Features | Basic training

I marched into the military recruiting centre on a rainy Thursday night. Three teenage boys about my age shot me a disinterested glance as they sat slouched under the fluorescent lighting, fiddling with paperwork stapled into thick booklets. For kids who claim to sign up for the adventure that military service brings, this trio didn’t seem that eager to dive in. An officer with impeccable posture, in a crisply starched uniform, told me that I had just missed the rush; if I’d been here two hours ago, he explained, I would have found a waiting area crowded with the newest batch of curious recruits to the Canadian Forces. Turnout was up too, he added. Since early January, they had seen an increase of 50 per cent turnout, something he attributed to a psychological fear of future job insecurity in worsening economic times. I was intrigued.

I had walked past their building on Ste. Catherine and Bishop dozens of times in my three years in Montreal, without ever taking stock of what function this place served. Easily-accessible to the entire population of Montreal, their building celebrated military culture nestled into civilian life.

Just as I have bypassed this military infrastructure undeniably present in civilians’ daily lives, so too have I unconsciously waltzed right past those who flesh out the ranks of our national security service. When my friend told me that he was enlisting in the military for this summer, it struck me that not only was military involvement likely more prevalent than I had thought, but that the bulk of the Canadian Forces’s young privates and officers were probably concentrated on university campuses.

Since the closest I’d ever come to military culture was Boy Scouts – which barely counts – and I had been raised in a family void of military heritage, I decided to design my own version of Basic Training – the rudimentary boot camp that all military personnel must complete. For my adaptation, I spent a week corralling students in the military into shoebox offices around campus, where we exhausted topics from rank structure, to strategic military objectives, to breaking up with girlfriends, and to the mission in Afghanistan. In these discussions, the presence and importance of the military began to sharpen, and its interface with public life started to come to the fore.

The students I targeted – who balanced their service commitments with their schoolwork – were all involved with the military as reservists. Even though some were non-commission while others were commissioned officers – two diverging streams in the rank structure – I was hoping that an overarching theme to their service would come out of the woodwork.

Not surprisingly, I found little consensus in their motivations for enlisting, the trajectories of their service, or their plans for a military future. There are, however, some converging characteristics: these guys are professional; they’re articulate and efficient; they answer questions in an orderly and procedural manner; they’re pacifists; and they have all noticed that their military mindset has bled into their civilian lives.

At first, I found the idea of a fused military-civilian headspace hard to accept. To me, the demands of being both a student at McGill, where one runs on their own schedule in an environment where incredibly open thinking is endorsed, and a reservist, placed in a tightly-controlled chain-of-command, would seem to signal a clash of cerebral approaches. But those I met assured me that discipline and the managerial tools provided through military training blend into their civilian mindset.

“There’s a military way of going about things, you look at all of your courses of action, your constraints – that is easily applicable to daily life,” explained Paul Delplace, who carries the titles of both U2 Political Science and 2nd Lieutenant and Recruiting Officer for the Royal Montreal Regiment.

Reservists are based out of regiments located around the city, most of which fall under the command of 34 Brigade. At minimum, the reservists clock one night a week, and spend one weekend a month at a base outside of the city. But Delplace explains that most people, including himself, do a lot more.

“If you like the military, it’s addictive work,” Delplace stated. He had squeezed our conversation between his military recruiting duties and his looming midterm study block. “[The military is] very goal-oriented, and if you’re a keen guy then you can thrive in that environment.”

Delplace joined the non-commission ranks of the reserves right out of high school. Later, he became a commissioned officer and adopted a recruiting role. For Deplace, leaving the regiment does not necessarily mean leaving his work at the door; the nature of his position as a recruiter means his civilian and military lives often overlap.

Most student recruits also dedicate parts of their summers to training programs. In fact, these summer programs are not only where most pick up their first military experience – they serve as the large stumbling blocks for adapting from a civilian to a military mindset.

Talking to Michael Abravanel, a 22-year-old Concordia graduate student, it became clear that transitioning from a civilian to military culture could be incredibly challenging for somebody who didn’t grow up with a military family.

“I didn’t know anything about the military,” admitted Abravanel, who signed up as a reservist following his first year in CEGEP at Dawson College. “It was incredibly difficult to adapt to military culture.”

Abravanel pointed to the strictly hierarchical structure of operations at the base, where everyone ranked higher than him and strict protocol was always adhered to.

“You’re on the clock all day, you’re always doing what you’re told,” he explains during our phone conversation. “The concept of ‘its not your time, it’s the military’s time’ was really hard to adjust to.”

For those with family histories of military involvement, and role models with military experience, acclimatizing to this culture was never as challenging.

Jeff Vavasour-Williams, U2 History and Religious Studies, admitted that he knew what he was getting into when he enlisted – his dad was an air force reservist for six years. Despite his preparedness, backlogs in processing his file have prevented him from starting training. He explained that he was hoping to complete his training part-time over eleven straight weekends this semester – a schedule killer, he admitted – but is now expecting to start officer training this summer.

Like several others at McGill, Vavasour-Williams is based at Black Watch – Montreal’s token Highland regiment. Because he’s seeking officer rank, he needs to be completing his university degree at the same time.

“For people who are unaccustomed to a chain of command, adjusting to this strict formation might be a bit of a culture shock,” he admitted. “There is a certain headspace that you have to go into work with. You need to turn up the discipline, and efficiency is absolutely key.”

But for David Naughton*, a graduate student in political science, reconciling his military and civilian selves put a strain on his experience.

“Your identity is removed right away; you need to conform,” he explained. “They mold you to become what they want you to become – you can’t stay as you are as a civilian.”

Naughton added that the intensity of an eight-week training program over the summer made it necessary that he accept the military’s indoctrinating principles, but as he returned to school that year and the summer experiences faded, it was increasingly difficult to switch to numbly responding to orders at the regiment.

“It’s hard to become gung-ho again,” he explained. “You keep moving back to being a civilian, and it’s hard to find a balance between those two poles.”

Naughton also pointed to the effect of a uniform in perpetuating the military psyche.

“After being through a summer of sleeping an average of four to five hours a night, you feel like Superman. So putting on the uniform and going to regiment, you do feel different,” he said. “I’ve seen people in uniform kind of gain a foot; they just feel more confident. Then you see the same people in civilian clothes, and you’d never suspect it – it’s two different worlds. “

But for Nikolas Mouriopoulos, U2 Honours History, who’s serving in the non-commissioned reservists, he not only completely separates his military and civilian life, but he doesn’t find it difficult to operate between the two.

Mouriopoulos admitted that most students at McGill neither understand nor appreciate the diversity of functions that the military serves, and he fired off a list of people’s common stock reactions to his involvement.

“One, from a lot of guys, is ‘what’s it like shooting the guns?’ Two, ‘so you’re training to be a killer right?’ Three, ‘are you going to be sent to Afghanistan?’” he said.

We spoke about the pacifist culture that universities attract, which we agreed contributes to a misunderstanding of the military’s role. Mouriopoulos added that the perception of soldiers as killers provides a very negative and simplistic view of the military.

As for Afghanistan, the nature of Canada’s voluntary military force means that reservists must sign up for an engagement overseas. While some enter the reserves without any intention of going on a tour abroad, some welcome the opportunity.

Dainius Šileik was pursuing his Honours degree in East Asian Religious Studies at McGill when he decided to go take some time off, adopt full-time military responsibilities, and post abroad on his first tour to Afghanistan. Now serving at Valcartier Base, north of Quebec City, he’s training with the Vandoos as he prepares for his role in a “battle group” in Afghanistan – which will provide force protection at the request of the Afghan government. He admitted that this is pretty uncommon.

“My experience is unique in that I’m a reservist stepping into a conflict with the battle group, something that wasn’t common before for a reservist to do,” he explained in an e-mail.

A lot of reservists see the military as more than a chance to engage in combat, looking for opportunities for leadership, skills-building, and a strong bonding culture among regiments – plus it helps with the costs of education. As a reservist and a student, one can see up to $2,000 of one’s tuition subsidized. If one was to go full-time while pursuing his degree, or commit to five years of service upon graduation, this would be ramped up to full tuition subsidization, complete with room and board stipends, plus an additional salary. Most of the people I encountered pointed to tuition subsidization and the funding provided through their training camps and regiment hours as a bonus, rather than a sticking point.

Both Abravanel and Naughton, now graduate students, eventually realized that they wanted to prioritize school over their service commitments. Abravanel outlined the difficulties he encountered trying to get out.

“The only thing more challenging than joining the military was leaving the military,” he explained, recalling the reams of paperwork and the pressure from the officers and his peers to stay. “When I finally decided to leave though, people were very respectful,” he added.

Respect is a big deal in the military. In an environment where everyone is trained to be strong and develop leadership skills, it seems like it would be impossible for it to function if there wasn’t a hierarchical structure based upon respect – you don’t do what you’re told because you’re told to, you do it because you respect those in higher ranks.

Those who are out of the military, though, like Naughton and Abravanel, continue to respect the military’s role, remarking that it wasn’t for them, and praising the voluntary nature of reserves that allowed them to duck out.

Even those civilians who find themselves at odds with the military’s role largely retain a respectful attitude toward its operations. When asked whether he often has to justify his role in the military to others, Vavasour-Williams immediately jumped to the example of his mother.

“My mother does not approve at all, zero per cent,” he said. “It’s just that she doesn’t want me to be the one, though, not that she doesn’t support the military. We’ve come to agree that militaries are a necessary evil and that the world would be a better place without them. Killing somebody is unequivocally evil, but sometimes, it’s the right thing to do,” he explained, lamenting that no intervention happened in Rwanda.

“There’s an ethos surrounding the military,” he told me, “guys want to be soldiers doing the right thing.”

When I asked him what the appeal is of being the person responsible for “doing the right thing,” he paused before giving his answer.

“My view of the Canadian military is that our interventions in the international field have been morally justified, and quite frankly the right thing to do,” he said, citing Canada’s role in WW2, its UN forces in Korea, and its peacekeeping troops in Cyprus, Croatia, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. “But a mission to Iraq? Well there, I would have wholeheartedly disapproved.”

For every conversation that I had during my military education mission, I knew that there was another I was missing; the discourses that I brought together failed to capture the diversity found in the ranks of the forces. By sheer coincidence, those I interviewed were all white Canadian men who were working on a degree in an Arts faculty. I missed the women in uniform, those with multi-ethnic backgrounds, and those that had undergone a full military college experience.

As I walked out of the recruiting centre and back into the Montreal drizzle, I was hyper-sensitive to the diversity of people walking along St. Catherine, and hypothesized as to whether they would one day enlist. There isn’t the black-and-white distinction I expected to discover between the military and society; the Forces are very much integrated and reflective of Canadian culture.

“The common theme in the Canadian Forces is multi-cultural, multi-everything,” emphasized Delplace. “We are like the crucible, where everything comes in but at the end of the day, we all get along, we all get the job done.”

*name has been changed