So I was looking for a neat way to roll this next post into the deconstruction, but I never could find an opportunity so I’m just going to present it here.  It’s basically an idea (or the faint outlines of an idea) that’s been percolating in the back of my mind for a while now, and it came out of two separate events where my army experience clashed with civilian perceptions. 

The first event happened back early 2017, when I went back to University for a bit as part of a (ultimately unsuccessful) plan to get a civvy job. I took a course on Modern Indigenous Resistance as an elective, figuring it would be interesting if nothing else. I already had the idea in my head to write this deconstruction, although it would still be another year or so before I would work up the nerve to actually start this blog.

Not surprisingly, this was a class with a lot of activist-leaning students, although they were a lot less bothered by me being military than I would have thought.  About two thirds were Indigenous with most of the remainder being ‘white,’ but there was one young woman who was Somali-Canadian.  Her mother had fled at the outbreak of the original civil war back in the early 1990s, and had eventually settled in Canada to raise her kids. This young woman was a law student, and brought a really interesting immigrant/colonial perspective to the various discussions.  

So this happened after class one week, as we hung out in the Social Studies TA lounge and had a general free-wheeling debate going on about, well, everything. 

This was around the time that Abdirahman Abdi was in the news. He was a Somali-Canadian man who died during a confrontation with the Ottawa City Police on 24 July 2016. In the spring of 2017, charges would be laid against one of the police Constables involved, so these events were front and centre in the news at the time. There had been protests by the Somali-Canadian community, as well as other supporters, and things were pretty tense.[1] Needless to say, our law student colleague had a lot to say on this subject, especially with regards to how the police had responded to these protests, and this is what surprised me. 

You see, at the time the response of the OPS (Ottawa Police Service) had been – in my opinion – pretty good.  Among other things, Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau had been trying to reach out, and attended several meetings with various community groups and leaders.[2]

But it was these meetings that became the subject of an argument that day. I personally thought that Chief Bordeleau was doing a good job…more or less.[3] He was getting out there, meeting with people face-to-face, listening to concerns and trying to address them. Fair enough, I figured. My fellow student had a much different opinion. When Chief Bordeleau had come out to speak, he’d appeared in full dress uniform, complete with some pretty bling-ed out rank insignia and ribbons.

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I couldn’t find a pic of Chief Bordeleau meeting with any of the actual community groups from early 2017 (plus my computer is acting weird), but here’s one from that same time period to give an idea of the sort of uniform he was wearing. Image from 1310news.com

“He wasn’t out there to listen to us,” she said. “He was there to intimidate us.”

And this completely threw me for a loop.

So here’s a few things for the civilians out there. At least from a military perspective, doing your job while out of uniform is illegal. Even in routine tasks, your orders will include something called “Dress of the Day” which will specify what you are expected to wear for the duration of the task. This could be combats (your camouflage clothes), or DEUs 1A (full dress uniform with medals) or even PT gear. Even if you are authorized civvies (such as say, for social functions) there are often further dress codes that can apply.[4]

The idea that you would show up to an event as serious as this out of uniform was unthinkable to me.  But it goes beyond that, though. When I’m in uniform, everything I am and everything I have is on display. I got a name tag, my rank and unit affiliation is on my chest. My cap badge and beret colour gives you my trade and my Regiment, and while we didn’t have them in 2017, the regular combat uniform was soon to be upgraded with velcro patches that would denote Division and Brigade affiliation as well as well as specific trade qualifications. If I’m in my dress uniform, you would also tell a lot about my background, given that you’ll be able to see my Afghan service star, and my CD (twelve years’ service) medal.

Basically, there’s no hiding anything when I’m in uniform. Even my camouflage is, ironically, a giant billboard displaying who I am and what I do.

That’s not how this young woman saw things.

“He’s coming to our meeting in that uniform, with all his medals and badges to show how big and important he is. He’s only pretending that he wants to talk. The message is that he wants us to show him respect and shut up.”[5]

Like I said, this argument really caught me off guard. When I looked at those pictures of Chief Bordeleau, I was looking at it from a hierarchical perspective. The message I saw was “I’m the boss of the police, and I am here to try and answer your grievances. When you speak to me, you are speaking the entire police force. And when I speak, it’s on behalf of the entire police force.” Disrespectful would have been for him to send a mid-level officer or public-affairs rep who wouldn’t have that authority. Intimidation would have been for him to be accompanied by a bunch of Constables with their service pistols.

But that’s not how they viewed it. 

This brings me to the second incident, which happened back in (I think) the summer of 2007. I was working that summer out at Connaught Ranges (a joint CAF/RCMP shooting range just west of Ottawa), and I was trying to get back there on a Sunday night after having had weekend leave.

The problem was (and still is) that there are no buses going to Connaught, and this was before I owned a car. So the only option was for me to bus as far West as I could, then get a cab for the rest of the trip. This left me at ten in the evening on a Sunday night, at a bus stop near Bayshore Shopping Centre, waiting for a cab that was definitely not showing up.

That was when I encountered what we used to call a ‘Gypsy Cab.’[6]

This was before Uber came along.  Back then, independent cabbies basically just drove around and offered rides for money. It was a shady kind of setup, since you (as the customer) had no idea who you were accepting a ride from, and they (as the driver) were subject to being ticketed and even criminally charged if caught. It was especially dicey for the drivers since they were typically recent immigrants who were having difficulty finding more legitimate work.  They were often too poor to handle a fine, and their citizenship status could be negatively effected by a criminal record. 

This particular driver was definitely fresh off the boat. Young Middle Eastern guy with a really shaky command of English who admitted almost immediately that this car was borrowed from a friend (he didn’t have a driver’s licence either). At the time, though, I really didn’t give a damn. I was supposed to be up at 0500 hrs the next morning for PT, and I needed to get back to Connaught ASAP.  So I agreed to a twenty dollar fare for the trip and we set off.

He was a pretty friendly guy though, and he drove safely so I wasn’t too worried. Everything seemed fine until we took the turn off to Connaught and he realized that we were driving onto an ‘army base.'[7] All of a sudden, the guy who’d been happily chatting away with his limited command of English started freaking out.

Almost immediately he offered to waive the twenty dollars fare if he could just drop me off at the entrance. I told him not to worry about it, that the shacks were just another few hundred metres and that there was no rules against civilians vehicles driving there. He replied by insisting that I could keep the money and that he didn’t want any trouble, even as he nervously followed my direction and turned towards the shacks.

That’s when I realized he was genuinely scared.

It’s something I had understood academically, but until then had never seen in real life. In a lot of countries, the army is just basically a pack of goons wearing camouflage. Encountering them as a civilian is always a crap shoot as to how you might get treated, and in this guy’s home country it was a pretty normal thing for cabbies to get rolled for their money (and even their cars) by ‘soldiers’[8] not wanting to pay their fares.

He hadn’t recognized the name ‘Connaught Ranges,’ and now he thought I had led him into a trap. 

Luckily nobody was hanging around outside the shacks, or else I think he might have done a 180 and burned out of there. The guys I’d been working with that summer were all decent people, but a couple of them looked like absolute dirt bags.  I managed to calm him down and convince him to accept the money, and we eventually parted ways on a good note, but it was a hell of an unsettling event.

I don’t think I really have a thesis or anything here. Just the recognition that the uniform can mean different things to different people.  At my level, all I can really do is hammer home the fact to my troops that our conduct is always important, and that ruining our standing in the public eye is easy, while fixing it is hard.  But then, I’m just a Sergeant. 

What I’m trying to present here as a kind of illustration of just how complicated the human dimension is in any social interaction, but especially during a crisis. We are all a product of our backgrounds and our experiences and our professions, and the end state can be that we’re almost speaking different languages as we try to reach out to one another.

And that’s a sobering idea to think about.

***Today’s featured image comes courtesy of the North Korean military.  Because nobody blings out their army like the North Koreans.***

________________
[1] Constable Daniel Montsion was found not guilty of Manslaughter and Assault charges, with the court finding that Mr Abdi’s death was the result of a combination of health issues as well as the stress of being arrested, and not just the injuries he suffered from Cnst Montsion. Although the trial was open and transparent, the verdict was a bit problematic given that video evidence ended up being excluded when it was found to have been mishandled by forensic experts. So while Montsion was cleared of all charges, the process was seen by some as tainted.

[2] I was going to include a quote from Sir Robert Peel (the founder of modern policing) here, only to discover that the Ottawa Police Service actually has a page talking about him and listing his nine principles.  So…uh…cool!  The ones I was going to refer to are #2 and 3: About how the policing depends on the public’s approval and the police force’s standing in the public eye.   

[3] I say ‘more or less’ because there’s really no good way to handle something like this. A citizen dying in police custody under ambiguous circumstances is never going to be a straightforward and simple. People are going to be angry and – in the absence of any clear information or action –  they’re going to be right to feel that way. And while things might eventually be sorted out by an inquiry or trial, you’re not going to have much to offer in the short term.

[4] Attending a formal beer call at the Senior Ranks Mess in tattered cargo shorts and a ripped Slayer shirt is not something you do. That’s why pretty much all of us have some version of the generic ‘slacks and polo shirt’ for those so-called informal occasions.

[5] Paraphrasing from memory.

[6] Apologies for the language. It’s the word that we used for these businesses back then. This will be the only time I’ll use this term.

[7] The fence and the Guard Shack didn’t get added until after the shooting at the War Memorial, but back then there was a WW II Sherman Tank (which has since been replaced by an M-109) at the starting line for the obstacle course, which runs parallel to the road leading into Connaught. 

[8] The term here being used as loosely as possible.

4 thoughts on “Uniform Thinking

  1. The second point you raise is vitally important and feeds the first – conduct in uniform is crucial to how all of Canada views the CAF (or uniformed personnel in general) and how the CAF is viewed has follow on effects.

    This is why training the members in ethical conduct is crucial and needs to be taught at all levels and reinforced as much as physical fitness and job competencies, because ethical conduct must be seen as a job competency equal to shooting, fieldcraft or how far/fast you can run. Making sure that the taxi driver was paid and that his fears were addressed in a positive manner goes a long way to show that the CAF isn’t like the forces in the place he left. One incident isn’t going to erase a long history of distrust, but it helps.

    The first point raised with respect to the interaction of uniformed services with the public is interesting. The purpose of the uniform is to create feelings of solidarity amongst the wearers, allow for quick identification by both the wearers and those outside the group of a persons role in the organization and also to ensure appropriate working clothing is available to the wearer. The reaction to many people is similar to your own – the police chief showing up uniform to demonstrate that he is the person who can make decisions on behalf of the organization, but the reaction of viewing uniforms as a means of intimidation is definitely valid. Most of the audience was likely in casual clothing, some of the community leaders were likely in suits or business attire to demonstrate a more leadership role – by showing up in full dress, particularly if he did so with medals is definitely he essentially one-ups the community leaders in a visual display of dominance. A more casual uniform (whatever the police version of 3B with the sweater is) might have been more appropriate – it’s still the uniform, but the lack of bling makes it closer to casual dress and gives the business attire of the community leaders the visual appearance of being “one up” on him to send the visual cue that, despite the power given to police officers, they are still answerable to the public, who give them their authority.

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    1. I’m wondering if, in the case of Chief Bordeleau, it’s like he’s in a job where the police equivalent of 3B would be his daily dress. If that’s the case, he might have wanted to “dress up” from his day-to-day “work clothes.” This would make it a show of respect that could come across as an attempt to one-up or intimidate.
      One of the many (minor) things that concerned me during OP Laser was that someone in my DRC would have to address a group of scared or upset citizens. The only uniforms we had available were Combats, and while (from the army perspective) showing up in soft cap and high-visibility patches is considered your ‘garrison dress,’ there’s no getting around the fact that your average civilian would likely find it intimidating.
      The fact that both our Company Commander and Company Sergeant Major were both huge, hulking individuals wouldn’t have helped things much.
      There were a whole bunch of running jokes about how the C4 gas mask was effective against COVID infection, but we’d probably cause worse casualties than the virus just from the stampede…

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  2. Long-time reader, first time commenter here. I wanted to add to what you and Bill were saying to say that it can just as easily be an issue with civilians too. In my job, we’ve had to do some outreach initiatives to various First Nations reserves. One course I took on how to engage effectively with Indigenous people advised us not to wear formal business attire like suits, because of the bad experiences many Indigenous people have had with government officials and businesspeople. A couple of my colleagues went to one reserve in suits and couldn’t understand why the residents were so on edge around them. When I went myself to another reserve dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans and running shoes, nobody gave me a second glance.

    I also wanted to commend you for what you’re doing in general with this blog in showing Douglas Bland’s work for the bullshit that it is. You’re doing a great service to all Canadians, including settler Canadians like you and I, with your work. Would that more of us made an effort like yours.

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    1. Welcome Jared! And thanks!
      That’s a good point you raise. Suits and ties can be just as much a uniform as DEUs + Medals.
      I got a taste of this back when I took an Intro to Social Work class a few years back. The Prof made sure to emphasize the baggage you could be inheriting when dealing with First Nations. “Never forget, the last Social Worker to visit might have taken someone’s kids away. However pure your intentions may be, you have to confront this history and the damage done by other people in your place.”

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