The Royal Canadian Navy’s deputy commander has responded to a series of online posts criticizing the military’s plan to drop the term “seaman” by warning that there is no place in the force for sailors who subscribe to “hateful, misogynistic and racist” beliefs.
Rear Admiral Chris Sutherland issued the admonition in a Facebook post over the weekend as sailors and members of the public are being asked to vote on a new title for the navy’s most junior members by replacing “seaman” with a more gender-neutral term.
“To those of you currently serving with these beliefs, I would like to emphatically state you have no place in our navy,” Sutherland said. “If you cannot live by or support the values of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, then you cannot defend them.”
Navies around the world have described their junior sailors as “seamen” for decades if not centuries, with the Royal Canadian Navy using “ordinary seaman,” “able seaman,” “leading seaman” and “master seaman.”
But those terms are being replaced in Canada as the navy — which is short hundreds of sailors — charts new waters to become more diverse and inclusive. Navy officers have said the move is also designed to ensure junior members feel safe and proud of their ranks and jobs.
Members of the navy as well as the public at large have until Friday to vote online on two alternatives, with both variants substituting “sailor” in place of “seaman” in different ways.
One simply replaces “seaman” with “sailor” in the existing ranks. The other would do away with adjectives such as “able” and “leading” in favour of labels such as “sailor first class” and “sailor second class.” There is also an option to suggest alternative terms.
Move seen as overdue — and unwarranted
But while the move has been applauded by some as long overdue, there has also been varying degrees of criticism online as some have blasted what they see as an overabundance of political correctness and others decrying a loss of tradition.
Some of those posts appear to have crossed a line for navy commanders.
Sutherland apologized for not speaking up sooner, saying he “needed a minute to come to terms with some of the comments that have been posted,” before targeting not only active-duty sailors but anyone who has made “hateful, misogynistic and racists comments.”
“I am shocked that you think that your comments would be acceptable, and that you are not able to recognize that those you are disparaging are the very people dedicating their lives to afford you the freedom to comment,” he said without expanding on the offending posts.
“These comments serve as a reminder of our need to call out cowardly attacks such as these, and remind us also that we should take every opportunity to show support for minority and marginalized groups.”
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He went on to invite any sailor who wanted to know why the initiative is a priority for the navy — “and would like to engage in constructive discussion on the topic” — to contact him directly.
The move to drop “seaman” comes amid a broader push by the military to become more reflective of Canadian society, which includes trying to recruit more women, visible minorities and members of the LGBTQ community while cracking down on hateful conduct.
At the same time, navy officials have suggested the use of “seaman” has been a potential barrier for recruitment at a time when the navy is short about 850 sailors. Officers have said they can manage the shortfall at the moment, but are worried about the longer-term implications.