OTTAWA — Four cadets from the Royal Military College in Saint-Jean, Que., have been accused of desecrating a Qur'an with bacon and "bodily fluids" during a cottage party over the Easter long weekend.
Military commanders have expressed frustration and disappointment over the allegations, particularly at a time when they are pushing to make the Forces more inclusive, and say they are taking the case extremely seriously.
At the same time, the incident has raised tensions and concerns about the safety of Canadian military personnel, given the violent reactions that such incidents involving desecrated Qur'ans have provoked in recent years.
In an interview on Friday, Lt.-Gen. Charles Lamarre, the chief of military personnel, said the alleged incident started when eight students from the Saint-Jean college headed out of town to a cottage.
"Four of those individuals went to sleep at some point and four other individuals stayed up and unfortunately desecrated a Qur'an," Lamarre told The Canadian Press in his office at National Defence headquarters.
"They actually desecrated it with, if I'm not mistaken, bodily fluids, and there might have been bacon involved."
While Lamarre would not comment on the nature of the bodily fluids, sources have told The Canadian Press that it appears to have been semen.
Military commanders became aware of the alleged desecration after videos of the incident were shown to other students who subsequently told college staff, Lamarre said, at which point an investigation was ordered.
After the investigation found reason to believe the four cadets broke the military's rules, one was told he would be discharged from the Forces.
A unit within Lamarre's office is reviewing the cases of two others, which could also lead to their dismissal.
The fourth was given probation and ordered to counselling, while the other four cadets who were asleep at the time have been reprimanded for not reporting the incident earlier.
Lamarre underscored the importance of following due process when dealing with serious allegations against military members, but added that the desecration of any religious symbol will not be tolerated within the Forces.
"We're working very, very quickly while respecting their rights to make sure that we can deal with this issue and communicate broadly within the Canadian Armed Forces to say that this is not on," he said.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan released a statement on Friday saying he supported the military's response to the alleged desecration.
"Diversity and religious tolerance are fundamental Canadian values that our Canadian Armed Forces share," he said.
"The behaviour demonstrated by these individuals is deplorable and runs contrary to the ethos of the Canadian Armed Forces. It will not be tolerated."
Desecrating a Qur'an is considered blasphemous by Muslims and has sparked violent protests in recent years.
Thousands of angry Afghans tried to storm the U.S. military base at Bagram in February 2012 when American forces burned hundreds of old Qur'ans that had been used by Taliban prisoners.
At least 41 people were killed, including several U.S. soldiers who were shot by Afghan National Army counterparts.
The Saint-Jean allegations did raise questions about the safety of military personnel, Lamarre conceded, particularly given the 2014 attacks that killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo in Ottawa and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que.
Canada is also preparing to send troops and helicopters to assist the UN mission in Mali and continues to operate in Iraq, both of which are mainly populated by Muslims.
"So we did ask for an (threat) assessment to be done," Lamarre said.
"And we have come back and I'm satisfied with where we are right now on force protection and we'll continue to be that way."
He also said it was fortunate that no videos of the alleged incident were posted to social media.
Officials said military commanders have not actually seen any recordings and they are believed to have all been destroyed.
Military officials have reached out to prominent Quebec imam Hassan Guillet, who delivered the sermon during the funeral for the victims of the Quebec City mosque shooting in early 2017.
Guillet said in an interview that he was, and still remains, "very, very upset" about the alleged incident, but that he has also been reassured by the military's response.
"The army is a reflection of society. There are elements in society who harbour dangerous ideas, and the army as well," he said.
"But the army, with this incident, they have identified these people, they have taken the necessary disciplinary action and they have sent the necessary message to others that the army does not tolerate this kind of behaviour."
The alleged Qur'an desecration comes as Lamarre and other commanders have been pushing the Forces to become more diverse in a bid to drive up recruiting and ensure the military reflects Canadian society.
Lamarre insisted that the incident represented an "isolated" incident and that the military does significant screening before letting anyone put on the uniform.
"Every single year, approximately 9,400 young men and women join the Canadian Armed Forces ... and when you start to look at the kind of instances you're talking about, they are very, very few and far between," he said.
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Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press