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HALIFAX—In 2001, with a wife and her three children in tow, Private Wally Fowler, an African-Nova Scotian, was assigned to Traffic Tech training at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Esquimalt, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. It was not an auspicious match by any account, and since then Fowler has clung tirelessly to the assertion that he and his family were the frequent victims of racism and discrimination in Esquimalt.
The experience has cost Fowler dearly. He lost his wife, his career and in 2004, after leaving the military, he became mentally unstable and was hospitalized for an extended period.
Fortunately, an encounter in 2011 with Sergeant Rubin Coward, a military administrative specialist known to some as “the only man who can beat the military,” has given the Fowler case new life and a new direction.
Coward’s reputation can be traced back to 1993 when he single-handedly fought and won his own discrimination case at CFB Greenwood, where he was the first African-Nova Scotian Non-Commissioned Officer to be the chief clerk in 404 Maritime Patrol and Training Squadron. It took Coward over six years to advance his own case and he is adamant that the chips are stacked against anyone who tries to take on the military with charges of discrimination.
Coward's administrative acumen has yielded a trove of documents on Fowler’s case under the Privacy Act. These documents show that Fowler's initial accusations of racism were well known and corroborated by his military superiors at CFB Esquimalt. These documents also point to a series of mishandled opportunities and a possible cover-up that implicates a wide swath of persons, some among the upper echelons of the Canadian military establishment. If the nation had known what some within the military had known, Wally Fowler’s story would have become a national scandal.
In Esquimalt, in 2001, Fowler and his family attracted all manner of attention—but of the negative, racist sort. His daughter was spat on in school. The bus driver called his young son a “nigger.” His wife had bananas thrown at her while walking home from work and was frequently refused service at local stores. For several months, Fowler filed complaint form after complaint form with the military, but nothing came of them.
“He filed these forms with the appropriate military administrators,” says Coward. “As of late 1990, we have a policy of 'zero tolerance' within the military. Several of these instances happened on the base, and involved members of the PMQ [Personnel Married Quarters]. So these should have been investigated.”
Fowler says no resolution ever came.
“It was always just 'being looked at,'” says Fowler. “Even the bus driver was only relocated to a different route. That was it.”
As the racist incidents and the inaction of the military continued, Fowler requested that he and his family be transferred back to Atlantic Canada, where they would have support of the African-Nova Scotian community. In response to Fowler's request, a variety of sources, including Fowler's military superiors at CFB Esquimalt, began to confirm in writing what Fowler had been saying all along. There was racism at CFB Esquimalt and Private Fowler had felt its effects. In a social work report dated May 1, 2002, Captain DH Wong, the base's Formation Social Work Officer, noted:
“Pte Fowler and his family appear to have been victims of racial discrimination on a number of occasions...It is recommended that Pte Fowler be posted to a Halifax area unit and that his employment be restricted such that he be available to provide his family with a stable home environment, and facilitate their attendance in a program which would heal the harm done by the racial discrimination experienced in his current posting.”
In a move request dated May 31, 2002, Commander RK Taylor, the Base Administration Officer, confirmed Captain Wong's assessment.
“[Fowler] and his family have consistently experienced racial discrimination outside of the military workplace. Specifically, his children have been taunted and harassed at school and in the PMQ area where they live...Such unpleasant living circumstances have greatly affected the quality of life of this serviceman and his family...I wholeheartedly support the recommendation that he and his family be posted to Halifax or as a secondary preference another base in the Atlantic region...While he and his family will undoubtedly need to heal and learn coping skills, it is my assessment that the Fowlers will achieve this goal without career restrictions placed upon him.”
Lieutenant Commander DF Ohs, the Chaplain BRT, also confirmed the situation. In a memo dated July 3, 2002, Ohs noted that Fowler had provided him with “ample evidence that this is not just a hunch or a personal feeling, but in fact a reality.” He went on to express his concern for the family's well-being:
“They are not coping well with their present reality. Their trust level with the local community is non-existent and they are truly miserable...For all our good intentions, our national and world image could be deeply stained on just one accusation of failing to take care of one of our own families, facing severe discrimination [to them] because they are from a visible minority, and because 'no one would listen to them.' If the member were to seek the assistance of his racial community, I believe this could be perceived a national scandal.”
David Wong, now retired from the military, does not remember the details of the Fowler case, a case he dealt with 10 years ago. The retired captain does, however, remember what he would have done in order to have written the aforementioned social work report.
“I would have verified the instances of discrimination that he and his family would have reported to me,” said Wong in an interview with The Dominion. “I would have followed up on that, making an assessment on whether they had in fact suffered this discrimination, and tried to assess the impact...that it was having on the family...I would have written that in a report to his commanding officer, with a recommendation in his case of a posting to a community where he could get the support of...a community which was probably more multicultural, more accepting of people of colour.”
When asked if Fowler's case would have been unique in the Canadian military in 2002, Wong replied, “Hardly. That would be naive to say that. There's no doubt that other people were subjected to racial slurs and racial comments, racial insults, and racial discrimination of one sort or another.”
In May and June of 2002, National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa began to take interest in the events unfolding at CFB Esquimalt. On June 24, 2002, Chief Warrant Officer Levesque from Human Resources in Ottawa, sent an email to Captain Wong, asking him if he knew of any “other persons in similar circumstances in the Esquimalt/Victoria area.” That same day, Wong replied:
“I can count myself in that number...How many such people do we have here? I can't give you a number. However, colleagues tell me that they have recently started to take notice and ask the question, and they are alarmed at the high number of people who are reporting having suffered instances of prejudice and discrimination.”
Fowler's original request, dated April 16, 2002, was for a “compassionate posting” and not a “contingency move.” The difference between the two is important. A compassionate posting implies that there may be something wrong with the requester, rather than the circumstances. A compassionate posting risks affecting a soldier's career in that a caveat will be applied to their file.
A “contingency move” is granted when the military acknowledges that the requester is dealing with circumstances beyond the capabilities of the individual involved. So it is telling that when Commander RK Taylor, the Base Administration Officer, made his recommendation, it was for Fowler to receive a contingency move, rather than a compassionate posting.
As National Defence was considering what to do with Wally Fowler, a tangled thread of internal emails circulated. On July 8, 2002, Colonel Wauthier at National Defence Headquarters suggested a half-dozen possible locations available for transfer, including Greenwood, Nova Scotia. In the same email, Wauthier noted that should Fowler insist upon a move to Halifax, “we will consider [it] at that time.”
In correspondence the following day, all but two of those locations seemed to have disappeared. In an email dated July 9, 2002, Master Corporal Guy, stationed at CFB Esquimalt, noted:
“I received a phone call from CWO Levesque [Traffic Tech career manager] and he told me that in regards to Pte Fowler, he did not have any positions available in the East Coast and the only choices are Winnipeg and Trenton...Pte Fowler said that he would not want Winnipeg as he feels he would be harassed again there. The CWO said now that the options are now limited to simply Trenton.”
This transpired in spite of the fact that CWO Levesque was copied in the original Wauthier email. Clearly, as of July 8, Levesque was aware that there were postings available in Greenwood, NS. Levesque would have been aware that Commander Taylor from CFB Esquimalt and others had specifically requested that Fowler be posted to Halifax, or at the very least to Atlantic Canada.
The final decision was made by Fowler's “career manager,” Chief Warrant Officer J. Melancon.
Instead of honouring the recommendation coming from CFB Esquimalt to re-post Wally Fowler to Atlantic Canada, CWO Melancon confirmed that Fowler had only two possible transfer options. Fowler was told to chose between CFB Winnipeg or CFB Trenton, Ontario.
Rubin Coward finds CWO Melancon’s decision troubling, especially considering the extenuating circumstances that led to Fowler's request for a move.
“In totality, the reasoning behind Commander Taylor's strong recommendation to send Wally and his family back east was twofold,” says Coward. “One: to allow the member to be reintegrated with Black people in his own milieu. And secondly: to allow the individual a chance to heal. And I would say, under normal circumstances, having put sixteen years into the system myself, there's no way normally that a Chief Warrant Officer could veto the recommendation of a Commander, unless he himself had an agenda.”
In the summer of 2002, faced with what he perceived as his only option, and wishing to be as close to his support network in Atlantic Canada as possible, Fowler chose the location farthest east: Trenton.
Then something even more curious happened.
CWO Melancon transferred himself from his Ottawa office, and posted himself as Base CWO of CFB Trenton. The former Base Chief Warrant Officer in Trenton transferred into Melancon's position in Ottawa, inheriting Fowler's career file. The logic behind such a transfer, in effect a self-demotion for Melancon, is difficult to understand.
Very little documentation is on hand concerning Fowler's posting at CFB Trenton. Coward suspects that staff at CFB Trenton may have “closed ranks” and that future information requests may yet reveal another series of documents from this time period. The only documentation available is Fowler's own testimony about his treatment, which he describes as “hell.”
“Melancon's puppets were everywhere,” claims Fowler. “I was starting to get written up over everything. They'd keep a log on my actions, sometimes minute-to-minute. They kept me in a basement, ironing flags. Or I'd be driving around, sorting through trash.”
At present, no documentation can confirm these allegations.
Coward suggests that even before Fowler’s transfer to Trenton, Fowler was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of racist treatment while at Esquimalt, and he was in an even more fragile mental state in Trenton.
In fall 2002, Fowler began to experience a steady mental break down. In December 2002, he went on extended sick leave. In mid-January he was examined by Dr Bodden, a psychiatrist with Area Support Unit Toronto.
In a consultation report, dated January 16, 2003, Dr Bodden noted:
“Wally identifies a number of problems with his mood. Since arriving at Trenton, he has experienced a number of difficulties which have ultimately culminated in his mood being down most of the time, frequent ruminations about his difficulties, impaired concentration, decreased energy, decreased interest, significant initial insomnia of four to five hours duration...increased appetite with a 45-pound weight gain, and feelings of guilt. He denies suicidal ideation. He feels very helpless and hopeless.”
Notably, Dr Bodden mentioned that Fowler's posting to Trenton, and not Atlantic Canada, was possibly “redressable.”
“In other words,” says Coward, “if Wally were to have the knowledge and had somebody who would assist him in putting together a redress, he could have very easily been moved to Nova Scotia. But being a private, and not having that knowledge, he was subjected to whatever agenda Chief Warrant Officer Melancon had.”
A social work report, dated February 3, 2003, noted that members of the military consulted Captain DN Penley (a Social Worker stationed at Trenton) about Fowler five times between November 2002 and January 2003. In one communique between Penley and the Commanding Officer of 2 Air Movements Squadron, 8 Wing Trenton, Penley notes:
“Several other helping professionals involved in this case were consulted by WSWO [Wing Squadron Warrant Officer]...CFMAP [Canadian Forces Member Assistance Program] counsellor indicated that racism experienced by s/m and family in Esquimalt was highly traumatizing, which may have disadvantaged s/m's introduction to his military career at a critical juncture.”
With his mental state beginning to suffer greatly, and his family becoming increasingly depressed, in early February Fowler requested discharge from the military.
Captain Penley, in a communique written on February 3, again suggests:
“[A] compassionate posting to Nova Scotia could be considered as an alternative in order to attempt salvaging the s/m's career.”
CWO Melancon's motivations in blocking recommendations to post Fowler to CFB Halifax or Greenwood, and then re-posting himself to CFB Trenton once Fowler was posted there, remains a mystery unlikely to be resolved. On February 13, 2003, Jean Melancon passed away suddenly while stationed at CFB Trenton.
Once dismissed, it appears that the loose ends of Fowler's file were quickly “cleaned up.” By April 2003 there was no trace of the original documents from CFB Esquimalt, documents that suggest mistreatment of Wally Fowler and his family, and a subsequent mishandling of their case. In April of 2003, in response to discrimination charges brought to him by Fowler, Lieutenant Colonel Romanow noted in a memo:
“Pte Fowler alleges that he and his family have been subjected to discrimination and racism at each of the postings (Borden, Esquimalt and Trenton) he has had since rejoining the CF in 2000. It is noted that there is no substantiation or evidence supporting his allegations on the file. Consequently, there does not appear to be any immediate risk to the CF of having to respond to a grievance or human rights complaint, based on discrimination...It is recommended that Pte Fowler be released from the CF under item 5d as proposed.”
Romanow's statement that no substantiation or evidence supporting Fowler's allegations flies in the face of what is now known: Captain Wong had undertaken an investigation and came to the conclusion that Fowler was the victim of racism; Base Command had interviewed Fowler, was attempting to resolve one specific incident and was taking steps to “reinforce the Good Neighbour Policy to include racial tolerance” on the base; and, in 2003, the Canadian Forces Members Assistance Program counsellor had found the racism that Wally Fowler had experienced while at Esquimalt was “highly traumatic.” According to Romanow, however, as of 2003, all this evidence had disappeared.
It is troubling to contemplate where the original documents from CFB Esquimalt might have gone. Retired Captain Wong is equally baffled.
“Good question,” said Wong to The Dominion, when asked where the documents might have gone. “I guess it would be relevant to a subsequent investigation, wouldn't it? I couldn't tell you...I suppose as a journalist you can put that question to the Minister [of Defence].”
At press time, neither the Minister of Defence nor the Department of National Defence had any comment regarding the missing evidence.
In June of 2003, with his step-children still attending public school, Wally Fowler was given a 5d dismissal—a dismissal with no pension attached. He was given seven days back-pay, although he had to wait to move until the end of June in order for his step-children to complete their school year.
Three years after the move to Esquimalt, Fowler and his family returned home to Halifax, to the support of his community. For several months Fowler attempted to get compensation or a pension from the military, but to no avail. He solicited then-Minister of National Defence David Pratt. Fowler penned a letter to Pratt on February 2, 2004. Pratt responded on March 12, 2004, saying he was “disturbed” by Fowler's account of the racism he had “allegedly suffered,” and said he had ordered a review to determine if Fowler's treatment by the armed forces negatively impacted his career, and whether this treatment was related to Fowler's “ethnic origin.”
There is reason to believe that a review of Fowler's career would have turned up the original documents from Esquimalt—documents that show the extent of the racism to which Fowler and his family had been exposed. A review would have also found the potentially redressable posting to CFB Trenton, and the decision of CWO Melancon to go against Commander Taylor's recommendation that Fowler be posted to Halifax, or elsewhere in Atlantic Canada.
Nothing was found.
On February 12, 2004, as the military began to search for information on Fowler in response to Pratt's career review, a flourish of internal emails erupted. All of them were written by individuals looking for Fowler's case file, but none of them being able to find it. A message from Captain Jackson noted:
“I looked in NGRS and Excel and could not find it. How about you?”
To which Warrant Officer Laing replied, 11 minutes later:
“Not at this level. Nothing in the “I” drive either.”
Lost files notwithstanding, the case continued, slated to be addressed in the House of Commons on April 19, 2004. That month, another flourish of inter-departmental emails ensued.
On April 5, Lieutenant Navy Green asked CFB Esquimalt:
“Nothing in your records for anything relating to the Fowler family in Mqs out there?”
MWO Ennis, in Esquimalt, the same day, replied:
“A records check does not indicate any investigation files/reports involving Pte Fowler at CFB Esquimalt. As noted below one file was noted CFB Trenton involving a Breach of Probation issue.”
Without the proper documentation, the case before the House of Commons was weak. Fowler, unhappy with the results of the investigation, solicited Pratt once more. Pratt again sided on paper with Fowler; writing to the National Defence Ombudsman on Fowler's behalf, he noted:
“I am informed that your investigator did contact Mr Fowler, but that he may not be prepared to fully support your investigation. Nevertheless, it is requested that your office conduct a viability assessment for the conduct of this investigation and provide your recommendations to me.”
On July 2, 2004, the final results of the investigation arrived in the form of a letter from Captain DJ Kyle, the Base Commander at Esquimalt, to the Director of Military Careers at NDHQ:
“A search of all documents relating to the investigation of racism and/or harassment concerning Private (Retired) Fowler has been conducted with negative results. The supervisor of Private (Retired) Fowler has confirmed that the Private was not involved in any investigation concerning racism and/or harassment during his posting to Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt.”
Every trace of wrongdoing in the Fowler file had vanished.
Wally Fowler then suffered a mental breakdown. In the late summer of 2004 he was found on the highway outside of Halifax, wandering naked. When the police cuffed him, he attempted to gouge his eyes out on the window of their cruiser. He was taken to the Nova Scotia Hospital, where he was kept under intermittent restraint and constant surveillance for the following month and a half.
Without a military pension, and with no income, Fowler's vehicle was repossessed; his mortgage also spiralled out of control. Fowler's partner and her three children, whom Fowler was raising as his own, left him. The psychiatry team at the Nova Scotia Hospital diagnosed Fowler with schizophrenia and asked the Department of National Defence to provide him with a pension. Finally, in winter, 2004, Fowler was granted a limited pension. At this point, having moved back with his parents, his life was in shambles.
Fowler, in a fragile mental state, continued his attempt to get a full medical pension, but to no avail. On July 28, 2005, the Canadian Forces Grievance Board (CFGB) recommended that Fowler's application for redress of grievances be denied. Notably, the CFGB's investigation justified Fowler's 2003 posting to Trenton, as Major Lionais noted:
“[I]did not support a posting to Halifax due to the fact that the city achieved notoriety in the late 1990s for racial conflict issues in one of its high schools.”
What a racial conflict at a high school in Halifax had to do with refusing the recommendations from CFB Esquimalt that Fowler be moved back to his community on a contingency move is not known.
In 2005, Fowler received a letter from the Chief of the Defence Staff, General RJ Hillier; it was a final response to Fowler's application for a redress of grievance. In the letter, Hillier noted:
“In its analysis, CFGB found that there was no substantiated racist conduct or harassment on the part of any Canadian Forces member towards you. I agree with the CFGB. I believe that the CF, given the circumstances, was sensitive and responsive to your situation...I am not prepared to grant the redress you are seeking. I am satisfied that you were not discriminated against and that you took your voluntary release.”
It was the same story as before, now handed to Fowler by the Chief of the Defence Staff himself. Fowler began to vacillate between continuing his pursuit of redress of grievance and giving up on what seemed to be a hopeless endeavour. His mental state again wavered; he suffered another breakdown in 2005. He began to shred much of the original documentation related to his military career, as it made him angry. He took work as a community service worker and drifted between jobs.
Years went by and nothing advanced beyond a bureaucratic shuffle. Finally, in 2011, Fowler met Coward. Coward believed Fowler; with 16 years in the system, Coward says he’s seen it all before.
“[In the military] racism is both systemic and institutional,” says Coward. “And it's clear to see how they operate. What they do at the end of the day, they inundate the individual with a plethora of documentation, in Wally's case some 4,000 pages, and most of it is fluff. And of course, even when Wally took it to his lawyer, the first thing the lawyer said was, 'I can't go through all that,' unless Wally had a quarter million dollars in his back pocket. And the military is acutely aware that there's a significant financial uphill battle to fight these buggers.
“The area where they try to defeat you is in administration. And if you're not as sound an administrator, you're easily defeated. Because you just don't know the system. For people like Wally who don't have that knowledge? They're dead in the water, and the system knows it.”
Armed with the “vanished” documents from CFB Esquimalt, Coward is confident that Fowler's case merits a second look. He wants a Ministerial Inquiry. He also wants a review of the Human Rights Commission, the means by which racism is reported on in the Canadian military. He wants compensation for Wally Fowler, who he says should have been enjoying a long and illustrious career with the Canadian military by now. According to Coward, Veterans' Affairs is now offering Wally Fowler a full medical pension. But at this late date, after years of disappearing documentation, a pension is not enough for Fowler and Coward.
“They're now offering a bun,” says Coward. “And what they don't know is he can get the whole bakery.”
Miles Howe is an editor with The Dominion and a member of the Halifax Media Co-op.
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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.