Three officer cadets at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean in Quebec were handed discharge notices after at least one of them masturbated over a Koran and had the act captured on video during a party.
The incident is a source of embarrassment for Canada’s military at a time when the Armed Forces is seeking to show greater inclusiveness in an effort to grow its ranks.
Initially, National Defense would only confirm Friday that an “incident of inappropriate conduct and unsightly acts” took place among a group of eight officer cadets at an off-campus party on March 31, over the Easter long weekend.
Details emerged later Friday revealing that the desecration of the Muslim holy book was filmed and a video began to circulate at the military college soon after that weekend. Some students who saw it reported it to their superiors, leading to an investigation.
“The behaviour demonstrated by these individuals is deplorable and runs contrary to the ethos of the Canadian Armed Forces. It will not be tolerated. I am fully supportive of the action taken by our Canadian Armed Forces,” Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a statement.
Canadian military authorities, concerned over the potential backlash over the desecration, quietly approached leaders of Quebec’s Muslim community to disclose the incident. They met with high-profile Quebec Imam Hassan Guillet.
The imam, who gained renown after delivering the eulogy for some of the victims of some of the Quebec City mosque shooting last year, said he is relieved the acts were uncovered.
“Can you imagine if these young people had remained in the army and weren’t found out? They would have become lieutenants, colonels, generals,” Imam Guillet said in an interview. “The army did what it needed to do, and the message is clear.”
But the incident remains troubling for the Forces, which has also had to deal with reports that some of its soldiers are supporters of the far-right Quebec group La Meute. Imam Guillet said the desecration is also disturbing because the act of bringing the Koran to the cottage party suggests premeditation.
“It certainly wasn’t brought along so they could do prayers,” he said. He called the act “an insult, an affront to our very presence in the army, and an affront to Canadian values.”
Imam Guillet said the incident is also evidence of anti-Muslim sentiment within the military. “There is a small minority that is dangerous and we have to unite to identify it and isolate it. We have to reassure Muslims and say: ’Don’t worry. You are part of society and you are welcome in the army as soldiers.”
After its investigation, the Forces handed out discharge notices to three of the cadets at the party; one of them isn’t challenging it, while the two others could face removal down the road.
One of the five other cadets at the party also faces a lesser disciplinary measure. National Defense did not have information about the four remaining cadets.
The incident is a setback for the Armed Forces as it seeks to remodel its image as open to Canadians of all backgrounds. The effort is part of an attempt to bolster its ranks as it confronts challenges to find recruits.
Lt.-Gen. Charles Lamarre, the chief of military personnel, said Friday that the Forces have to act with the “highest standards of professionalism, integrity, honour, courage and stewardship of the profession of arms.”
“A recent situation in which three officer cadets from Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean are alleged to have shown disrespect to the Qur’an falls far below this standard. Due process will be applied, and those found to be responsible for this vile act, will be held accountable for their actions,” he said.