It’s Friday night in Fredericton. You go out with a friend to shake off a hard week of school or work. You have drinks at home and find your way to the iRock, a popular nightclub downtown.
The music blares and you’re so transported by the atmosphere, the lights, the two or three vodka limes, that you don’t notice when your shoe catches on the sticky, beer-splashed floor. You brush the girl dancing behind you. The next thing you know, you’re on the floor, bleeding, and the friend you came with is nowhere to be found.
“Four guys just grabbed me right in the middle of the dance floor and they just started kicking me. And after they all ran away and I got up, my shirt was all ripped off and the dance floor cleared out. Everyone was just staring at me,” said Kevin Stewart, a third-year St. Thomas University student.
He said he doesn’t know anything about the group who roughed him up – except that they were part of the military.
Stories like Stewart’s are common in Fredericton. The Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, in neighbouring Oromocto, is the second largest military base in Canada. It’s common to see men and women from the base in downtown Fredericton on nights off.
CFB Gagetown is the third largest employer in the province, and floods more than $500 million into surrounding economies, but the relationship between civilians and military – particularly between students and soldiers – isn’t as rosy as statistics suggest.
Still, the fights and the animosity are rarely aired publicly.
“We enjoy an excellent relationship with the surrounding community and we are confident these positive relationships will continue,” said Capt. Jamie Donovan.
Similarly, iRock’s management declined to comment on the issue, stating they “don’t see enough conflict between these two groups to voice an opinion.”
Kody Lefort is a 21-year-old corporal who lives and works on the base. He’s originally from Ontario and grew up at CFB Petawawa and recently returned from serving in Afghanistan.
Lefort acknowledges the tension between military and civilians in the Fredericton bar scene but he’s frustrated when all military personnel are painted with the same brush.
“Basically if one person gets one bad experience with one soldier, they think all 35,000 of us are assholes. There’s no point in even trying to defend yourself because they assume every one of us are exactly the same,” he said.
Lefort describes how men in the military are singled out because of their appearance. Soldiers have close-cropped haircuts and often sport new, clean clothes. They also tend to hang out in groups because of the close relationships formed on base and during training.
For all the aggression described by “civis” at the hands of those in the military, soldiers aren’t safe from needless violence, either.
Lefort describes an incident when he and his friends ventured onto the University of New Brunswick campus looking for fun. They went to the Social Club, UNB and STU’s shared campus bar. Lefort says he and his comrades always travel in packs among the university crowd – and with good reason.
“One of our friends, when we went to the Social Club, he got in a car. It was him and four college guys. They said they were coming back to base, and that’s what he assumed. When he woke up, he was bleeding from the head in an alleyway,” said Lefort.
The story is strikingly similar to Stewart’s. The problem is, these kinds of stories are told after every weekend around cafeteria tables at STU, or at the bar on the base.
But endless retellings can’t minimize the disturbing anecdotes, despite the stance of military officials and business owners.
Lefort says the conflict is nothing new and not unexpected given a soldier’s life.
“Some people expect this shit from soldiers, and some don’t, but a lot of people don’t realize what it is we’re actually going to do when we’re not out on weekends.”
He rattles off rules he and his comrades endure during their course. His voice rises with each description.
“We’re not allowed to leave from the front door. We have to go all the way to the back, and when we ask them why, we get no reason, we get yelled at. And in the hall, we get to do like 100 push-ups on end, and when we ask why, we get no reason because there’s no logical reason to do any of it. They just do it to piss you off, put you under pressure, and see how you act.”
When the week is through, that pressure peaks. Add alcohol to the mix and an already volatile situation can be explosive.
Lefort and his friends have come into Fredericton every weekend since their Christmas break to let off steam and have a few drinks.
So what happens when the pressure comes from a “civi” and not from someone in the military hierarchy?
“You just lose your mind. You lose all sense of control because you just had to listen to this for months on end and now some guy you don’t know is trying to do it to you. So you just snap, everything in you tells you to fight him.”
CFB Gagetown is home to many new soldiers, ready for their first taste of military life,the new income and weekends off.
According to Lefort, this adds up to many young soldiers making bad decisions in public under the influence of alcohol. Of course, this is what people remember.
Rosalynn Alessi is in her third year at St. Thomas University. She was sworn into the army two years ago and is employed by the military full-time in the summer and part-time during the school year. Her situation allows her to be a fly on the wall.
“They’re blaming one another,” she said.
Alessi cites the lack of women in the military as another reason army men have a poor reputation downtown.
“There’s not that many women in the military and if there are, they’re not seeing them in skimpy dresses, they’re in uniform. So they’re excited.
“There is that stereotype that army guys are just going downtown to pick up women…people don’t like jocks for the same types of reasons, so what makes a military guy any different from them?”
Alessi says the exam period is comparable to what can be experienced in the military – Last Class Bash, after all, can get pretty messy.
Echoing Alessi’s sentiments, Lefort says there are good guys and bad guys in any group. Lefort has never been in a fight. He’s more interested in serving his country and relaxing downtown on the weekend.
“A lot of us do this for the love of our country kind of deal. We’re here to protect,” he said. “If I joined the army to use it as a pick-up line, I would’ve never gone to Afghanistan. It wouldn’t have been on my list of things to do.”