As Mahmoud Mourra was out hunting on the prairie in southern Alberta, he came across a familiar sight in an unfamiliar location: the dome of a mosque, replete with minaret and crescent symbol.
Only the mosque was not real. It was part of a training facility at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Suffield, about 250 kilometres southeast of Calgary.
Canadian Forces officials say such training facilities need to be as real as possible to simulate the types of environments that soldiers might see on tour. But for Mourra, who has made a life in Canada since immigrating from Lebanon decades ago, seeing the structure felt like a betrayal.
“It is a symbol not for terrorists, it is symbol for Muslims and I think that’s what is the problem,” he said.
“I do believe there’s a systematic problem because this is a tip of the iceberg to see a field like this in existence.”
Mustafa Farooq, CEO of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said video of the mosque taken by Mourra that began circulating online has raised concerns in the Muslim community, especially in light of white supremacist elements in the forces.
“It’s very concerning to think about such a mosque and its presence on any armed forces base,” he said.
“We understand this was a British installation, but to our understanding, similar constructions and façades of this nature have been put up in other bases historically in Canada.”
A spokesperson for the Department of National Defence said the British installation is the only one the department is immediately aware of.
“That said, given the sheer size of the [Canadian Armed Forces], we would have to do a broader pan-CAF check,” Dan Le Bouthillier said in an emailed statement.
CFB Suffield base commander Lt.-Col. Stephen Burke said the structure is part of a simulated village built in 2006 used exclusively by British forces. It is in a “dry” training area — meaning no live ammunition is used in the vicinity.
“People would obviously still be carrying weapons, still doing military training, but there was no shooting at it,” he said.
“And as a matter of fact, that’s the kind of thing we’re actively training to prevent.”
The type of training conducted there would be simulating life on tour — how to behave in another environment — rather than combat scenarios, Burke said. Canadian Forces have operated similar exercises.
Burke said up until about a decade ago, simulated buildings were used across Canada in Afghanistan-like scenarios. He said training has since shifted to a more ad-hoc basis, using sea-can containers as temporary structures during exercises.
“Take it out of context and this stuff is shocking,” Burke said.
But “high-fidelity environments,” that is, facilities that look real, have an important role to play in training, according to the base commander.
“We need to give the highest fidelity possible just so that way, people don’t see these things for the very first time.”
Burke said his understanding is that the British are planning to dismantle the current facility and remodel it for a new training scenario.
Farooq does not buy the argument that this kind of façade should be used in training soldiers what not to do — like attacking a religious institution.
“This is sort of a very well understood kindergarten-level lesson that everybody knows and understands. Why they would need to take the trouble of constructing a mosque … is beyond me.”
He would like to see the installation removed and displayed publicly as a reminder of the culture and apprehension that grew out of a post 9/11 world for Canadian Muslims.
“It’s a history that should be marked and watched very carefully and observed for generations to come.”
Daniel Minden, press secretary for Defence Minister Anita Anand, said their office was aware of the structure.
“There must be no room for Islamophobia, systemic racism, or religious bigotry in Canada, and we will always condemn it in the strongest possible terms,” he said in an emailed statement.
“Minister Anand believes that affected communities must be consulted to ensure respect and sensitivity at all times.”