Members of a Canadian Forces Naval Reserve base in Calgary say they’re upset at how the Armed Forces readmitted a sailor identified by CBC News as the former administrator of a neo-Nazi forum.
Four sailors at the HMCS Tecumseh Naval Reserve base reached out to CBC to speak out against the Royal Canadian Navy’s decision to readmit Leading Seaman Boris Mihajlovic without, they say, reassuring them that he’s no longer a threat.
In December, CBC News identified Mihajlovic as Moonlord, one of the former administrators of Iron March, a notorious neo-Nazi hate forum that gave rise to the terror group Atomwaffen Division. The site closed down in 2017.
“The command team never acknowledged the situation. Even last year, they brought everyone together to address [CBC’s] article, but they never said his name, they never said what he did. It was really on the down-low,” said one sailor who spoke on condition of anonymity because they fear reprisals from their superiors.
Reached by CBC at that time, Mihajlovic said he regretted his actions and he had taken steps to turn his life around. He sought counselling with Life After Hate, a group that helps extremists recover, and volunteered with an immigrant support organization.
The navy placed him on suspension pending investigation in the wake of the CBC report. In early July, Mihajlovic was seen working on the base.
Mihajlovic confirmed that he’s back in the navy and that his return caused a disturbance, but declined to comment further.
Navy video ‘too little, too late,’ sailor says
On July 13, Cmdr. Joseph Banke sent a video statement to the base’s staff explaining the decision to reinstate Mihajlovic. It’s this video that upset the sailors, who say the navy’s leadership was not transparent with Mihajlovic’s reintegration and offered no reassurances that he was indeed rehabilitated.
“It’s time now for us to be able to move forward. I believe in rehabilitation over retribution, and it’s the time now for that member to come back and to work with us again,” Banke said in the video, which was sent to CBC News by the concerned sailors.
“There are some of you that have felt very victimized by this. I hear you,” Banke said. “We cannot counter hate with more hate. We need to build forward, together. We need to rehabilitate, together. We’re going to support this member, together.”
At no point in the video did Banke name Mihajlovic.
WATCH | Cmdr. Joseph Banke explains the decision to reinstate Mihajlovic:
“That video was sent more than a week after the member had been reinstated in our unit. We felt that it was too little, too late, that maybe they should have warned us that this person was coming back,” one of the sailors said.
All four sailors who spoke with CBC News asked to remain anonymous.
‘It leaves a bad taste in my mouth’
In an email, the navy said the decision to reinstate Mihajlovic was made on July 15 and that the commander informed the crew in a video immediately after the decision was made.
“When there is a possibility of saving the career of a member who has been rehabilitated, the RCN attempts to do so by using official administrative measures,” said Capt. Christopher Daniel, public affairs officer for the navy. “In such cases, corrective measures such as ethics training could be necessary.”
Daniel declined to discuss further details of the investigation, citing privacy laws.
However, the sailors who contacted CBC say that the video was sent on July 13, and that Mihajlovic had returned to his post before it was broadcast.
The navy did not respond to followup questions about the contradictions between its official version and the sailors’ accounts.
“It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I want to be able to tell [people of colour who work on the base] that this is not the type of place where we tolerate such nonsense, but now I can’t,” another sailor said.
“This has caused a stir like I have never seen in our unit.”
Another sailor, who identifies as a visible minority, said that Mihajlovic’s presence made them feel unsafe.
“I have been contemplating leaving or switching over to the Army because I don’t want to be around this guy or in this environment. It doesn’t make me feel comfortable at all,” the sailor said.
“If they don’t do something, I’m out of here.”
‘No perfect answer’
The consternation caused by the seaman’s return raises the question of what is the best way to reintegrate someone who espoused a violent ideology.
Margaux Bennardi, the support and community engagement co-ordinator for the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence in Montreal, said that there is “no perfect answer,” and cases are handled individually. But in this case, it would be important to give both the returning sailor and the other crew members resources to address their concerns.
“We would create a safe space where the other members could express their fears without being afraid of being judged,” she said. This could be a person in the navy who would take their concerns seriously.
For the former extremist, it would be important to create “protective factors” like giving him a new community and sense of belonging, and reducing “vulnerability factors” like being ostracized and stigmatized, she said.
“If you take this away, it can be counterproductive.”
Anti-hate groups reached by CBC News said that without a clear rebuke from the navy and a public apology from Mijahlovic, his reinstatement amounts to a slap on the wrist.
“He has never publicly divulged the full extent of his neo-Nazi involvement. He has never issued a full public apology for his actions and we have not seen him make amends for the harm he has done,” Meyer H. May, executive director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, wrote in a statement on their website.
“We need to see him swear to make amends, and make those amends,” Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, wrote on Twitter. “The Canadian Armed Forces has to allow him and encourage him to make that public apology in order to earn some measure of trust from the wider public in their decision to welcome him back.”
Three of the four sailors who spoke to CBC felt that Mihajlovic has no place within the Armed Forces, even if he has deradicalized. They said that the fact that Mihajlovic had been an active member of the naval reserves while he was administrator of Iron March has tainted the uniform.
“I think that’s great [that he says he has turned his life around]. I hope he has, and I want to believe he has, because it would be horrible if he had to live his life with such anger and hate in his heart,” a sailor said.
“Unfortunately, though I think he deserves a second chance at life, I don’t believe he should put on the uniform.”