A soldier in the Canadian Armed Forces was disciplined for his antisemitic comments—and a retired major-general calls the case a ‘positive’ step

The decision to bring a soldier in the Canadian Armed Forces to court martial for making antisemitic comments while leading an infantry training course, should be viewed as a “very positive,” development, says Major-General (Retired) Ed Fitch.

“I was trying to remember, if I had ever in 50 years, seen a case of antisemitism actually brought to a court martial, and I could not recall one. I spoke with a couple of colleagues, they also could not recall one… So to see this rise to the level of a court martial, it’s very serious indeed,” he said. 

While Fitch understands the sergeant’s conduct is worrying, he thinks the bigger takeaway is that it was treated so seriously– which is evidence of major progress in the culture of the Canadian Armed Forces

“To me, this is a sign that the Canadian Armed Forces, and by extension DND (Department of National Defence) are taking this very seriously. The judge, in his explanation of his decision, was very clear that this kind of behaviour is totally unacceptable,” he added.

“I think this is a milestone case… this is a very positive sign that the department is taking on not only Jew hatred, but all kinds of racism and discrimination.”

Fitch, who served as an active soldier for 43 years, is uniquely qualified to comment on the matter. He is not only the second Canadian Jew to ever attain the rank of major-general, but he was recently also a member of a panel that investigated systemic racism and discrimination in the CAF.

Last October, Sgt. K. E. Bluemke, 38, was issued a severe reprimand and fined $3,000 by Military Judge Commander Martin Pelletier. In his decision, Pelletier called Bluemke’s remarks “utterly disgusting.”

The sentencing came after Bluemke pleaded guilty to one charge of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline. Bluemke, who was born in Germany and immigrated to Canada when he was 11, has served in the armed forces for 20 years and been deployed overseas twice.  

While working as an instructor for the Infantry Section Commander Course in early 2021, the very first question Bluemke asked the group of candidates was if any of them were Jewish. He followed that up with jokes making light of the Holocaust and playing on antisemitic tropes.

At one point, Bluemke told his group to “move with the same sense of urgency as a certain group leaving Germany in 1939.”

When trying to create additional transport space, he said “Germans are really good at packing things in tight.” He also said to the group, “Why do Jews have big noses? Because the air is free.”

As part of the evidence filed in the case, a Jewish soldier who was present in the course contributed a victim impact statement. As part of his decision, Pelletier summarized the statement.

“The comments made by Sgt. Bluemke were extremely disturbing for him, regardless of whether Sgt. Bluemke was joking or not when he made them. The comments he heard eroded his confidence and respect for the CAF and affected his learning experience, as he was often so angered by Sgt. Bluemke’s comments that he could not retain knowledge that was being taught,” Pelletier’s summary read.

Another participant in the infantry course who testified in defence of Bluemke, said that no one appeared to be negatively affected by what Bluemke intended as jokes.

He also said Bluemke did not wish to offend anyone, and displayed genuine concern by repeatedly asking if he was doing so. However, the judge dismissed this on a number of grounds, especially because Bluemke’s first question was whether anyone in the group was Jewish. Overall, he rejected the argument that Bluemke’s conduct was innocuous.

“Regardless of who in the CAF engages in such conduct, it should make a reasonable member cringe and worry about belonging to the same organization as the perpetrator,” Pelletier wrote. 

“That said, Sgt. Bluemke was not any CAF member when he made these adverse comments, he was an instructor on a formal course required for progression of infantry soldiers. This makes his conduct particularly problematic as it risks sending entirely inappropriate potential messages to the effect that such comments are acceptable.”

In light of stories from recent years about neo-Nazis who made it into the CAF, people may be concerned that Bluemke’s antisemitic comments were indicative of a deeper, more violent and extreme antisemitism. According to Fitch, thanks to the rigorous detail provided by Pelletier in his decision, there is enough evidence to conclude that is not the case.

“We’re really privileged to have this judicial decision because it gives us terrific insight, step-by-step. And I congratulate the judge for his fastidiousness in recording all this. In all those pages of his decision, there is no suggestion of any kind of right-wing extremism… It’s not there. And if it was, it would have come out for sure, because this guy is under the microscope; has been for a year.”

But some Jewish advocacy groups are arguing that Bluemke should have received a harsher sentence. Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC) released a statement on the matter, calling for the CAF to enforce a zero-tolerance policy on antisemitism.

“At a time of escalating antisemitism and hate, such hatred masquerading as humour must not be shown any tolerance,” Dan Panneton, FSWC director of allyship and community engagement wrote to Chief of the Defence Staff, General Wayne Eyre, and Army Commander, Lieutenant-General Jocelyn Paul.

 “Sgt. Bluemke’s continued presence in the Forces contributes to an environment that’s unsafe for Canadian Jews… The Canadian Army has an obligation to the members in its ranks as well as the Canadian public as a whole to prevent any form of hatred taking root. We expect this situation will be re-evaluated and treated with the severity it deserves.”

When asked about FSWC’s implication that Bluemke should be removed from the armed forces, Fitch replied that expecting the soldier’s dismissal was “a little over the top on this case.”

He then quickly pivoted to his main takeaway from the story.

“But that’s not important. What’s important is this came to court martial,” he said. “In 50 years, I can’t remember anything close to this. This is a big signpost on the road to progress, to making a better, more inclusive Canadian Armed Forces.”

Minister of National Defence Anita Anand also said that the CAF is improving its culture to be inclusive of everyone—in part because of the panel report to which Fitch contributed.

“Work is ongoing to address the report’s recommendations, and we have made real progress by strengthening screening for hateful attitudes and beliefs, releasing an anti-racism toolkit, and better training our leaders to identify and respond to hateful conduct,” Anand said in an emailed statement to the CJN.

“It is our most basic responsibility and top priority to ensure that Canadian Armed Forces members can serve and work with pride in an environment that is free from racism and discrimination. Jewish Canadians have made, and continue to make, incredible contributions to Canada as members of the military – and our country is stronger thanks to their service and sacrifice.”