a Canadian flag in the background.
“The consultation made it very clear that if, in fact, the apology is not followed by substantive measures, then those words, despite the best of intentions, will have no meaning, and minimal impact.” – Douglas Ruck. Photo: Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia / YouTube.

“The men of the Battalion enlisted in obscurity. They trained in obscurity. They served in obscurity. And they came home to a country that was quite willing to allow their service and their sacrifice to fall into obscurity,” said Ruck.

“The apology is important. Let us in no way diminish that. The words that are spoken, the way they are delivered, the person who delivers them – all this is significant. But equally so, and perhaps of greater importance, is what comes after that. That’s the unknown.”

“The consultation made it very clear that if, in fact, the apology is not followed by substantive measures, then those words, despite the best of intentions, will have no meaning, and minimal impact.”

“The minister’s words are important. They must make a difference. But if things remain the same, then all of this is for naught,” said Ruck.

When asked about the apology to the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Coward’s thoughts echoed those of Ruck’s.

“If they’re sincere in it – and I put a caveat over that – if they’re sincere in it, it could be the road to healing,” Coward said. “Because as you can well appreciate, Harper apologized to the Indigenous people but we didn’t see any significant change. We’ve seen Trudeau apologize to the Indigenous people, and some of them up in Northern Ontario, 28, 29 years, still (have) no clean drinking water. That’s unconscionable. We see empty platitudes in those apologies, in my opinion, and so if there’s going to be an apology it should come from the head of the government, and it should be done in sincerity.”

“There’s a disingenuousness that we’ve seen over centuries from European people, so I’m under no illusion that they’re going to do a 180-turn and tomorrow everything is gonna be kumbaya. I’m not naive in the slightest sense.”

“I’m saying let them give the apology and let’s see how they move. Let’s see how they treat us subsequent to the apology.”

“Under section 15 of the Charter we are promised that we have the right to work in an environment free from discrimination on prohibited grounds, and essentially we are demanding that that not just be a statute, but be a reality for racially visible and Indigenous people in this country, because it’s gone on far too long.”

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Matthew Byard writes news, profiles, and stories of the Black Nova Scotia community. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.

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