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Cowin Poon of Markham, whose mother immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong, is a member of the Air Cadets. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Cowin Poon of Markham, whose mother immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong, is a member of the Air Cadets. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Chinese-Canadians reluctant to join military, study finds Add to ...

More new Canadian citizens hail from China than almost any other country in the world, but military brass in Ottawa are facing an uphill battle in persuading a significantly greater proportion of Chinese-Canadians to embrace a career in the armed forces.

Chinese-Canadians are among the fastest-growing visible minority groups in the country, and the People's Republic of China has ranked first or second as a source of new citizens in recent years.

But getting Chinese Canadians to don a uniform isn't easy - part of the same challenge the military faces with all visible minorities even as the country becomes more ethnically diverse.

Statistics Canada says those who consider themselves Chinese represent about 4 per cent of the population. The Canadian Forces, on the other hand, say soldiers identifying themselves as Chinese make up 0.4 per cent of the military's regular force and 1.2 per cent of its primary reserves.

A recent report prepared for the Department of National Defence sounds a potentially discouraging note, though, predicting that the prospects are "limited" for attracting a greater proportion of Chinese-Canadians.

The 2011 report by Ipsos Reid Public Affairs said it's going to be difficult to recruit more young Chinese-Canadians in part because their parents don't see the profession of soldiering as sufficiently upwardly mobile.

"The results of this research suggest that the degree to which efforts to promote careers in the Canadian Forces among the Chinese-Canadian population can be expected to achieve success will be limited, as a result of the cultural beliefs and career preferences of the Chinese-Canadian community," the March, 2011, report said.

The Forces "will encounter a considerable challenge in effecting a significant shift in the cultural mindset of the Chinese-Canadian population and a continuing challenge in their efforts to … recruit Chinese-Canadians into the military in the same percentage as they are represented in the overall Canadian population."

The research found that although young Chinese-Canadians are just as likely as the general public to say they would consider joining the Forces, their parents and other members of their community are far more reluctant to endorse such a career path.

The report, based on polls and focus groups, found that Chinese parents prefer to see their children enter "traditional high-income-paying professions" such as medicine, engineering, law and business - and don't see the military as a route to this.

Chinese-Canadians told researchers they see the military as an "avenue out of poverty" and "a last resort for those unable to gain entry into university."

The Ipsos research is part of a three-year study of the attitudes of visible minorities towards the Forces.

Helen Poon, who emigrated from Hong Kong seven years ago, is happy to see her 13-year-old son, Cowin, serve as a Canadian Forces air cadet to learn skills and discipline and to stay busy. But the Markham, Ont., mother doesn't want her son to become a soldier one day.

"I do not believe in war," she said.

Cowin himself also doesn't want to sign up when he's an adult, saying he doesn't want to use weapons and enter a field of battle. His mother estimates there are probably "over a hundred" Chinese-Canadian kids in her son's Richmond Hill, Ont., air cadets squadron. But, she guesses, 99 per cent of their parents don't want their children to enlist in the military either.

King Wan, a Vancouver naval reservist and president of the Chinese Canadian Military Museum Society, said Chinese immigrants overcame prejudice more than 70 years ago to make strong contributions to the Forces - a record that has continued up to the combat mission in Afghanistan.

Mr. Wan, part of a military advisory group on recruiting minorities, agrees, however, that Chinese-Canadian parents have to be persuaded to take a fresh look at the military's benefits.

"Not everybody can be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant," Mr. Wan said. "There is a an opportunity for any youth, be it ethnic Chinese or whatever, to learn a trade or get professional training through the armed forces."

The Department of National Defence is sanguine about the challenges, predicting results down the road.

"The Chinese community is no different than any other immigrant community in that the first two generations are working primarily on stability rather than choosing careers, [and]parents have a strong influence on employment, based on perceived potential remuneration," spokesman Marie Tremblay wrote in an e-mail.

"The younger generation will join the Canadian Forces if they see someone who 'looks like them' - [and]we are not at that tipping point yet for many minorities."

Retired Lieutenant-Colonel Howe Lee of Burnaby, B.C., said recruitment has improved significantly over the past few decades, though, noting that a Richmond, B.C., reserve regiment, for example, has significant Chinese-Canadian membership.

'There's no life like it'

A March, 2011, Ipsos Reid report for the Department of National Defence says the Canadian Forces face "significant barriers" to increasing recruitment among Chinese Canadians:

"[Focus group]participants often said they did not see the military as an obvious career choice … for two key reasons: because Chinese-Canadian families tend to be close-knit and a military career would require them to move far away on a long-term basis; and because a university education is an expectation of many parents, and the … Forces are not necessarily seen as a good way of getting one."

"A common view was that if a person did not have the grades needed to get into a university and did not otherwise have good job prospects, the military might seem like an attractive option worth the physical labour and risks involved. For more recently immigrated Chinese-Canadian participants, this reflected their experience in China, where, they said, military recruits often tend to be poor, rural villagers with few other prospects for employment."

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